Our hope was drunk. Time to sober up!
NEW YORK— Though I have participated in ralIies and marches for various causes, when it comes to parades or processions, I prefer the role of bystander.
This time it was different. The occasion was the annual Philippine Independence Day parade, beginning on 38thStreet and proceeding down Madison Avenue, before winding up at Madison Park. Previously, I had sometimes watched the parade, but more often than not just proceeded to the park, to meet up and hang out with friends, while eating food purchased from the many Filipino food stalls set up for the occasion.
This time around, a number of friends and I decided to join the Malaya contingent (“Malaya” is Filipino for “Free”), a loose coalition of community groups, academics, writers and artists, retirees, and students, both Filipinos and Americans, concerned with the increasingly authoritarian and fascistic rule of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
There were people from all age groups and sectors, though young professionals and students formed the majority. Malaya had asked us to don black clothing, and so there we were, in black, as a visual reminder to onlookers of the thousands of mostly poor people killed in Duterte’s inhuman anti-drug war, as well as signify the slow death of democratic governance in the country.
Marching down Madison Avenue was exhilarating, combining as it did, a celebration of the country’s independence with a cri de coeur, that the slide towards a diminution of the republic’s democracy be not only recognized but halted, that respect for the Constitution and human rights, especially of the underprivileged, be upheld not just with platitudes but through policies that address specific issues, such as income inequality, oppressive labor conditions, police misconduct, and the protection of overseas workers.
For a group that was both highly opinionated and diverse, the organizing was impressive. The high-octane energy, from what I saw, was due partly to Malaya’s inclusive spirit. There was a lot of rhetoric but that was to be expected, to get the blood up and the fever going, the way that cheers function at a sports event. Nevertheless dogma was refreshingly absent.
Malaya had its own marshals to make sure we were in formation and proceeded down Madison at an orderly pace. Looming over our heads was an effigy of Duterte, in the style of Bread & Puppet street theater. Chant sheets were handed out, and through portable loudspeakers the chant leader could be heard and we could thus repeat the chant of the moment. We had a bit of fun, while in the holding area, playing with the pro-Duterte shouts of one group. Whenever they proclaimed “Duterte!” we responded with either “Resign!” or “Fascist!” or “Diktador!” and sometimes with an expletive. A bystander would have thought these were the coordinated protests of one group, rather than contesting ones.
What bound us all was the need to speak out against the myriad abuses of the Duterte government, from the murderous hits on the poor camouflaged as a war on drugs, to a foreign policy that seems hell bent on basically handing over the farm to China while allowing U.S. troops on Philippine soil. In the meantime, martial law continues to hold in Mindanao, with the implicit threat of extending it over the entire archipelago; Supreme Court Chief Justice Sereno has been ousted—illegally—for her opposition to Duterte’s rule; and heavy-handed attempts to muzzle the critical media made.
The high point of the march was the die-in. When our contingent, behind the De La Salle Alumni Association, reached the grandstand, at a prearranged signal we all dropped to the ground and feigned death for a minute. In vain did the official parade marshals ask us to get up. We stood or, in this case, laid, our ground. It was a perfect photo op, a mass of bodies serving as a strong visual representation of the carnage this president has inflicted on his own people.
The sidewalks were filled, mostly, as far as I could tell, with Pinoys. Our group elicited strong reactions, from thumb’s down and chants of “Duterte,” to cheers, applause, and, in some instances, the taking up of our chants.
What was particularly heartwarming for me was knowing that some of my former students not only were participating but also took part in organizing the march. I salute them. May they—and we—remain strong.
I never thought that 32 years after the unprecedented bloodless ouster of the Marcoses in 1986, we would be seeing the worst political elements in society reclaim center stage. But then they never left, did they? The cadaver of a thief and a tyrant now is interred in our National Heroes Cemetery, his widow and son and daughter in positions of power—a family to whom Duterte is beholden.
The sad truth is, so many of us, including those who claim to be neutral, have enabled this recycling of history and so looking back, the question we should ask ourselves is one Lady Macbeth so memorably uttered, paraphrased here: Was the hope drunk wherein we dressed ourselves? And has it slept since?
Copyright L.H. Francia 2018