‘The attack was so sudden and violent’

/ 04:50 AM March 03, 2020

Last week, in a forum at Ateneo de Manila on the martial law experience, I was invited — together with an old friend from those very days, Chair Chito Gascon of the Commission on Human Rights — to provoke a discussion about memories and lessons.

I used my time first to tell a simple story, as a form of witnessing, and then to talk about martial rule as a system; that is, “a carefully built legalistic system, constructed to allow a small class of privileged capitalists and professional politicians to use a fatally compromised military, which at that time included the police force, to run the country for their private interest.” That system, and the comprehensive complicity of many leading Filipinos, including prominent Ateneans, caused the turmoil and the tragedy of martial law. But it is the stories out of that experience that we now seek to tell again, and with unquiet urgency. The story I told was simple, real, obscure, brutal — but limned with the possibility of grace:


On Sept. 21, 1984, about a hundred Ateneans joined a protest action against the Marcos regime in Mendiola …. Four of them were friends: one was a fresh graduate and a newly minted administrator in the university, two were seniors, one a junior.

Years later, one of the four would become a Jesuit priest (the administrator), two would become lawyers (the junior and one of the seniors), and one would become a journalist (the other senior) ….


That day, they took part in what would become the first overnight protest action since the assassination. But they did not in fact stay overnight. Exhausted, they decided to catch a few hours of sleep by going to a friend’s house … The plan was to go back very early in the morning.

On Sept. 22, at around 5 in the morning, they got ready to leave. Or three of them did. The other senior, who would become a journalist later in life, pleaded lack of sleep, and asked his friends to go back to the protest action in Mendiola without him.

Very soon after they arrived at the site, perhaps at a little past 6 in the morning, the police started to disperse the protesters. They were in the middle of prayer when they were attacked; as the Guidon reported: “The rallyists were saying the third decade of the rosary when they were bombarded by water cannons and attacked by truncheon-wielding policemen.”

The attack was so sudden and violent that the protesters panicked, and fled like a mob.

The administrator who would become a Jesuit tripped; before the crowd could engulf him, the senior who would become a lawyer went back and picked him up. But a policeman caught up with the senior, and struck him hard on the head. Later in the morning, after two friends brought him to the UP Infirmary, he found out that his wound would require six stitches. But during the dispersal, even as he bled, he continued running.

The two of them saw a nun surrounded by policemen with their truncheons raised, and they went to help her. One of the policemen struck the future Jesuit on the head; the truncheon, however, slipped from the policeman’s hand. Then something extraordinary happened: The future priest picked up the truncheon and gave it back to the startled policeman; after a pause, the policeman shouted at the two friends and the nun: “Tumakbo na kayo (Run)!”

The junior who would also become a lawyer was also chased down, and at some point stumbled. As he looked up, he saw a policeman with his truncheon raised, about to strike him. And here, another extraordinary thing happened. Perhaps immobilized by the temporary pity he may have felt when he saw the vulnerable face of the young man, the policeman stopped. For a long time afterward, the junior and his friends would joke that, at that particular moment, the policeman was doing an actual phenomenology of the face.


But another policeman, standing behind the junior, could not see his face, and hit him on the head. The junior, too, would require stitches.

When the senior who would become a journalist — that is to say, me — finally woke up … it was because his other friends were telling him the terrible news.

I wanted to start with this particular story, out of many that I could tell, in part because I am barely in it. While history happened, to us, personally, history is not really about us. Or, rather, it is about a larger us, and to understand it, and to shape it, require enlarging our sense of who we are: Our history includes the thousands who showed up in Mendiola, the hundred Ateneans who joined the rally, the four friends, the nun, the policemen with their truncheons, the devoted friends who brought the senior who would become a lawyer to the infirmary, even the reporter who wrote about the rally for the Guidon.

It is important to tell these stories, to show the violence of the martial law state, the brutal repression, the untold suffering it caused. But that violence, that brutality, that suffering, happened because martial law in the Marcos years was a system. It wasn’t something that occurred on a whim to a self-triggering president on medication.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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