A symbolic attack | Inquirer Opinion
Hints and Symbols

A symbolic attack

/ 04:25 AM March 28, 2022

This week, two independent local bookstores were defaced with red graffiti. The vandalism read “NPA Terrorista” on the storefront of Popular Bookstore in Quezon City, and later Solidaridad bookshop in Manila reported the barely-legible “NPA” spray-painted on their sign.

Publishers, booksellers, authors, readers, and groups have expressed their dismay more eloquently than I can. They have emphasized how the independent bookstores have played an important role in the civic life of their communities for decades, and decried the Red-tagging and its consequences. I offer my sympathy and my outrage as a quiet patron of Solidaridad during the nine years I spent in the University of the Philippines Manila. It was to me and others a place to explore Filipiniana and other worlds of thought, and an oasis of the humanities in an academic culture so heavily focused on the sciences.


There is some irony that the defacement happened in the same week as Lorraine Badoy, NTF-Elcac spokesperson, declaring that “there’s no such thing as Red-tagging.” This comes after the recent arrest of Dr. Naty Castro and the killings of “lumad” volunteers, the New Bataan 5, all of whom were tagged as communist sympathizers. It will also be remembered that Badoy herself has accused the Vice President of conspiring with communist rebels. Badoy has also repeatedly said that Red-tagging is not dangerous, despite the fact that Red-tagging has obviously had deadly consequences for some accused. Given the incidents involving Solidaridad and Popular Bookstore, the bright red spray paint should show that Red-tagging is alive and well.

While many incidents of Red-tagging are equally baseless and malicious, the Red-tagging of bookstores holds a particular and worrying significance. When books and other avenues for free speech and independent thought are demonized, one feels the threat against the exercise of freedom that is at the heart of culture and critical thinking.


The reader should remember incidents in late 2021 of so-called “subversive” books being pulled out of state libraries, which drew criticism and which were likened to the practice of book-burning for censorship. Done ostensibly to protect the youth from an insidious leftist agenda, the act of removing books from libraries was called out by other universities as a violation of academic freedom.

Bookstores, particularly independent ones, have long been safe spaces for the exchange of ideas and constructive dialogue. Both Solidaridad and Popular Bookstore, like many others, carry books of diverse, and even opposing, ideas; indeed such places would be the first to reject the idea of homogeneity, or of any ideology being superior to all.

While books are available online and on digital platforms, and thus can be safely downloaded at home, bookstores and libraries provide other functions essential to communities. They are public spaces where people can gather, not to foment sedition but to exchange ideas. They are spaces where one can see side by side books—and people, too—espousing different ideologies and coexisting. Solidaridad, for one, has played host to many such debates and gatherings among those of different political beliefs.

Bookstores are places for readers to explore their own humanity. Art contextualizes the struggles of individuals and communities. By providing a window into the experiences of others, art allows the dismantling of stereotypes and combats the false narratives created to paint marginalized groups as enemies. A reader in search of literature should be free to explore these windows accordingly, without fear of being tagged as subversive.

The Book Development Association of the Philippines writes in its statement about the defacement that the two bookstores support “local authors of all political color and belief.” To paint these cultural centers as a front for subversive activities is unjust and incorrect. The incident is the latest in the “worrying pattern” described in a recent column (“A worrying pattern,” 3/14/22) and makes it more urgent than ever that Red-tagging as a practice should cease. The targeting harms not only the bookstores, their operators, and their clientele, but is a pointed and symbolic attack on free thought and dialogue.

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TAGS: bookstore vandalism, Hints and Symbols, Kay Rivera, Lorraine Badoy, Popular Bookstore, red-ragging, Solidaridad, symbolic attack
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