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Power to the people

It seemed predictable that the police, or any other member of the state apparat, would bear down on the Maginhawa community pantry. The little self-help project that demonstrated how easily a “powerful idea” could capture the public imagination is nothing short of phenomenal. Imagine it continuing to replicate itself nationwide, fueled by galloping joblessness and the raging pandemic, as well as the growing realization among the people that their very survival now rests in their own hands. Imagine the power it will claim—and convey.

State minions who grudgingly recognize the strength that Ana Patricia Non’s pioneering project represents must tread carefully lest they set a fire they may find difficult to extinguish. People are hungry and, as has been pointed out, “desperate.” More than P83.3 billion in income has been lost during the past five weeks of lockdown, according to the National Economic and Development Authority. The very air is flammable.

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“Patreng“ Non was correct to make the pained decision Monday night to pause operations of Maginhawa on what would have been its seventh day because of the actions of certain police officers that she found threatening to her and her volunteers’ personal safety. Who knew, after all, what the online red-tagging of the community effort could result in? The “Bloody Sunday” killing of nine red-tagged activists in simultaneous police raids in Calabarzon in March, which appalled the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is unforgettable.

And there was the intimidation early on of the group that set up a small community pantry in Pandacan, Manila, which again displayed the dangerous mindset that made the recent killing of two curfew violators possible. What need was there to interrogate the organizers and their donors, and to compel them to fill out forms specifying their personal details, if not to instill fear? And what was the point of police closing down a community pantry on Matatag Street in Quezon City, if not to harass? (They reopened it shortly.)

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That Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has ordered that organizers of community pantries be “left alone” to operate without government interference is commendable and necessary. It is incumbent upon him and other high officials to rein in their men’s enthusiasm to impose petty power on citizens low in the pecking order. His undersecretary, Martin Diño, seemed to relish announcing a preposterous idea — that a permit was needed to set up a community pantry — but was mercifully quick to take it back. Diño does nothing to burnish the image of the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte’s swift assurance of support for community pantries established in her turf was equally commendable. It is important for city officials like herself to ensure the protection of Patreng Non and other pantry organizers against red-taggers and shadowy forces who give the government a bad name when it needs so badly to reinvent itself for the better.

And why block private-sector efforts to help the teeming impoverished that the paltry “ayuda” cannot save? As the organizers will attest, it’s difficult enough to ensure sufficient supplies for everyone, such as folks who traveled from Montalban, Rizal, by jeepney and on foot to (just barely) get their share of rice that they had heard was being given away somewhere in UP Village, Quezon City. Difficult enough to manage the crowds queueing before sunrise to get food to eat. Difficult enough to restrain those who, while obviously not in dire need, help themselves to the donations without thought of others in line.

Policemen had been helping manage the crowds converging on Maginhawa, and also partaking of the generosity of others, according to Patreng Non. Which was why it was hard to see why she and her volunteers would be so exposed to the perils of red-tagging. Both donors and recipients are being saved by the community pantries that have sprung up nationwide; surely they will resist the endangerment of these oases.

Still this humanitarian project is enduring, despite Maginhawa’s momentary disruption, by the grace of farmers who send their produce, fishers who bring their catch, and private citizens who unload their gifts anonymously. And the tricycle drivers who repack rice and help maintain order, the man who slices the ginger into small pieces to benefit a bigger number, the women joggers who stop to help arrange string beans in neat clumps…

Unity is key, Patreng Non said. It’s a rallying cry to protect this powerful idea whose time has come.

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TAGS: Ana Patricia Non, People Power, Rosario A. Garcellano on community pantries
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