[OPINION] Community pantries are 'bulletproof'

In the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta, the hero (V) was a masked vigilante prone to Shakespearean outbursts. In his final confrontation with the “evil” commander of the State forces (Mr. Creedy), V was shot several times, yet remained standing. In response to a shocked Creedy, V uttered one of the movie’s most memorable lines:

“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh, beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” 

The past few days witnessed the emergence of one such idea. The Maginhawa Community Pantry sprung from the simple efforts of one lady – Patricia Non. It was a simple idea, one so pure that by now a thousand politicians and PR managers must be killing themselves for not doing it earlier. “Take what you need. Give what you can.” In these simple words lay the beauty of Ms. Non’s idea. It was bayanihan given life. It was the Gospel given form. It was the tenet of every religion known to civilized society.  

Help one another. Within days, Ms. Non’s idea had begun to spread. Community pantries were showing up in Visayas and Mindanao. There are now around 250. We have seen many acts of charity during the pandemic. But this was different. Scenes of poor people giving what little food they had triggered a different kind of emotion. Like that chicharon vendor who gave 3 packs of noodles. Noodles. They seem miniscule compared to companies who give millions. Yet, who has given more? That vendor who in his 3 packs of noodles has given a piece of his world, or the billionaires who donate a few thousand face masks and issue a press release?   

This is the fuel behind Ms. Non’s idea. The quiet, yet implacable dignity of genuine, neighborly giving. It resonates because we were all taught that to give even when it hurts (not just out of excess) is real sacrifice. And when the rest of us see those who suffer most lead in the giving, we are reminded of those lessons and cannot help but emulate their example. 

Not all ideas have power. And yet Ms. Non’s had an irresistible charisma behind it. It moved with unmistakable force. And as her idea took root, the government’s reaction cemented its legitimacy. For within days, Ms. Non was tagged as a “communist” supporter, no thanks to insinuations made by the government’s “anti-communist task force.” An undersecretary chimed in saying that these pantries require permits, which led former SC Spokesperson Ted Te to tweet, “When did ‘helping each other’ require a permit?” One of the most pointed responses came from Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon, who tweeted that she would put up a community pantry at home and invite “fools” to make her get a permit. 

Despite the obvious inanity, the attacks intensified. That someone was obviously panicking became obvious when the trolls were unleashed. One after another, attacks on Ms. Non and her initiative came in a torrent of posts and memes – from being unsustainable, unwise, to being obviously political. It is as if someone at the top said, “Release the Kraken.” But it didn’t stick. The troll army was no match for an organic, grassroots movement. Instead, citizens made fun of trolls citing their own lines against them: “Puna kayo ng puna, tumulong na lang kayo.” 

Indeed, unlike previous years the attacks only ended up enhancing the legitimacy of Ms. Non’s idea. In one particularly amusing turn of events, an infamous undersecretary who first saw prominence as a “Leni supporter” before shifting gears attacked Ms. Non’s use of a fundraising site because it dealt in dollars. (Go figure.) The attack led to a surge in donations, allowing Ms. Non’s supporters to reach their target amount in record time. One celebrity reportedly even donated $2,000. 

In the area of free speech, the oppression of an idea is recognized as proof of its strength. After all, if you are secure in your premises, then you allow competing ideas to bloom. Oppression occurs when those in power feel threatened. And one when looks at Ms. Non, one wonders what is it in this lady that so threatens an entire government agency with billions in its budget? 

Which brings us back to V and his famous line. What can be so dangerous in Ms. Non’s idea of community giving? And is the strength of our Republic really so fragile, and its forces so paranoid, that a top general is threatened by acts of charity?

They say some of these pantries have protest signs. And what of it? We allow billions to be used by thick-faced politicians who plaster their names in every conceivable surface, but won’t allow citizens to gripe when using their own money? They say some personalities go to these pantries and blame the government for today’s suffering. Well, who would you have them blame then? Santa Claus? Because we certainly didn’t get here by accident. Ms. Non is a leftist? She doesn’t seem to be but so what if she is? She is feeding the hungry. The hungry do not care what “color” their food is packaged in. Rather than make her life miserable, why not just “out-give” her? Or as Senator Binay said, “Anong ambag 'nyo?” Indeed, the dogged insistence to “investigate” these citizens is befuddling. There is a flotilla of Chinese ships just off Palawan. The greater threat to the Republic lies there, not in people pooling their meager resources to feed one another.

Mayor Joy Belmonte of Quezon City gave a wise assessment of what role the government has in these community pantries: “Stay away.” Indeed, let the flowers bloom. Will they die off? Probably. No rose lasts forever. But in the single moment that these community pantries blossomed, the hungry got fed, and our citizens found some catharsis. For more than a year, we felt powerless in the face of a pandemic that the government has failed to contain. In these pantries, we reclaim our agency. We, as a people, see a chance to do something with meaning right in our backyard. Yes, it is a form of release and to some, a form of protest – and a harmless one at that. Because certainly, our form of government would survive a few pamphleteers and rallyists feeding the hungry. 

And that is why we should let these citizens be. There are few ideas greater than charity. It is the core of Christ’s gospel. It is the heart of every belief. And no self-respecting Filipino will see evil in the simple gesture of sharing. Tarnishing Ms. Non is pointless. While she lit the spark, it has taken a life of its own. One can deploy billions and bring (troll) armies to bear but, just like Mr. Creedy, one will only end up asking “Why, why won’t [it] die?!?”

Because Mr. Creedy, community pantries are bulletproof. – Rappler.com

John Molo is a commercial law litigator who enjoys reading and learning about the Constitution and its intersection with politics. He teaches Constitutional Law at UP Law-BGC, where he also chairs the Political Law Cluster of the Faculty. He is the President of the Harvard Law School Association of the Philippines, and a past Chairman of the IBP Law Journal. He led the team that sued the Aquino administration and invalidated the PDAF.

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