From UP activist to hooligan
Thirty years ago, I briefly turned from UP activist to hooligan.
This was in September 1984, when UP students led by Loudette Almazan barricaded the Diliman campus to dramatize our opposition to the Marcos dictatorship. We were young, daring, fearless, militant.
But remembering one moment during the ‘84 Diliman Barikada still makes me cringe.
It happened at the Palma Hall Annex, better known as Phan, where I joined a small of group of students in dragging chairs and piling them up at the building’s entrance.
That quickly led to a confrontation with a UP employee who angrily told us to stop. I have a vague memory of angrily saying something like, “Karapatan namin ito! Wala kang karapatang pigilan kami.”
There weren’t many students attending classes at Phan because of the barikada, so we decided not to push it. But we could have. At that moment, we were in control.
We had power.
But as we walked away from the building, what I felt was not power. It was shame. That UP employee did not support our barikada, but he was only doing his job and did not deserve to be talked down to.
There is a fine line between activism and hooliganism as the recent confrontation between UP students and Sec. Butch Abad demonstrated.
Activists typically think of themselves as underdogs defying the powerful. In fact, activism is about defiance, from the First Quarter protests, to the young blacks who demanded to be served at whites-only restaurants in the US, South to the Delano Grape Strike to EDSA.
But the fact is there are times when activists, through collective action, actually hold power. And how they wield that power is key in whether they remain true to activism or cross over to hooliganism.
I’ve seen examples of this through the years. In many cases, stepping back and resisting the temptation to use that power was the smart course of action for effective, and smart, activism.
During one march on Mendiola, activists pounced on a suspected police infiltrator in our ranks and would have seriously hurt him had wise and quick-thinking leaders not intervened.
Another time, students draped a black banner around the UP Oblation as part of a protest march, overwhelming a UP Police patrolman who became so enraged he fired a warning shot. Fortunately, student leaders and a senior UP Police officer stepped in to defuse the situation.
Butch Abad, of course, is not just any government employee. But these principles of smart activism, I’d argue, apply even to high-profile targets of protest actions.
That’s certainly true in my time when we had to deal with a political figure more controversial and more despicable than Abad: Imelda Marcos.
This happened when I was editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian. One day, then-UP President Edgardo Angara invited me to his office where he made a surprising offer. He said he could help set up an interview with Imelda.
I agreed. But on the day of the interview, I found out that other student leaders had been invited to the meeting with Imelda. Lean Alejandro, then UP Student Council chair, and I knew there was a problem.
What was supposed to be a press interview could potentially turn into a propaganda coup for the dictatorship. We could already imagine the headline the following day: “First Lady holds dialogue with UP student leaders.”
Some of the UP student leaders didn’t think it was a big deal. I got into an argument with a few of them who were suggesting that I just didn’t want to share the opportunity to meet with the dictator’s wife. Fortunately, Lean was there to lead the way, essentially telling me, “Boying, cool ka lang. Ayusin natin ito.”
So we agreed on a plan. We all went to the Manila Hotel to meet Imelda. As we had anticipated, there were some press people from the Marcos-controlled media waiting.
But we were ready for that. A member of the UP student council quickly read a statement against the regime and the non-Collegian student leaders then stood up and announced that they were leaving.
“Oy, you don’t want to have lunch with your First Lady?” Imelda said as the Collegian staff got down to business of conducting an interview, not a dialogue.
The interview pretty much confirmed what most people already knew by then, that Imelda was the delusional better-half of a dangerous dictator. A highlight was when she explained to us her theory of cosmic rays from outer space, which she said were going to protect the country.
But at least we didn’t end up being used for a propaganda ploy.
Of course, we could have embraced a more combative approach, similar to what the STAND UP militants took with Abad.
But throwing our notepads at the most powerful woman in the country, spitting at her or trying to grab her dress would likely have been a dangerous tactic that would have landed us in Bicutan. Or worse.
But even without the risk of being quickly accosted by her sizeable security detail and quickly thrown in prison, taking a confrontational stance toward Imelda would have backfired.
It would have made her look like a magnanimous first lady who treated a group of young Filipinos to lunch at the Manila Hotel and we would have been portrayed as the kontrabida, the unruly, bastos student radicals from Diliman.
We would have lost the battle.
Which leads me to a point that the STAND UP activists apparently still don’t understand, based on their reaction to the backlash.
I don’t share their demonized image of Abad, though I agree with those who say he committed grave errors and should step down.
But even if their extremely negative portrait of the secretary were accurate, in that video of the Diliman confrontation, it was Abad who came across as the underdog.
He won. STAND UP lost.
Abad emerged as the embattled public official who calmly, even bravely faced angry students, who were yelling at him, throwing stuff at him, grabbing his collar, who were behaving, not as passionate, courageous, critical-thinking activists, but as hotheads, loud, arrogant, even violent.
Imagine a different scenario in which the UP militants still chant slogans as Abad is leaving the building, but then take on his offer to answer their questions.
Disciplined, well-prepared, critical thinking activists, who studied carefully the glaring weaknesses of Abad’s positions on the DAP scandal, could have turned that situation around.
The headline the following the day could have been: “Abad stumped by tough questions from UP activists.”
And in the era of social media, you can imagine even more hard-hitting tweets and Facebook posts: “Abad supalpal sa mga tibak ng Diliman.”
That’s the kind of smart activism UP has always been known for.
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