Friday, April 11, 2008

Protest, circa 2008

This was my column last Wednesday, April 9.

While on my way to a meeting last week, I came across a motley group of protesters assembling under the scorching heat of the noontime sun.

Their banners were still rolled up and some of them were still disembarking from the jeepneys that ferried them to their assembly point. In the meantime, they occupied a good part of the sidewalk, munching on sandwiches that were being distributed by one of their organizers.
I didn’t know what they were going to protest about, or where they were going to stage their protest.

I know this would come out as grossly insensitive, but then again, aren’t all mass actions essentially about the same thing these days?

The flags that are unfurled and waved at these gatherings are suspiciously the same— be it in terms of colors, logos, and even what is printed on them. It’s the same tired old clichés, which are not necessarily a commentary on the wisdom or relevance of the slogans, but more as validation of the fact that many of the issues being protested about have been there for the longest time; only the names and faces of the people being demonized have changed.

And of course, it is also a commentary about the people that invariably show up at these gatherings.

Many among us grow old and move on to other endeavors fully expecting that others will take our place and inherit the kind of idealism that is supposed to drive these actions. So very often, it does come as a surprise, and not necessarily a pleasant one at that, to see familiar faces still at it.
It is admirable that some people can be activists for life, but it also makes one wonder if doing so gives justice to one’s full potentials as a person.

Every single time a protest action is featured on television newscasts, I end up looking for a familiar face, that of urban poor leader Nanay Mameng Deunida. She is that grey-haired, hoarse-voiced, skin-and-bones grandmother from one of the slum areas in Pasay City who has become a fixture of the protest movement. Nanay Mameng has been active in the protest movement since the Marcos dictatorship although she only rose to national prominence during the Anti-Estrada rallies.

On one hand, it is heartwarming to note that she’s still at it despite her age and her medical condition. On the other hand, surely there is something that needs to be said about a movement that riles against exploitation, manipulation, abuse, immorality and other crimes while at the same time is blind to the suffering that is inflicted on one of their own.

And even if one were so inclined to devote all his or her life to marching in the street and shouting slogans, surely there can be alternatives or opportunities for personal growth that can be provided if they so desire. Surely Liza Masa, Satur Ocampo, Risa Hontiveros Baraquel who enjoy the privileges of being a representative have within their means to offer the alternatives if their hearts really beat with the people they claim to represent.

The least you expect from any movement is to provide for their own, particularly people who have served them well and in their old age, rather than simply use them as continuing fodder for sensationalist media coverage.

***

I’ve also been at the forefront of these rallies and protest actions as a student leader in the ’80s. Back then, protest actions were straightforward affairs. One showed up wearing the prescribed get up, marched under the heat of the sun while chanting slogans, and cheered or heckled whatever and whoever were the subject of the fiery speeches. We bought our own food, paid for our own transportation to and from the assembly points, and didn’t expect any kind of remuneration other than the psychological reward of having been part of something noble.
Today, protesters have to be ferried to the rallies. They have to be fed as well. They wear shirts that are obviously bought from the same supplier at the same time, and obviously be the same person. It has also been confirmed by many sources that many of these people are paid fixed rates for their “labor.” And these conditions apply to protesters of different political inclinations and persuasions, for or anti.

I can understand why. It has become more and more difficult to gather people willing to lend physical presence for a cause. Some people attribute this to the protest fatigue syndrome that has become prevalent lately.

Unfortunately, the lifestyles and preferences of students—the group that traditionally was the ready source of warm bodies for protest actions on account of its inherent idealism—have already evolved into something that many politicians have so far failed to have a firm grasp of. Politicians tried to entice students and the youth to get outraged over the ZTE scandal by giving them their own rally in their own venue, complete with bands and all other necessary resources. They were hoping that it would snowball into something reminiscent of the anti-Marcos or anti-Estrada protest movements. Well, nice try, but no cigar.

Students today are simply not just into marching in the street and waving placards and shouting slogans as a means of registering their protest. Why do all those when one can blog about it to his or her heart’s content, and all within the confines of an air-conditioned café or room?

Given these difficulties that protest groups have to contend with, they’ve now leveraged on the power of the media to amplify their issues. When covered by television, particularly by networks sympathetic to their causes, a rally with only a thousand people in attendance can be made to look like it approximated the crowd size of Pope John Paul’s historic mass at the Luneta.

And to better catch media’s attention, they’ve also resorted to gimmicks and antics, some of which are, quite frankly, tasteless and gaudy to pass off as funny. I know they are not meant to be funny, they are meant as serious commentaries on the state of affairs in this country. But then again, that’s precisely the problem—how are we expected to take them seriously when they indulge in tawdry gimmickry such as holding their own mock celebration of the President’s birthday where they served lechon to those in the presidential table and half a cup of rice and a small tilapia to the guests?

Anytime this week, some senators along with celebrity witness Jun Lozada will troop to the Supreme Court to file their motion for reconsideration on the executive privilege issue. I don’t expect too many people to be there given this infernal summer heat that we are experiencing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole affair is accompanied by cheap gimmickry designed to attract media attention. Perhaps a Santacruzan with Jamby Madrigal as Reyna Emperatriz and Jun Lozada as the escort?

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