July 30, 2004

Condoning police brutality

It is really frustrating and infuriating the way some media outlets treat protest actions led by the Left -- carelessly tagged generically as "militant groups" -- especially when these are marred by violent confrontations with the police or military. This was clearly shown in the aftermath of the July 13 dispersal by the police of a prayer vigil-cum-protest rally at Plaza Miranda calling for the pullout of Philippine troops in Iraq to gain the freedom of migrant worker Angelo de la Cruz. This was also reflected in the coverage of the SONA protest actions last Monday.

First, there is the slant that equates "militant" with "violence-prone" as if BAYAN, KMU, Gabriela and the like are naturally rowdy, provocative troublemakers. When the police and/or military violently disperse their pickets, rallies and demonstrations, more likely than not, the demonstrators are portrayed as having done something to trigger a violent response. The legitimate issues they raise are invariably drowned out, while the noise and the spectacle of the ensuing mayhem are dutifully reported.

Second, the facts and circumstances behind the violent dispersals of such mass actions are often glossed over, misreported or even distorted. The public gets the impression that the rallyists and the police are equally matched in terms of capacity to inflict damage or injury to each other.

Combined with the stereotype that all activists are anarchists and inveterate lawbreakers, one easily concludes that they are to blame when violence breaks out to mar an otherwise peaceful and democratic exercise of the right to free speech and assembly.

Nothing can be farther from the truth, as experienced by this most recent victim of police brutality -- after more than three decades of protesting under five successive Malacañang tenants. The agents of the state who are licensed to use water cannons, tear gas, truncheons, shields and even firearms to quell dissent in the name of maintaining "law and order," have an arsenal of weapons as well as the protective blanket of being persons in authority.

This basic presumption places the responsibility for the outbreak of violence squarely on the police/military forces, most especially their officials, all the way up to the President and Commander-in-Chief, unless proven otherwise by a thorough and unbiased investigation by entities not beholden to the same.

Fortunately for me and scores of others hosed down by water cannon, truncheoned, chased through the traffic-clogged streets and illegally arrested a stone's throw away from historic Plaza Miranda, there is enough video footage of that infamous dispersal to expose the Western Police District, supposedly "Manila's Finest," as having gone berserk in assaulting defenseless people for merely asserting their rights.

And yet the PNP top brass, including director general Ebdane, had the gall to argue that the wild whacking and busting of our heads were justified because one of the demonstrators allegedly punched a police officer more than an hour earlier, long before the demonstrators had agreed to leave Plaza Miranda in an orderly manner.

So, what was that ruckus and ensuing controversy all about then? Is this just another case of police brutality stemming from an inadequate orientation about their sacred duty to uphold the people's democratic rights? Is it poor training, perhaps, or miscalculations by a harried police commander?

Unfortunately, and most ominously, this doesn't seem to be the case. By its inaction and silence, the Arroyo government has betrayed its approval, if it is not itself the source, of the policy and practice of impunity of state forces with regard to violent suppression of legitimate protest.

Indeed, there is growing concern about a pattern of abuse of authority by the police against ordinary citizens seeking redress of grievances from government. Earlier, the public witnessed the same mailed-fist treatment of people protesting against alleged massive fraud in the last presidential elections.

A statement signed by prominent civil libertarians and human rights advocates last July 23 says it all:

In the situation of profound and continuing social crisis that our country has been mired for more than three decades, and in light of a clear worsening of this crisis especially on the economic and political fronts, an aroused and restive citizenry is bound to resort to more mass demonstrations, protests and even civil disobedience actions. Government must deal with this expected rise in mass actions reflecting the people's discontent without resorting to excessive force and violence.

We remind the Arroyo government that it was catapulted to power by such a peaceful yet militant mass protest movement that President Arroyo, then Vice-President, lauded and supported. What was right then cannot now be turned upside down into a wrong.

July 30-31, 2004