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Youth activism: More than just organized action

In the streets you will find these youth activists rallying with utter bombast against social injustices. But is that all there is?

YOUTH ACTIVISM. Words of provocation seem to plague their demonstrations. Photo by Rafael Ligsay

MANILA, Philippines – In the streets you will find these youth activists rallying with utter bombast against social injustices. Waving placards, they shout vitriols against a government that is never good enough for them.

Armed with alarming statistics, they know how many poor Filipinos there are, how many are hungry, how many don’t have jobs.

Makibaka! Huwag matakot! (Join the struggle! Do not be afraid!)” is the age-old battle cry (variations exist). On special occasions, they construct effigies of whoever is the sitting president and have a field day burning it.

Still relevant?

Recently, the question of the relevance of youth activism has cropped up once again online

University of the Philippines (UP) Manila professor Danilo “Piwi” Aragon, a youth activist during the Marcos years, thinks the movement is now laden with hypocrisy. “There is little democracy inside the organizations, and yet they are fighting for democracy,” he explained.

He added that sectoral and public support must be won by the strength and clarity of arguments, and not through spectacle. They should have the right means to the end, he said, citing a subculture of mass mobs that cause destruction of public property. 

Susan F. Quimpo, writer and book author who comes from a family of activists, wrote in a Rappler article that there is a need to shake off “the angry, red paint-wielding, gate-storming stereotype of the Leftist activist” for them to be taken more seriously by the public.

“Even the Left in parliament are still collectively known as ‘mga Pulahan (Reds),’ lumped together with the same Reds who continue to paint slogans on walls… How unfortunate for members of the Left in government who actually, pardon the cliche, serve the people,” her article reads.

Silence is acquiescence 

Environmental lawyer and former student activist Terry Ridon believes that street protests are necessary because they compel politicians to act.  

“Politicians aren’t roused into action without seeing numbers on the streets. Political battles are not won simply by the brilliance of the legislator. It is won by a political movement that really wants political change,” said Ridon, who also heads the Leftist youth group Kabataan.

He said it was the 2004 massacre in Hacienda Luisita – the vast sugarcane estate controlled by the family of President Benigno Aquino III – that fired him up.

He is critical of the Aquino families’ response to the massacre. “They cannot now be pliant. They cannot now not do anything,” Ridon said.

The debate, of course, goes beyond dynamism versus pliancy and is more concerned with what sorts of dynamic action should be employed in order to push a cause forward.

GREATER SUBSIDY. A youth activist calls for greater state subsidy for education. Photo by Rafeal Ligsay

Rude awakening

Erica Chiong of the Save the Bondoc Peninsula Movement said the youth will always march to the streets and raise their clenched fists to condemn government because presidents come and go but the country has not changed much since post-Martial Law.

Chiong cites the hasty and full implementation of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB) and the scrapping of the Mining Act of 1995 as among causes she is fighting for. She sees herself as an activist for the rest of her life.

“The demands of young activists are reasonable,” Chiong said, “I wish to see the government address these issues in my lifetime.”

Ica wasn’t always as passionate as she is today. But her mother’s job was threatened when the National Power Corporation (Napocor) was privatized. The “socialist” messages of her acquaintances at UP Los Baños suddently hit close to home.

“I realized, at that time, that the peoples’ struggles are interconnected,” Ica said, explaining why she transitioned from a student-activist advocating mainly for education reform to being a full-time volunteer for Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)-Southern Tagalog after graduation.

Ridon shares Ica’s sentiments. He considers his involvement with Kabataan “full-time work,” while his law practice is “only part-time.” Private work can do very little when compared to social engagement through activism, according to him.

“Change can most definitely happen with me being involved in activist and parliamentary work than with me just winning some cases, while the laws that perpetuate injustice and oppression continue,” Ridon said.

NATURALLY PROVOCATIVE? Youth activists run beyond the Mendiola Peace Arch in Manila. Photo by Rafael Ligsay

Naturally provocative?

In March 2010, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) was set to impose a Tuition and Other Fees Increase (TOFI) for the next school year. Sensing the looming “injustice,” student-activists started picketing. From the top floor of the PUP main building, they tossed unused furniture to the school grounds. It was a show of dismay.

“[It] was the initiative of the masses of students. It was the students’ symbolic political action against the proposed tuition increase and against the government’s abandonment of state education,” recalled Sheryl Alapad, now secretary-general of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP). Back then she was the chairperson of the PUP College of Education Student Council.

In a similar “threat” at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) when students with outstanding fees were disallowed to enrol despite promissory notes, members of the left-leaning Alliance of Concerned Thomasians (ACT-Now) petitioned the administration for an extended grace period of enrollment. A dialogue between the university rector and the student body was held. No picketing of the extreme kind. No chairs thrown.

But Alapad says UST employed the same “militant” (which she clarified simply meant “unwavering”) actions such as letter-writing, signature campaigns, petition signing, roundtable discussions, fora and dialogue.

They had to pressure the UST administration to yield to a dialogue,” said Alapad, adding that NUSP has student-members in UST.

The De La Salle Araneta University (DLSAU) Supreme Student Council also handled a proposed tuition increase in their school similarly, she said. But unlike the two private Catholic universities, she explained that state universities issue a TOFI mainly because of restraints in government funding.

Which is why, a week after PUP students in 2010 displayed anger at their administration, they went to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) for what they called a “take-over.” Accompanied by other leftist youth organizations, and despite confrontation with the guards, they forced their way through the gates of CHED. Security guards released fire retardant to block their entry.

They did, however, manage to have a dialogue with CHED. The 2010 TOFI at PUP never pushed through.

POLICE RESISTANCE. Youth activists in the middle of confrontation with police authorities. Photo by Rafael Ligsay

“It is also not alien to the public that mainstream media and the government have massively portrayed activism as violent. When in fact, rallies are not necessarily violent. Most rallies become violent due to police and military instigation,” said Alapad. She maintains that pickets are in themselves “dialogic.”

“We deliver speeches, we present figures and data, we sing songs of protest and hope and action, and we perform the poetry of the students and the people,” she explained.

Ridon echoes this sentiment, adding that it has always been well within the constitutional right to assemble.

“We cannot peg our actions on the basis that such actions are naturally provocative. The police should get out of the way,” Ridon said.

Radicalization process

Moderates are radicalized for varied reasons. For Ridon, it was not his socio-economic situation that prompted him to join the rallies. “I come from an upper middle class family of mostly doctors,” he explained.

Ica, on the other hand, was simply a student who got bored with her daily routine. “School-dorm, school-dorm,” she pointed out.

And yet, for a few others, activism runs in the family. Sylvie Ollero, 24, started picketing at the age of 10. Her dad, who is also a full-time volunteer for Bayan like her, was a trade unionist.

Siyempre hindi ko pa naintindihan yung mga yun at that time (I did not fully understand these things then),” she said.

Ridon, speaking in behalf of his organization, said that there are high school students under their umbrella organization who may have been involved in organized protests. However, directives are issued to ensure everyone’s safety.

“Provocation should never come from our ranks. Wala naman gusto siguro masaktan (No one wants to get hurt). It’s an incorrect proposition to say that it’s a primary motivation to engage in violent acts during the rallies,” he said.

YOUTH IN RALLIES. Directives are issued to ensure everyon's safety. Photo by Rafael Ligsay

More than just organized action

Ridon said young people have an “entire buffet of causes” to be involved in and to direct “meaningful social actions” at, and these are not limited to organized action alone. Activists may be in the limelight when protesting, but their organizations always back them up with parliamentary action.

Bills are filed but are always resisted by corporate lobbies, he added. These “meaningful” actions also include judicial appeals to nullify contracts of mining and power companies who don’t comply with a certain environmental standard set.

Political actions on the streets only serve to make society and government become more cognizant and concerned with all their legwork in court and in Congress, he added.

The full subsidy of higher education the way primary education is subsidized and the increase of workers’ minimum wage across the board are among the “causes” he cited.

“We have the political savvy to understand na hindi uubra kung rally-rally lang (that rallies alone won’t be effective),” he said.

NUSP’s Alapad also explained that the basic principle in administering student campaigns that are resonant and impactful is the synthesis of parliamentary (legislation) and extra-parliamentary processes (rallies, candle lighting activities, noise barrage, ribbon-wearing, picketing, and strikes). 

“Correspondingly, even if some people would think that it might be a pubic nuisance, public awareness is increased. We can live with that criticism of it being a public nuisance for as long as we have people who are engaged, who are made aware that such things and such causes exist,” Ridon added. – Rappler.com