Can we, the people, still sing? - Blueboard by Hansley A. Juliano
“Kung kami ba ay bubulong, maririnig niyo ba kami?Kung kami naman ay sisigaw, maiintindihan niyo kaya kami?”
(If we whisper, will you hear us? If we shout, will you understand us?)
— “Tata Iying,” after the Mendiola Massacre of 1987
A mass of people passing through the thoroughfares of any city is a normal occurrence, and is part of our day-to-day routine. A crowd of people congregating in any part of town attracts attention and interest, especially if it is massive enough and involves celebrations or celebrities. Yet when people swarm open spaces carrying placards and slogans,or setting up makeshift stages for the airing of sentiments, statements and views, we dismiss them as a nuisance or something to be tolerated: the political rally.
The right to freedom of expression and assembly has been explicitly defined in the 1987 Constitution (Article III, Section 4). Legally and institutionally, we have allotted to ourselvees democratic principle described by the scholar Robert Dahl, of "citizenshav[ing] a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined." In fact, some would even argue that the liberal democratic society we supposedly enjoy today was founded by the mother of all political rallies: the 1986 EDSA revolution.
Why then, perhaps, have people gained a negative perception of political mobilization—if such forms of action are in a way the bread and butter of the exercise of our democratic rights? The classic retort, if you ask people on the street and on their cars, would be very simple.
"It causes traffic."
"It disrupts the flow of the city."
"Their complaints are repetitive."
"They don't offer solutions."
"It's an exercise in futility."
"Did rallies ever win anything?"
The ones normally given negative press or coverage are the rallies staged by peoples' organizations, especially those blanketly-labelled "leftist" or "progressive" by news outfits and a general population who couldn't be bothered to differentiate. Yet to presume that only “whiny” fringe movements stage such activities would be a gross misconception. Most (if not all) of our civil liberties—which people seem to be so keen on taking for granted right now—have been won by peoples’ organizations on the streets, if not full-on revolutions.
Here in the Philippines, however, most of the mobilizations have become quite predictable (if not routine): Labor Day in Mendiola, the State of the Nation Address in Commonwealth Avenue, Bonifacio Day in the environs of Manila—with more mobilizations peppered all over the year with unbalanced projection of what issues are being fought for. The predictability of rallies is going up against fact that the layout of many of our cities is by no means pedestrian- and assembly-friendly, not to mention sweltering in heat and humidity. Moreover, people are less and less congregating in public spaces and more in private and exclusive malls, who would clamp down on any such form of action—probably because they have a role in the injustices being voiced out (the dispersal of urban poor and labor contractualization).
Interestingly, this spirit of cross-sectoral solidarity and taking to the streets is taking hold of our countrymen since the disquiet days of November 2016. On the 18th of that month, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, hitherto condemned in the pages of history, was surreptitiously accorded a solemn burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani—away from public eyes and the condemnation of the general public. The mobilizations erupted like wildfire across the country, especially amongst the younger generations since that day of the 18th.They condemn the venality of the Marcoses, as well as the de facto blessing President Rodrigo Duterte gave to this controversial decision. Mobilizations have become a nigh-weekly occurrence since then: the 21st, the 25th, the 30th, even spilling over into the early weeks of December, well into our Christmas parties.
Perhaps it’s not that mobilizations are becoming less and less an effective tool of political action. They should, however, be tactically, smartly and creatively deployed if and only when its message resonates to the population it is trying to rouse into action. The appropriateness and justice of a mobilization—if it is to be a genuine expression of calls for indignity, solidarity and conviction regarding any issue—has to be something that not only the ground leaders carry. It has to be owned and claimed by those they claim to speak with.
Hansley A. Juliano serves as a part-time lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for various sectoral issues (such as labour rights and agrarian reform).