Optimism and wariness abounded in Manchester, England, on Sunday, when Ariana Grande led a star-studded benefit concert called One Love Manchester with appearances by hit-makers Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Coldplay, Liam Gallagher, Marcus Mumford, Pharrell Williams and others to raise money for victims of the terrorist attack on her concert last month. The show, which took place at the Old Trafford Cricket Ground and included a section for attendees of the original concert, had sold out in under six minutes.
Earlier in the day across town, the scene was quiet at Manchester Arena, where a suicide bomber detonated himself in a foyer of the venue that led to a nearby train station, killing 22 people and injuring another 116, according to figures published in the newspaper Metro. Dozens of flower bouquets, stuffed bears and handwritten notes in childlike script to victims’ families lined the street outside the venue with messages like, “Dear Mr. Terrorist, You’ve blown up our cities trying to inflict fear … [but] this is Great Britain. We will not fall” and “I am sorry what happen [sic] to you.” Inside Victoria Station, where parents had anxiously awaited their children, the stairs that led to the arena were boarded off and another shrine of flowers sat near the entrance. Nearby St. Ann’s Square was an even bigger display of flowers, toys and balloons, swaying in the wind.
“It’s a horrible time for all of us,” 16-year-old Lekkia Howell, who was pasting #WeStandTogether stickers onto concertgoers for the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace at the benefit, tells Rolling Stone. “We’ve recently gone to the memorial and looked at it and I’ve never seen Manchester so quiet in my entire life.”
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“It feels like a personal attack, even though I didn’t grow up here,” says Liz Grant, a 21-year-old university student, who was dabbing tears from her eyes at St. Ann’s Place. She didn’t go to the original concert but was nonetheless affected by the violence. “It’s so upsetting. It’s really hard. Whether you knew someone [who went to the concert] or didn’t, everyone has been affected one way or another. We’ve come together and that sense of community and love is quite amazing.
“They’re trying to make us scared and make us live in fear and we can’t play into their hands,” she continues. “We can’t. They want us to hate each other and cross divide communities and we can’t, we can’t let that happen. We can’t do that.”
Less than 24 hours before the benefit, news spread of another terror attack in London, where a van mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge and an attacker fled the scene with a hunting knife, killing seven and injuring dozens more. And roughly 90 minutes after the benefit concert concluded, ISIS had claimed responsibility, making it the third such event in the U.K. this year. Prime Minister Theresa May has since declared “enough is enough,” according to The New York Times, and is seeking to revamp the country’s approach to counterterrorism.
Despite the news, Ariana Grande’s fans were determined to make it to the benefit. Victoria Croft, a 15-year-old who was at the singer’s original Manchester concert and who lived in Paris at the time of the terror attack on Eagles of Death Metal’s Bataclan concert, said she felt it was important to come – even after she’d heard about the London attacks. “It was obvious to me,” she says near the food booths at the concert. “When I heard that [Grande] was coming back to Manchester, I thought that was so brave of her and I really wanted to come and show respect. … I’ve been really lucky, and I just wanted to show respect to the victims.”
The general atmosphere, though, had some parents on edge. “I’m really anxious,” said Carrie Kitchen, 40, mother of 14-year-old Molly, who’d attended Grande’s original concert. She’d been waiting for her daughter near the foyer where the bomb went off (“We weren’t sure if it was a balloon popping,” she says) and then had trouble locating her daughter, who’d gone down another set of stairs. “Obviously yesterday there were more things happening. So it just keeps it in your mind and it’s quite scary. But you can’t just stop your life for everything, can you? So you’ve got to try and carry on.”
“People think it’s too early to start [concerts like this] but I don’t think it is,” countered Molly, who was wearing lace cat ears like Grande’s and remembers the scene after the explosion as “manic.” “I think it’s the right time. The people who did the horrible thing think, ‘Oh, they’re scared,’ but this actually proves that we’re not. So they’ll realize that we’re not going to do what they want us to do. We’re just going to carry on with our lives.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many young concertgoers Sunday, several of whom were wearing merch from Grande’s recent Manchester appearance and cat or bunny ears like the singer. Dani Catchpole, an 18-year-old in a Grande shirt, brought flowers to St. Ann’s Square with four of her friends and looked out at the scene for 10 or 15 minutes; only she among them had gone to the original concert. “I’ve never been as scared in my life,” she says. “And it’s just like … speechless. And obviously recent events like yesterday, like, when will it end? We were so close, like two minutes away at the top of the stairs. It could’ve been us.” But, she says it won’t hold her back. “We’ve got to stay strong and find a way to beat them because they can’t win,” she says. “We’re obviously coming here tonight to pay our respects and … not get over it, because we’ll never get over it, it’ll never be something we can get over … but just trying to put our minds at rest.”
The scene leading into the venue was filled with this sort of resilience. Thousands of fans – girls, boys, women, men, including many tweens and teens seemingly unaccompanied by adults – lined up and chatted with one another, posing for photos with banners touting the event’s name. Police – whose presence, which included the rare sights of explosive-sniffing dogs and some officers carrying machine guns, was apparent everywhere – were friendly, taking photos for fans and even posing with some of them. Inside, the merch booths were staffed by friendly vendors selling T-shirts, all proceeds from which benefitted the We Love Manchester Fund. They even gave out free buttons. And when the city’s bishop called for a moment of silence before the concert began, it was pin-drop quiet.
“Everybody seems to be very, very positive,” says Dave Spencer, an Isle of Man resident who traveled more than an hour to bring his 10-year-old granddaughter, who’d attended the original concert, to the benefit. “There’s nobody walking around with miserable faces on; there’s nobody sad, or anything like that. Everybody seemed to be looking forward to this event. … I am.”
Alexandra Flood – a Manchester resident and mother who’d accompanied her 11-year-old daughter Sadie to the original show – said she hoped the show would replace the previous one in some young concertgoers’ minds. “This will be a fantastic way of creating a better memory for some children,” she says. “Fortunately, it wasn’t Sadie’s first concert, but for some children it probably was.”
Inside the venue, it was a scene of resilience. Tens of thousands of young children, teenagers and parents gathered on the cricket field and waved their hands, jumped and flashed their iPhone flashes for their favorite artists. Robbie Williams, Grande and Coldplay’s Chris Martin all led massive sing-alongs, while Take That, Cyrus and Bieber encouraged their fans to raise their hands in the air. “I just wanted to take this moment to honor the people that were lost or that were taken,” Bieber told the crowd. “We love you so much. Put both hands up to honor those people right now. Everybody say, ‘We honor you. We love you.'” And the audience did so at full volume.
Perry, whose “Roar” was one of the most charismatic performances of the evening, also encouraged audience interaction. “As you stand here – all of you here, and all of you watching from wherever you are – standing next to a stranger or a family member or a friend or a loved one, let’s just do this little exercise in love,” said the singer, whose dress featured photos of Manchester Arena bombing victims. “Just touch a person next to you. Make human contact. Look in their eyes. Say, ‘I love you!’ Do it. I encourage you to choose love even when it’s difficult. Let no one take that away from you.” Again, the crowd’s reaction was to do as she said, making for one loud group “I love you.”
But because it was Grande’s event – she performed her big hits and also shared the stage with Cyrus, the Black Eyed Peas and many others – and because she was so deeply affected by what happened at her concert, she offered the most touching speech of the night. “I want to thank you so much for coming together and being so loving and strong and unified,” she said after singing Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and its “We know they won’t win” chorus with Cyrus. “I love you guys so much, and I think that all the love and unity you’re displaying is the medicine the world needs right now.
She also told a story about meeting the mother of 15-year-old Olivia Campbell-Hardy, who died at the original show. “As soon as I met her, I started crying, and her mom gave me a big hug, and she said to stop crying, because Olivia wouldn’t have wanted me to cry,” Grande said with a laugh. “And then she told me that Olivia would have wanted to hear the hits. … This evening has been so light and so filled with fun and love and bright energy, and I want to thank you for that.” She then played her hit “Side to Side” and later closed with an emotional rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
After the show, fans sang Coldplay and Oasis songs en masse as they slowly clamored toward the tram. Hours earlier, some had been chanting, “Manchester na, na, na.” It was a scene of jubilation, not fear.
And it felt incredibly safe. As I made my own way to the tram, I wrote in my Apple Notes app, “Helicopter hovering overhead,” which to me signified that the fans were being watched over. Then two policemen stopped me and asked me who I was with and whether I’d written anything about a helicopter into my phone, without explaining the technology of how they’d read my Notes app. After a friendly back-and-forth, they looked through my bag, checked my ID and business card and determined I wasn’t a threat. “You have to understand, tensions are running high,” one of the men said with a smile and a handshake, allowing me through the gate. Manchester was secure tonight.