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The Night of the Truncheons

January 25, 2010

These two articles by Nancy T. Lu and Ernesto Macatuno, appeared in Sunday Times Magazine, February 15, 1970, p. 15

1 – By Nancy T. Lu

Hell broke loose Monday, January 26, 1970.

As the First Couple were coming out of Congress the restive placard-carrying students surged forward. All of a sudden a cardboard coffin and a crocodile were hurled in the direction of the presidential limousine. The anti-riot squad strategically situated pushed back the crowd. At the same time the coffin was thrown back at the students. Before anybody could duck, placard handles, bottles, and stones started flying in the air.

It just happened. Thus, began a free-for-all that turned out to be one bloody traumatic mess many will long remember.

Even as confusion broke out the security of the First Couple was not neglected. In fact the pair was whisked away from the scene of turmoil in no time at all.

But when the presidential limousine finally made good its exit the anti-rioters descended on the defenseless students. They swung their truncheons with abandon. In the melee that ensued many scampered for cover and safety. Some enraged students fought back angrily.

What apparently infuriated the unarmed demonstrators was the sight of truncheon-swinging policemen removing their nameplates before rushing at the students. As one accusing student leader pointed out later, the mere act of removing the name tags before proceeding to carry out a presupposed function and duty by itself was fraught with malice. Many witnesses could only chorus in agreement.

At the outset the National Union of Students of the Philippines spearheaded a peaceful mammoth rally in front of Congress to urge the holding of a non-partisan Constitutional Convention in 1971. The NUSP leaders led by Edgar Jopson meant to take advantage of the fact that all the solons would be present during the joint session on that fateful Monday President Marcos was to deliver his State-of-the-Nation address.

That the rally proved to be the biggest turnout in years is not debatable. Schools which used to shy away from demonstrations showed up in overwhelming numbers. For once the issue the students were agitating for held so much meaning to the idealistic young who realized that the fate of the nation rests on the outcome of the coming Constitutional Convention.

But after Monday night’s bloodbath attention began to be directed elsewhere. Cries of police brutality were heard left and right. Some NUSP leaders expressed alarm over how the main issue could easily be drowned out by other immediate issues. Their main concern now would be to relate the issues to each other.

Even among the ranks of the NUSP student leaders no agreement could be arrived at as to who really was responsible for the riot. However, immediately after the incident NUSP president Edward Jopson made a statement to the effect that the students did not start the riot that caused scores to to be hurt. The gory rampage which involved innocent bystanders erupted minutes after Jopson announced the end of the rally. The participating student activists were asked to disband which they did. Otherwise more could have been injured in the scuffle.

Immediately after the riot the indignant public lashed out in condemnation of police brutality. At the same time, however, the news reports insinuated that the students were just as responsible.

During the initial meeting of NUSP student leaders at Far Eastern University those present decided to reassess the NUSP stand on the matter.

A number of students proposed to meet force with force. They suggested that students should arm themselves during future demonstrations so that they can defend themselves should the riot squad resort to overkill tactics.

The group gathered that Tuesday afternoon was a picture of wrath as the lambasted the Special Forces. They readily demanded the ouster of Manila Police Chief Gerardo Tamayo and his deputy James Barbers. At one point they became so emotional over what happened to their colleagues particularly the injured and the arrested that they were demanding the suspension of all high-ranking officials. But just as quickly they were checked by the level-headed few who rationalized that for effect and impact they should confine themselves to taking action against those directly responsible only.

Not all the students tried to steer clear of responsibility. Some of the students reminded the group assembled that there really were some student provocateurs who infiltrated an otherwise peaceful affair. They refused, however, to be specific as to whom they were referring to.

Amid blatant protests of insensate police violence the concerned young militants continued to threaten to stage more demonstrations. Instead of cowering in fear the student activists became even more enthusiastic in mapping out their protest strategy. Even the girls who were not spared by the indiscriminate anti-riot squad that went berserk could not be discouraged from joining future rallies.

The violent outbreak that attended the January 26th movement undoubtedly left its ugly scars although various furious sectors have started thorough investigations of the deplorable spectacle that could have been averted. In the meantime public opinion pressured the authorities into taking positive measures to prevent the occurrence of more scandalous clashes manifesting mindless anarchy. At this point the national studentry— the youth in general — is even more committed than ever in sounding out a warning to their elders that their voice, now more than ever, will not be suppressed.

***

2 – “The police acted correctly and properly” — Villegas

By Ernesto Macatuno

Not even enough, was the reaction of the police and Maharnilad officials to the charge that the police overdid their law enforcing during the Jan. 26 student and labor demo at the premises of Congress. In other words, the next time there’ll be a demo, the police would be carrying—and swinging—not only rattan truncheons, but something more hurting: tear gas.

Why so?

Scores of demo people got hurt in the “riot” that was the Jan. 26 demo. Two hours after the start, when President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos were pelted with rocks, glass and placard handles just when they were about to board their car, the police and demo people were still at it. The 1,000-odd police and the Metrocom detachment pushed, kicked, socked and swung clubs; the students cursed, howled and stoned back.

Looking at the ledger later showed the students, in number of victims, on the debit side. The police had some wounded. Which to the police, should not be so. This was the first Philippine demo that quite a number of police got hurt, 33 reported. That’s what got their ire. Plus the fact that it was the students, they said, who started the violence.

“We could not just stand there and take it,” Manila Police Chief Gerardo Tamayo said. “The police had not only the right but the duty to defend themselves, for in doing this, we were upholding the primacy of law and order over the students’ wants and grievances, no matter how valid these grievances are.

“On top of this, we had to protect the President and the First Lady from harm, which could only be the intention of the demonstrators when they started throwing at the First Couple stones, pop bottles and placard handles.”

From Mayor Antonio Villegas’ point of view, “the police acted correctly and properly in quelling the riot.

“I granted the students a permit to demonstrate in front of Congress so long as it was a peaceful and therefore legal assembly. But when they started stoning the police, that assembly was already illegal and therefore the demonstrators should be arrested.

“The police cannot just be sitting ducks. When the police are attacked, they can take counter-offensive steps even if these mean hurting, maiming and killing the attackers, as in the case with the student demonstrators.”

Feeling that the police were too “soft” on the demonstrators—“for after all they used only batutang yantokVillegas had ordered the use of tear gas in quelling other demons in the city.

“The police had been blamed enough for the violence that accompanied the demonstration,” Villegas said, “I was even attacked by Pelaez who said that the presence of the Manila police in the area created the tension that led to the riot. I’m thinking of pulling the police from such demonstrations and let officials like Pelaez protect themselves from these demonstrators. I will just wait for their call and, who knows, by the time we get there, tapos na rin sila (they themselves have been finished).”

Hence, the police felt just as aggrieved as the students over what they got in the demonstration. The students got socked and kicked and truncheoned. The police got clobbered days after when the press and the public hit them for “brutality.” Which, the police said, they did not deserve.

“The riot,” Tamayo said, “started when the demonstrators stoned the First Couple. Had we not formed a phalanx to contain the demonstrators, they would have been emboldened and assaulted the presidential car, overturned it and set it into flames.”

The stoning of the First Couple was followed by a brief lull, then the clash began when the police and Metrocom in formation, pushed towards the demonstrators.

Unnecessary

What is significant, therefore, in the clashes that accompanied the demonstration was that they happened after the First Couple had left. The objects of protection were no longer around. The police did not have to go after the demonstrators except to arrest those few who stoned the First Couple.

Some policemen, instead of merely arresting the erring demonstrators, made this routinary police duty just a bit more dramatic by clubbing and kicking those they were after. In fact, following the arrest orders, for some policemen, became so thrilling that they went on with it for two hours, long after the “riot” had died down. Because some of the demonstrators fought back, the police said. So the rattan truncheons went on swinging; the fire trucks forgotten, the high-pressured water that could have dispersed the demonstrators and cooled heads remained useless, cooped up in the tanks in that savage, volatile night.#

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