[OPINION] The war of tarps: How the government’s ideology war is visual, too

In early March, a spate of tarpaulins sneaked their way into headlines.

Some reports spotted them in busy avenues in Metro Manila. Some were found to be in Davao, Cebu City and Bacolod City. Many social media users also found them in their own localities. Like a rabid virus, the tarpaulins were everywhere. It was a coordinated, synchronous publicity stunt, the methods of which they know from simultaneous misinformation campaigns.

Some posters prematurely expressed support for the potential candidacy of presidential daughter and Davao City mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. What started as tarpaulins grew to be a caravan parade in the City of Manila, which had a “serious surge” of COVID-19 cases at the time.

Even though local government units have made efforts to take them down, the tarpaulins were like hedgehogs in an arcade game – unpredictable and instantaneous. Take one down, you get another.

Most government officials have remained quiet on the Run, Sara, Run posters, with some even coming to its defense. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) – the agency tasked to watch over the elections – has let the tarpaulins pass.

“Technically speaking walang paglabag ‘yan kasi wala pang official candidate eh … Hindi pa namin pwede pakialaman kasi hindi naman election offense,” said Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez in a radio interview. 

In the broadcast, Jimenez was more worried that the rocks holding down the banners to the rails were a “threat” to public safety.

Perhaps, what Jimenez claims to be a “threat” is amiss. Beyond these Run, Sara, Run tarpaulins is a deadlier and more vicious set: ones that bear the names of the administration’s critics, associating them with communist groups, previously tagged by several government units as “persona non grata”. In spite of many progressive formations decrying the harms of malicious red-tagging, the government continues to print its baseless claims into the public view.

Those in power have a history of red-tagging on various fronts, be it legal knock-downs, social media propaganda or horrendous killings on the ground. Now, its war against the opposition has taken up a new front, in a more public and more imposing medium: the tarpaulin..

That the government has resorted to these banners reveals its desperation to strangle people’s minds. They have exhausted all means to assert their credo in broadcast channels, social media and in local crackdowns against activists. Now, their ideological war has morphed into something else: an irritating tarpaulin, hanging high over heads, for daily commuters, drivers and passers-by to see.

Simple recipe

The tarpaulin is a simple recipe: a sizeable piece of material with bold and striking typography, carrying an even bolder message. It has historically been the ally of many activists, as they have relied on it to bear their calls in support of social justice, protection and humane treatment of workers and freedom from discrimination, among others.

But to the activists, a tarpaulin’s high visibility is also its hamartia. Supplemented with public funds, some politicians can plaster their names and faces across these massive banners and stamp their names onto onlookers’ consciousness. And sometimes, especially during the elections, a name is enough when voters look at a ballot.

It sticks out like a sore thumb, visually violating the sanctity of public spaces. Like a stationary Medusa, one look is enough to stun you with its message. Whether or not you agree with its content, it has already infiltrated your mind. 

A tarpaulin with the print “GO3022” shines on a high post in the busy center of Calumpit, Bulacan. File photo: Rhenzel Raymond Caling

Its message will not only be remembered by those who pass by it on a daily basis but will seep into online trends or conversations with our family members. In reality, the impact of a tarpaulin lasts longer than we think and more potent than we consider.

The effect it has on individuals and local communities multiplies a manifold if you place it on a sidewalk on busy North Avenue or an overpass in bustling Cubao. It is even more worrisome that many more of these tarpaulins are working their black magic but are hiding in plain sight.

Aversion

These tarpaulins also serve another purpose – they are daily reminders of the administration’s aversion towards discourse with their critics. Governments scurry away from accountability, choosing instead to let their tarpaulins do the talking. They tell us through these tarpaulins: “There is only one way to do things in society. It is ours, no one else’s.” 

The government is flexing its agenda-setting muscle. As they run away from the people’s fury, they use these tarpaulins to mold an imaginary enemy out of legitimate dissent and to point fingers away from their vile governance.

And when they have lorded over those who are meant to check on them, the tarpaulins become invincible.

The government makes sure that the banners will get the message across. Hung, it will be up for everyone to see. Taken down, it will stir the pot enough for everyone to talk about it. They are ruthless in their indoctrination. They are systematic in their tyranny.

Run, Sara, Run

It’s obvious that President Duterte wants his daughter to be the talk of the town. He is on a two-pronged mission: one, to distract us from the failure of his COVID-19 response; and second, to stir controversy around his daughter just enough for people to rally behind her.

Run, Sara, Run tarpaulins have made their way into many parts of the country, withstanding the attempts of local governments to take them down. The Comelec has approved the use of these tarpaulins, as they call them “non-electoral offenses.” Officials call these tarpaulins a manifestation of “freedom of expression.”

However, it is hard to believe that this government has any ounce of respect for the sanctity of human freedoms when multiple times they have killed workers in cold blood; enervated and cracked down on unionists; obstructed the peaceful education of Lumad children; persecuted artists who do their art, and red-tagged and threatened journalists with a culture of impunity.

The tarpaulin is only the latest battlefield in the government’s war against its critics. Despite their unrestrained attacks on human rights, however, the people are far from being defeated.

Behind these massive tarpaulins hide an administration shivering in fear, unable to bear the culpability of their historic failure. Past these tarpaulins is a regime desperate to divert the people’s anger anywhere else. 

When the people take their outrage to the streets, their protests become more visible. The world will know of the people’s indignation.

It is the people – their loud marching and demonstration – who will be seen. It is they who will take the government’s tarpaulins down.

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