By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
When we stepped into the pedestrian lane to cross over to Mendiola Bridge, none of us thought the police would be so dumb as to block a dozen protesters, in the process threatening a violent confrontation and creating a traffic gridlock, the very things they claimed to be preventing with such zealousness.
In fact, when I agreed to go to Mendiola with RC Constantino, a senior citizen who is also a civil libertarian and staunch nationalist, his wife and whoever else would be willing to assert their inalienable rights to free expression and assembly, I worried about simply being ignored by the police.
After all, Mr. Constantino announced his intentions on national television the night before in the presence of PNP General Querol. Presumably not only the police top guns but Malacañang crisis managers had more than enough lead time to study the situation. They knew their options in dealing with this motley band of protesters and what would obviously be a peaceful and largely symbolic protest action.
Almost all those I asked had some other commitment and couldn’t join the protest that day. Someone observed that anything less than 50 people couldn’t be interpreted, even by the police, as a “rally” and would therefore just be tolerated.
“At least bring some placards,” said a veteran street parliamentarian, “so you don’t look like ordinary pedestrians.” My group consisted of six individuals including former Labor Undersecretary Amado “Gat” Inciong, Alliance of Concerned Teachers Chairman Antonio Tinio and three others who had been arrested and roughed up in previous demonstrations. We had four placards in a plastic grocery bag to share among us.
We were met by the spectacle of more than a hundred police, about one fourth women, their shields in front of them, lined up in a phalanx several rows deep, at the foot of Mendiola Bridge. Mr. and Mrs. Constantino were waiting for us with Princess Nemenzo, fellow Business World columnist Atty. Argee Guevarra and three others in tow.
Thus did we start our “march” on the pedestrian lanes of Legarda and Claro M. Recto. Immediately the police moved to stop us. Colonel Quirante, the PNP ground commander, barked into a small bullhorn and demanded that we produce our permit.
Mr. Constantino bristled us the women police prevented us from proceeding to the Chino Roces monument. He retorted, “Do we need a permit to cross the pedestrian lane?” Col. Quirante relented and told his people to hold their line but they occupied more than one half of the lane so that Mr. Constantino stepped forward and forced those in front of him to move back.
At this point a policewoman complained that Mr. Constantino had touched her breast to which he responded by pointing to his chest and saying that they had been pushing him all along with their shields. The sight was ludicrous as scores of them rushed to block his path as he moved from side to side, forwards and backwards.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Constantino was separated from the rest of us surrounded by anti-riot police. Meanwhile Ms. Nemenzo and her daughter-in-law had somehow slipped unnoticed to reach the Chino Roces monument. We could see her behind the rows of police struggling with an improvised cartolina placard that a policeman was trying to grab from her. It said, “Freedom is as freedom does!” The placard ended up in tatters.
Col. Quirante must have been so mortified by the thought that the rest of us might decide to rush Malacañang Palace that he ordered his troops to disperse us by pushing and shoving us away, back across Legarda street. About twenty policewomen and some policemen handily did just that. There were only about six of us left with only one reinforcement from the party list Bayan Muna.
Another ludicrous photo opportunity presented itself as Mr. Tinio landed on the front page of a broadsheet the following day resisting a formation of helmeted, shield-wielding female members of Manila’s Finest.
We stopped to catch our breath as did the police. We took the opportunity to try to reason with the so-called defenders of the “rule of law”. We appealed to them to stop pushing and hurting us since we could not by any stretch of the imagination be a threat to peace and order and could not even constitute an obstruction to traffic.
Seeing as how we had been separated from each other, we decided to try to go back towards the bridge and reach our companions. Accompanied by a swarm of photo journalists and TV crews, we slowly made our way back to Mendiola.
Some of the police by this time appeared to relent or hesitate so that we were able to reach the monument after some more jostling and scuffling. Unknown to us, individual protesters who had belatedly arrived were being harassed and overpowered by police on the sidelines.
Col. Quirante apparently imagined some kind of extreme danger being posed by a handful of protesters who had gotten several feet closer to the hallowed grounds of the Presidential Palace. He again ordered that we be pushed away until we ended up on the sidewalk at the other side of the bridge.
We staged a sit-in on the sidewalk and dared the police to carry us bodily away. By then we were joined by about a dozen more people from the human rights group Karapatan, martial law era ex-political prisoners from the group SELDA as well as Wilson Fortaleza of Sanlakas. A streamer that said, “Ipaglaban ang demokrasya!” (Fight for democracy!) was unfurled.
The group sang the patriotic song “Bayan Ko”, a staple of anti-dictatorship rallies during martial law. Mr. Constantino read the statement of protest of the group.
When things had quieted down, I took the opportunity to talk to a group of policewomen. I asked them if they realized they were following illegal orders by employing physical violence and disproportionate force on a handful of protesters. Would they shoot unarmed people if given the orders?
And where did the orders come from? It is reasonable to conclude that Malacañang itself was "hands on" and can be held directly accountable for the brutality and intolerance executed by the police.
This brief incident on historic Mendiola Bridge, lasting no more than an hour, clearly exposes the Arroyo government’s policy towards peaceful assemblies of citizens as nothing short of fascist. It has no place in a so-called democratic society and is clearly a harbinger of de facto martial rule.
All freedom-loving Filipinos must condemn and resist the Arroyo regime’s authoritarian mind set and strong-arm tactics or risk another dark period in our nation’s benighted existence.#