By James Relativo
That Tuesday – the first day of Mendiola’s supposed Occupation – was not what I expected it to be.
A fairly decent number from the University of the Philippineswas present, but I expected a much larger mobilization; after all, it was dubbed Occupy Mendiola. Maybe it was because the students could no longer afford to skip classes, or to some extent, were scared for their safety.
Maybe it was one of those days their Kasaysayan 1 professors took them on a field trip to Ilocos. Maybe most students had reporting in their BC 100 or Sociology classes, where they couldn’t afford to desert their group mates. Or maybe, we activists just failed to saturate enough classes with our propaganda.
I was trying to be optimistic that afternoon, that grade conscious militants would ride the LRT to Legarda after their classes and decide to join the camp-out in Mendiola.
But it occurred to me that I had an internal contradiction with myself. The questions “Should I wait until 4pm?” and “Should I go now?” clouded my indecisive mind, but it wasn’t that long until I found myself boarding the jeep bound for Manila.
Surprisingly, we were joined by a Japanese exchange student named Rurika, from the University of Tokyo. She relayed how interested she was in student movements like the League of Filipino Students and Anakbayan. “We also have demonstrations back in Japan,” she said, “but it’s just not that popular among people.”
She nodded along to the progressive songs we sang in the jeep, even though it was in a language that was alien to her. But when she began to relate her thoughts on the political situation back in Japan, and her opinions on the profit-oriented framework of Philippine government on social services, I realized despite the language barrier, we were on the same page.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon when we reached the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Dark, gloomy clouds had rolled in. But hundreds of students, faculty, workers and members of urban poor communities had gathered outside UST and had begun the program scheduled before the march to Mendiola.
I thought the march would be peaceful, like the ones I’ve experienced in the past. But RG Tesa, the Secretary General of the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP (STAND-UP), told us that police had been scouting the Far Eastern University and Mendiola area since early that morning. We were told to pick a buddy whom we would protect, no matter what.
”No one runs without a buddy, understand? No one gets arrested alone,” he said.
At first, I felt excited that I might to get to see some real action: three years into my life as an activist, I have never experienced a violent dispersal before. Cops armed with arnis and shields were a normal sight, but not once have I confronted them. I was beginning to wonder whether they were only used for psychological intimidation.
“You should put your bag in the bus, James”, said a friend. I knew then that this was no simple protest. We needed to be as fast and agile as possible, if anything should happen past FEU.
“Edukasyon! Edukasyon! Karapatan ng mamamayan!” we chanted. I began to feel optimistic again. The crowds finally started to grow, and the once uninterested students beyond the UST gates joined in, protesting against the further commercialization of basic social services. It looked like the tides were turning in our favor.
We were nearly a thousand strong in my estimate, and we marched alongside contingents from Polytechnic University of Philippines, Philippine Normal University, University of the East, Far Eastern University, and even from some high schools; a professor from the Ateneo de Manila University also joined our ranks.
Soon, we ran across the intersection leading to Claro M. Recto Avenue and stopped in front of FEU. We were blocked by a squad of police armed with truncheons, backed up by two fire trucks. I sensed fascism in the scenario, that government response of violence to its staunchest critics.
We didn’t think twice about advancing when our team leaders ordered us to run towards the “Promised Land,” the Chino Roces Bridge. We had to engage the state. We, the 99%, had to reclaim Mendiola Peace Arch. We had to take the power back.
As we ran towards Morayta Avenue, I was shocked to see the police beating up some of the protesters. It occurred to everyone that the protest had already escalated to what Tesa would later call the “Battle of Morayta.”
We were playing a violent patintero, one with full grown men flailing their solid truncheons upon the backs of unarmed college students, and unlike the games we played in our youth, we had no mothers to run home to.
The protest’s first line of defense was the composite team, or “compo team,” and they tried to protect everyone from further violence. They were superbly organized and disciplined, and were determined not to agitate the police and give them more reasons to attack.
We had to reach the Peace Arch. Slowly, still on the defensive, we marched forward against the riot shields. I was near the front line, holding my comrades “kapit-bisig.” We pushed forward, exclaiming, “Tabi! Tabi! Daraan kami!”
We thought nothing could penetrate our solid line of defense, until we heard a motorized rumble in front of our man-made fortress. Water cannons tore through our compo team, resulting to a bitter mix of bodies which fell like dominoes, causing stampedes. I found myself struggling beneath the bodies of fallen comrades, my foot receiving their full weight. Luckily, some managed to retreat to the sidewalk with our Japanese friend Rurika, who was unharmed.
Someone from the Anakbayan National Office managed to pull me from the rubble of men and women who had been violently hosed down. But the torrent of water they blasted us with has not managed to put out our burning desire to protest.
It still baffles me how the government’s conscience allowed them to unleash such horrific acts, upon the very people President Benigno Aquino III swore to “Serve and Protect” – and so close to International Human Rights Day. I wonder how far the police will go to protect the seat of power from so-called “seditious elements.” Mendiola, the freedom park we’ve come to know all these years, has been reduced to a violent playground by state apparatuses reminiscent of the very dictatorship Aquino’s father vehemently fought decades ago.
It is ironic, however, that the Aquino administration cannot tolerate such a democratic show of dissent. Likewise ironic is how the protest has been downplayed by the mainstream media, when it was in fact a similar act of protest catapulted his mother to power after the fall of Marcos.
After everything that happened, I wonder if we will ever have the chance to air our grievances freely in Mendiola the way we intended. But our genuine love for the masses is what kept us going, in spite of the violence the government imposed on us. Our continuing struggle, like clenched fists that resembled hearts, will forever be a symbol of our service to our countrymen and our hopes for a just, egalitarian society.