The staff at the Newseum is never surprised when people who celebrate free speech choose their site, an institution dedicated to news and journalism a dozen blocks from the White House, as a place to assemble. “I think having the 74-foot-high First Amendment tablet out on Pennsylvania Avenue invite these kinds of gatherings,” said Jonathan Thompson, reached this afternoon by phone. “It’s something we encourage.”
Tonight at 7 p.m., there will be a vigil for the victims of the terrorist attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Newseum. Thompson found out about it like most people: on the the #JeSuisCharlie Facebook page, which reads, in French and English:
In light of the horrendous attack that killed 12 people in Paris today, let’s get together to stand peacefully in support of Charlie Hebdo and for freedom of the press. Bring your pencils and pens. #jesuischarlie
Olivier Roumy, one of the event’s four organizers, took a break mid-client (he’s a senior stylist at Salon L’eau in Georgetown) to talk about the vigil by phone. “It’s for freedom of speech,” he said. “I don’t want [the shooters] to scare anybody; I want to show them that we’re not scared. I want to show them that without freedom of speech, we are not much.”
Roumy, a native of Tours, France, has been living in the U.S. for nearly 15 years. He created the Facebook event and says the French Consulate is behind the vigil as well. (The Facebook page also says “DCPD has been contacted and will be there,” along with a request that attendees keep the event “as peaceful as possible.”) “We woke up this morning and everyone was sick to their stomach,” Roumy said. “I just wanted to rally my friends and do something, to show that this is wrong.” So far, 205 people have responded to the Facebook event affirming they’ll be there; 1,000 have been invited.
A deputy spokesperson for the French Embassy said that the Embassy did not orchestrate any formal vigils today. “Today, the Embassy is prioritizing security.” But he believed that, time permitting, the Consul “will be trying to swing by to show his support” for the #JeSuisCharlie vigil.
“We’re a bunch of French and French-American expatriates in the D.C.-area,” said Alex Cournol, another organizer, of the people behind the vigil. “We were so shocked and so upset with the Paris shootings that we decided, with a bunch of our friends and colleagues from the French-American community, and also Americans who felt really bad about what happened, to meet tonight in front of the Newseum, which is a symbol of freedom of press and speech. We wanted to meet there and gather and pay our respects to the victims of this senseless acts of terror.”
Originally, Cournol said, the plan was to meet at the White House. But Laetitia-Laure Brock, a fellow organizer, called him and pushed for the Newseum instead. “We had a debate about it. I wanted the White House because it’s so visible in the world,” he said. Cournol is from just outside Paris and estimates about 80 percent of his family is in Paris or the Parisian suburbs. “I wanted family back home to see us in front of the White House. But she had a really good point. [She said] it’s a symbol of the freedom of the press, and there’s the beautiful [first amendment] on the museum entrance.”
CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The Newseum is not sponsoring or organizing the vigil, Thompson said, but they’ll be keeping the building open and bathroom facilities will be available. (They’ve also been informally promoting the event on social media.) The hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” will be projected on the 40-by-22-foot atrium screen at the Newseum “so folks on Pennsylvania Avenue can see it,” Thompson said. #JeSuisCharlie just started trending worldwide on Twitter about an hour ago; #CharlieHebdo has been trending worldwide all day.
— Meredith Frost (@MeredithFrost) January 7, 2015
— Mark Davis (@MarkDavis) January 7, 2015
In a statement issued earlier today, the Newseum condemned the attack that read, in part: “We join with journalists and all others who support freedom of expression to declare that such cowardly attempts to thwart free speech and a free press will not succeed, and that this most recent attack only strengthens our commitment to the ideal that all people in every nation should be able to express themselves freely and without fear.”
Cournol said that attendees should bring pencils and notepads “to express our emotion through the writings and the journalists. That’s what they were doing. They were writing either articles, or they were writing cartoons, by their heart and by their pencil, they were expressing freedom. And those pencils that you will see tonight are all a symbol of freedom.”
Watching the attacks unfold almost 4,000 miles from home “is very tough,” said Cournol. “You see the streets that you know. I was traveling in Paris not even two weeks ago; I probably went to a bar or a restaurant very close to where horrible things were happening. It’s very hard because you’re on the phone, you’re on Skype, you talk to your parents and families, and it’s a sense of, you’re kind of powerless. That’s why we decided to do something: this is something we want not only the world to know but also friends and family back home. We really want to be there for our family.”
Cournol described Charlie Hebdo as “a real iconic magazine to the French culture. It reflects a lot of how we are, and what our stance is on freedom of speech. One of the things that I think we all agree on is, we need to let magazines criticize and do what they are supposed to do, and I think Charlie Hebdo is a great representation of what the French approach is to freedom of speech.
“To be honest with you,” he added. “I don’t agree with everything they’re writing. I don’t like all the pictures. I didn’t think they were very elegant or nice. But at the end of the day, it’s the freedom of the press, and I should be happy to be able to see this, even if I don’t agree with it.” Then he quoted Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
“That’s how we feel today,” Cournol said. “At the end of the day, that’s what this is about. This freedom.”