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Showdown

January 29, 2010

By Benjamin V. Afuang

Published in Sunday Times Magazine, February 22, 1970, p. 13

Night of Monday, January 26, was the night of the nighstick but Friday, January 30 was the evening of the bullet. Gunfire, which was absent Monday during the nightmarish clubbing of demonstrating students by the police around Congress, crackled and felled four kids four days later.

In the night-long violence, helmeted troopers, some fresh from stalking Commander Dante in Tarlac, and Metrocom soldiers chased rioting students with bullets and clubs on Mendiola street down to the C.M. Recto Avenue, climaxing a full day of demonstrations that began with the peaceful assembly of some 50,000 students and professors in front of Congress in the morning.

In the dawning 31st, Saturday, Manilans woke up to find the downtown area stripped of traffic lights, police outposts, and littered with broken glass, steel railings, pop bottles and rocks. It was a complete surprise that no one reported of having picked up a slug or an unlighted molotov on Mendiola, where up and down the bridge, a see-saw battle between the military, with their armalites, pistols and truncheons, and the studetns, with their molotov bombs, slingshots, and rocks, raged the night before.

It was a peaceful gathering of mostly National Union of Students of the Philippines members and university professors that stood and spoke in front of the legislative building that Friday morning. Yet it should have already shown the pattern drawn by Monday morning’s quiet and evening’s groan. For while one end of the extreme was for still, the other ranted for stir. Whereas some of the students at Congress decided to heed the call-off at about 2 in the afternoon, others opted to march to Freedom Park to join the student-labor groups now gathered in a smouldering mass in front of the palace.

The Storming of Gate 4

Coming in droves from Congress, the NUSP rallyists joined the composite of youths, some of the Movement for Democratic Philippines, some of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, some of the Kabataang Makabayan, a few from the labor groups, and many from Malayang Pagkakaisa ng Kabataang Pilipino and some splinter group of NUSP. The confederation swelled out of old Aviles and spilled into the side streets like San Rafael and Arlegui, down to Mendiola in front of Gate 4 of the palace. In no time the demonstrators built two bonfires, one in front of Gate 4, the other at Freedom Park near the main gate.

Inside the palace, meanwhile, the guards and the marines were getting nervous. Or so said STM photographer Tony Lopez and STM regulars Nancy Lu and Millet Martinez, who had stationed themselves near Gate 4. At the same time, near the main gate, photographers Doming Suba, Conrado Capuno and Doming Valenzuela noted some restless students picking up stones in some corner of the Freedom Park. Soon there was a hail of rocks, placards and angry words, and in the tumult, the round, white light bulbs at the gates went crashing down the pavement. Hordes of students then surged towards Gate 4, stoning the bulbs there that had been lit up earlier for the six-o’clock dark. The guards and the marines at Gate 4 readied their water hose.

The first wave of students who swarmed at Gate 4 was met with water—“tubig sa Pasig!” as one demonstrator, wet and wild, cried. The hose turned off a while, and a second wave of students came upon the gate, clambered up the fence. Rocks, pop bottles, sticks and pebbles from slingshots rained upon the guards inside. Someone from the madding crowd outside poured gasoline on the pavement and lit it. Water against all this, again and again, till a firetruck hove into view from the bend of Laurel street from Sta. Mesa, approaching St. Jude church.

Seven forty-five on STM’s watch, the firetruck was ambushed by students who had barricaded themselves at a side street near the church. The firemen fled in terror of the onrushing students. Some one hundred youths seized the truck and pushed it towards Gate 4. Tony Lopez said “it was like in a Hollywood western”—the boys who commandeered the truck were overwhelmingly cheered by their comrades. As the vehicle was being pushed, a group of demonstrators unfurled a red flag and waved it high above the crowd. Government intelligence agents are now saying, in the chaos some demonstrators were shouting “Mabuhay si Dante!”

The truck rolled towards the gate, slowly first, then, with full force of the pushing throng now shouting and cursing the Establishment, rammed through the gate.

The gate flung wide open, some 200 students were able to get inside, unfazed by the continuous gush of water from the guards’ hose. One of them poured gasoline on the front wheels of the truck and lit it but only a timid flame came up. It took more than two hours for the flames to eat it up.

President Marcos, fresh from meeting with a group of student leaders led by NUSP president Edgar Jopson in his office, stepped down from the palace and rushed out to the grounds in time for a view of the students gaining entry into the compound, burning a car and smashing other vehicles inside. A Major Ramos, in-charge of Gate 4 security, and Col. Fablan Ver, director of Malacañan security, were waiting for the President to give the order to shoot, and the President did order: “Shoot them with water and tear gas.”

They did. Moments later the students were driven out of the Malacañang compound amid the swishing sounds of water and gas, the crackle of firecrackers.

The time: about 10 p.m. After storming Malacañang, the demonstrators retreated and regrouped on Mendiola, which appeared, according to a student leader, to be a wider area for retreat. Wittingly or unwittingly, the students had made Mendiola a battleground between them and the troopers.

Meanwhile, the troopers, now reinforced by the MPD riot squads and the Task Force Lawin (which had come all the way from Camp Olivas) had massed at the corner of Laurel and Mendiola streets fronting Gate 4. From there, in a moment, a firetruck with blinding lights flanked by two six-by-six trucks filled with soldiers roared on towards the demonstrators. The trucks sent the demonstrators scurrying on both sides of Mendiola and spilling into C. M. Aguila, between San Beda and the College of Holy Spirit.

An eyewitness recalled that most of the demonstrators stood their ground, with only stones and iron bars in their hands. Pelting the advancing troops with stones and taunting them, the students momentarily held the troopers at bay.

An impulse apparently sent some of the troopers surging with their guns, and the bloody chase began. The anti-riot squads joined the troopers in collaring and clubbing the students who were too dazed to run. On the sidewalks troopers and cops pinned students on the concrete fence. Press photographers took shots of the mauling, and were in turn chased or roughed up. STM lensman Suba, taking shots of a student being bludgeoned, was socked in the face by a burly cop.

Then barked the guns. It was reported the soldiers fired shots in the air and not elsewhere in an effort to scare away the youths, but how explain the death of four students — Fernando Catabay, 19; Ricardo Alcantara, 19; Bernardo Tausa, 18; and Felicisimo Roldan, 21—and the gunshot wounds inflicted on scores during those riotous moments? The military has maintained stray bullets could have killed the four students.

More volleys rang out, and this time the demonstrators ran in several directions. Most of them ran for Mendiola bridge and down C. M. Recto and Legarda. Some, as they retreated, fell, rose, and limped away under bursts of gunfire. Others would run back from the bridge to retrieve the wounded. Many, feverish and angry and wild, would retrace their way in the dark to shout and throw stones at the charging troops. For about an hour, the troopers charged, retreated but charged again with their truncheons against the students who were just too many—about 20,000— and to steadfast to be easily driven away.

Under the bridge, in the filthy water some students had hidden, but were flushed out by club-wielding cops. Arrested during the Mendiola chase alone were about 200 students.

Where did all those molotovs come from? A witness said some retreating demonstrators from Mendiola bridge headed for the gas station in front of UE, opened the pumps there and filled their bottles with gasoline to fashion Molotov cocktails.

STM editor Rodolfo Tupas and artist Roddy Ragodon, who had positioned themselves at the student-occupied zone on Legarda near Recto and Mendiola, had a graphic picture of the student stampede down from the Mendiola bridge at eleven o’clock:

“While a jeep burned on corner Legarda and Recto, students hurled sticks and rocks at traffic lights and lamps on posts. Everytime a bulb would be hit, the students would shout in joy. Occasionally, troops on the bridge would fire their guns in the air and students and curious crowd would run but would later move back. A student of MLQ holding a stick was telling bystanders how many students were killed and how they hurled down Marcos calendars in the PNB branch on corner Recto and Legarda.

“At close to twelve, troopers fired successively in the air with tracer bullets, lighting the sky. Then all of a sudden, a high tension wire was hit and there was complete darkness. Some 2,000 students and bystanders started the stampede for safety. A new chase began and reached as far as the Quezon Boulevard over-underpass. It ended at about 1:30 in the morning.”#

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