THE PHILIPPINES: “Seconds lost in Manila, 4 July, 1987”

15 October, 2007

It was a less than ordinary building on an ordinary road, an unattractive street despite the trees that lined it. Yes, it was an unattractive avenue adorned with buildings constructed on the cheap and for function only. Cables and wires of all kinds were strung from pole to pole, and building to building, a tangled mess, making even looking up at the sky unattractive. Around the trees was asphalt and concrete and that stretched out across six lanes, along which racket making and black smoke spewing vehicles traveled. There were not even jeepneys on this road, which at least would have added splashes of colour and trashy pictures to the narrow panorama of asphalt and cement and cables and grey, square buildings. The building was an embassy in Manila so it was fronted with a high iron fence of slats. It had a narrow and guarded gate as an entrance. A few trees jutted above the fence. It seemed a low building, square and flat and unattractive like the street. The hotel across the street and along a few buildings was also very plain, although the large glass panes that ran along the front marked it off from the cement and brick of the other buildings. Inside it was also plain, although with carpeted swirling stairs up to the first floor. The first floor was mainly function rooms, carpeted with just a few cream coloured upholstered sofa chairs in the corners. There were no functions on so the area was quiet. And here also the wall facing out onto to the street was made of glass.

I had a good view of the street.

I had arrived  early and could see the early signs of police preparation. Two trucks had arrived with policemen. I watched as they clambered down, their shirt buttons giving way and their shirts splaying open as their guts shuddered with the jumps. Not all, of course, but quite a few. They didn’t look fit or like policemen but they were. Two trucks weren’t many. It looked like the demonstration would be a quiet one. Marcos had gone the year before and now Aquino, the widow, ruled and was still mostly popular. The demonstration that day was against the American government and bases and not Aquino though everybody who would come would be against her too. It was the Left who would demonstrate today and they had struggled for more than the formal freedoms but for the farmers and Manila’s factory workers to have power too. None of that had happened yet.

I took a few silly photos. Through a glass pane and of a few trucks, not much in those. I had come too early. I had over estimated how bad the traffic might be, coming from the university, quite a way from Manila in Quezon City. I had a coffee in the restaurant downstairs but it only took a few minutes and I was waiting again. Normally I could make a coffee last for ages while either thinking or daydreaming. Waiting is a stupid and annoying activity. I walked out again into the street. Heat of course, once you leave the oasis of the air conditioning. And that ugly street again. And all the cables and greyness.

There were more police and a lot of plainclothes men as well; more than I had seen from up above through the glass panes. Although most were not armed. Nobody from the rally organizers had arrived, although journalists were gathering. I had a camera and thought I might be able to move around the demonstration taking photos pretending to be one. But they all wore big yellow ID cards. I did cross the road over to the Embassy side and wandered along among the police. Nobody took any notice, I suppose it was not too unnatural for a white person to be there, although the Embassy was closed. It was a holiday. It was July 4.

I didn’t know any of the journalists. There was nobody to talk to. They were all busy. I walked back into the hotel and up to the first floor again and sat down to watch. It was always strange arriving early and alone before a demonstration. I was a supporter of the demonstrators and knew well some of the leaders and activists. But I was not a part of the process, an outsider, an onlooker. Of course, I might write an article about such a demonstration. But those days my articles stuck to the bare facts of the politics, with just a short analysis. What was the demonstration beyond a political statement? Surely more. And I felt that was the case whenever I arrived earlier. I looked down on the asphalt and concrete and cars and police. Nothing happening now, but later it would be an arena of passion. There would be thousands and they would be angry and they would be thirsty for dignity. For almost twenty years they had been ruled by a very cruel and stupid and greedy man who bartered support from the most powerful state on the earth in return for providing it with the largest air and naval bases in the world. Both bases were surrounded by towns worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, and full of pain. But there was nothing there now, just the street. I remembered other times I had covered demonstrations, but during the Marcos time. There was more uncertainty and fear in the waiting. There would be water cannons as well as trucks. And there would be soldiers as well as police, with M16s, waiting,. But the streets would be just as empty and normal, and grey as they were this time. There were people passing of course, and the black billowing cars, and in some streets the black billowing but colour splashed jeepneys. I looked down again on that kind of scene and saw two jeepneys arrive and park. They were not carrying normal passengers. They had come to prepare for the rally. Two policeman came up and spoke to an older man. Most of the people getting out of the jeepneys were young men or women. They proceeded to heave out large loud-speakers. The policeman and the older man from the jeepney finished talking very quickly. A young man in a cheap T-shirt and jeans was on top one of the jeepneys and a young woman and another man were passing up a speaker. Then another speaker went up. They were being tied down to the roof of the jeepney and cables threaded their way into the back of the jeepney. There must have been some kind of source of power, inside I thought. Are they going to speak from the roof? Shit, I thought, I am such a clumsy climber. What if I have to speak? I could have gone down and tried to chat with them. I couldn’t recognize them from where I was. And I knew they would be busy anyway. There was still just a handful. And it was cool inside and hot outside. I moved back from the glass panes and sat in the upholstered sofa again. I had spoken at earlier rallies giving greetings from supporters at home, but I had known the organizers better then. There was a bit of a new crowd now doing the real organizing on the day, but maybe they would still would ask me. That would be good; I believed strongly in internationalism. But the climbing onto a roof of the jeepney? over the front windscreen? I supposed. I looked at my watch. They would be here soon, surely, I thought, even given that things might start late. They would be marching from outside the building where the Constituent Assembly was meeting to discuss a new constitution. Friends had said that there would be between two or three thousand. I looked out again but there was no sign. In any case, I reminded myself, I would hear the chants before I saw them come around the corner. But waiting is such boring work. I decided to walk out and head in their direction and join them for the last part of the march. I turned right just out of the hotel and then left, a short cut to bring me out on the march route. Another unattractive street. Narrow, packed with jeepneys and pollution and people, and ugly shops and buildings. The Philippines had been an American colony for the first fifty years of the 20th century and showed it. They must have demolished anything Spanish in this part of the city. I came out across from the a big park and I could hear the chanting and see the marchers. It was bigger than I expected. There were scores of banners, red and black. “Bases Out!” most read. All kinds of organizations’ names were on all the banners that all echoed the same sentiment. The noise grew. Whistles and drums added to the clamour around the chanting. I joined in as they passed adding my little voice to the chorus, and with gusto. I walked along Rusty, a social democrat who had recently turned to the radical Left. After awhile he was called aside with some marshalling task. I jogged out the front and turned to take photos. It was a great sight. All large true demonstrations were. The crowd were mainly poor workers and squatters with some squads of students here and there. They had borne the brunt of the struggle against Marcos whose regime they had called the US-Marcos dictatorship. They knew why they were there and so they had made many of the banners themselves. Colour, noise, unity, spirit, truth. People. They turned the corner. I took some photos of what was ahead: a police line. But there was to be no clash. The police moved back on to the pavement after some pow-wowing with the organizers, The crowd marched down the street, occupying the full width of the six lanes and at least one long block back along the road. As they moved along the street towards the front of the Embassy, somebody began chanting over the loudspeakers from atop the jeepney. I didn’t know Tagalog, so couldn’t tell exactly what every chant was, but the sentiment of Americans go home came through clear enough. The colour and noise did make something else out of that bleak, boring street, but somehow its bleakness still dominated, despite the happy and angry spirit among the crowd. Downtown Manila has always had that effect on me. Harsh and arid, like a desert, yet asphalt and concrete and cables and wires and cars and exhaust fumes, even with all the trees.

Somebody started speaking. A man, loud and clear and in Tagalog. Each flush of words provoked applauses and smiles. I wanted some photographs. But the flat, asphalt avenue didn’t offer any place high up to get good shots. There was nothing to be photographed from inside the hotel. The angle was wrong and it was too far away. I clambered up onto the engine of the jeepney on whose roof stood the speaker. It wasn’t all that high but I could still see all the crowd and their faces and their fists when they raised them up. They were tired faces, tired from work and from poverty, from cold water and harsh soaps, and pollution and heat. There were many working women as well as men. Most of the marshals seemed to be factory workers or students. They were happy, even though angry. They believed in what they were doing. They were also feeling more relaxed. This was the first big demonstration against the Americans since the fall of the dictator. There would be no more dispersals with M16s; no brains or blood spread on the streets. They were free to demonstrate. The police looked on. I could see them too, mostly standing in the shade of the trees growing in the US embassy compound but whose canopy acted as a verandah over the footpath. They weren’t in formation but just standing around in little knots, staring. The older ones were overweight; the younger ones in very tight-fitting uniforms. There was one worrying thing: one truck was full of long pieces of wood, rough looking, not truncheons, but tree branches maybe, shaved of their foliage. I didn’t see them earlier. Somebody climbed up alongside me and then on to the roof of the jeepney. There was a new speaker. I think he was from a factory. Some of the women with children pressed closer and cheered. They seemed to know him.

I refocused the camera from the close-up of them to try to get the whole crowd. It was very, very big. I realized that most of the people there would not be able to hear any of the speeches from just the two loudspeakers on the jeepney. They must have been straining to hear even a sentence, packed in, under the Manila sun and its polluted sieve of a sky.

I have read about how something can happen in a microsecond; several things all take place at the same time, telescoped together. I suppose that’s what happened then. Maybe two or three cracks were what I think I heard, or what I think I remember hearing. Crack, crack, or maybe crack, crack, crack. I think that is what I heard. I must have heard something otherwise I wouldn’t have found myself somehow huddling in a shop door entrance down the street. I am still amazed to this day how that happened. I am a very awkward person when it comes to climbing or jumping or running. I suspect I got from the jeepney engine to the door in record-breaking time, but frankly I can’t remember doing it. I don’t even remember actually seeing the crowd disperse but it seemed to do so just as quickly. All three or four thousand people.

I joined people who ran into a side street getting out of the direct line of sight of the police. But then police appeared at the end of the street and started shooting. A few of us found an unlocked door and went in. The door opened onto a staircase and we all headed up. It was dark, and poor, an old wooden staircase and handrail with a few calendar girl pictures on the wall. At the top of the stairs we found more demonstrators who had somehow got there before us. I was the only white person there, and a rather clumsy one at that. It was a bar and brothel that we had found. The working women there chatted and laughed and poured a few people some drinks. Perhaps ten minutes or fifteen minutes passed and the shooting stopped. One or two people left. I followed down and popped my head out the door. At one end of the street, I could see a policeman. He wasn’t looking down this street but was facing down the street he was standing in. His posture was that of a discus thrower. He was one of the younger policemen there. He back and then let fly with a stone. I couldn’t see at whom he was throwing. I went back upstairs and chatted with people. None had much to tell, everything had happened so quickly. We just waited, and I sweated. It was hot and unventilated. An air conditioner was on and noisy but made no difference. Finally, somebody knocked on the door downstairs. It had been locked. All clear, they said. The twenty or so of us who had been caught in the side street came out into the light. The police were still outside the Embassy. Most of the demonstrators had run back along the march route. Two or maybe three people had been shot, perhaps killed and several had been taken away. Everybody was regrouping back at the Constituent Assembly and were preparing to march back again. They would not give in to this. This time several Assembly men would join and others who had been watching an assembly session. The demonstration would be lead by 70 year old r Senator Tanada, a fighter against Marcos in the earlier period. And they did come back. And they were met by a line of policemen whose shirts were stuffed full of stones. Senator Tanada and Professor Nemenzo from the University of the Philippines, another veteran of the movement, were among those at the front. I linked arms with them, down one end of the line. The police refused to move their line back, but people had come back with a purpose, re-inforced in their will.

The police retreated.

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