Lying on the grass on the edge of Dupont Circle, away from the shade cast by the office buildings and trees, I listen closely to the sirens. They don’t fit in with the picturesque scene of office workers lunching on the grass, but there they are, faint, undoubtedly audible, and growing louder with each passing second. The couple that I followed to the circle from my store stand up and exit. As the sirens draw closer, the people lying on the grass look up from their books. Those who are strolling strain under the glare of the sun to see what’s coming at them, while the people on the benches, comfortable and relaxed, try not to bother. There’s more than one siren, perhaps as many as four or five, their sounds echoing and amplifying one another, so it’s impossible to be certain. The sound quickly takes over the circle. No one has any option but to watch the parade of police motorcycles, cars, massive black SUVs, and black limos heading toward us. People begin to point in awe. Some pull out their cameras and take pictures, while others clasp their hands around their ears to block out the nearly deafening roar. A lasso of black cars forms around the circle, blowing past stoplights, oblivious to the motionless cars trapped in their lane and the people standing perfectly still at the crosswalks. We all have the sense that someone of great import is passing, and that we are fulfilling our role as observers. It seems as if time has been temporarily suspended, the world placed on pause as we wait to return to our ordinary lives. In Ethiopia the story was similar. Troops used to line whatever route the emperor took hours in advance. They swept the streets clean of beggars, cripples, and trash, and had faithful loyalists stand on the side of the road, ready to bow as he passed. When the emperor was finally deposed at the start of the revolution, he was carried out of his palace in a blue Volkswagen Beetle. At the time I had thought of it as a silly and pointless thing to do, but now I can see how wrong I was. Few things are as important as the last impressions we make when leaving. Take away the whirling lights and blaring sirens of a motorcade and this is what you are left with: an old man, slightly senile, in the backseat of a beat-up car.
As the police cars vanish, I imagine an entirely empty motorcade whose sole purpose is to remind people what they are up against.
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