“Ser, towel ba, towel?” and other People’s SONA sidelights

fringes-logoBy DEE AYROSO
Bulatlat.com

After the coverage of the People’s SONA on July 28, other Bulatlat staff writers and I were crossing a catwalk over Commonwealth avenue when, on the Philcoa-bound side, we saw at least a truckload of armed men in fatigue uniform, accentuating the long, blue files of police lining the length of the road. Two tall, rifle-toting men in fatigue were already in front of us, and one had raised a hand to stop us. As I looked down, I saw at least five cars with two or more motorcycle traffic policemen, silently speeding past. The cars had blinking, red beacon lights on top, but no sirens blared. It’s the “wangwang-less” presidential convoy coming through.

“Why is he stopping us?” asked a skinny, towel vendor with a big, bulky plastic bag slung over his shoulders, apparently peeved.

“President Aquino’s passing through,” I answered. The skinny guy muttered through his breath, and as soon as the two armed men were out of hearing, the vendor began to curse as he trudged on. Janess asked the man what he thought about the president delivering his SONA, and the man answered mainly with expletives. The towel vendor was still cursing when we got to the bottom of the steps, where there stood the commanding presence of at least 100 police men and women.

“Ser, towel ba, towel?” the vendor said, in the sweetest manner, a complete turnabout from his angry cursing, as he offered an armful of towels to the blue-colored phalanx.

Then the skinny man turned sideways to us, smiled and said, “Sabay ganon, e.” We all walked past the police line, trying to keep our laughter in.

It was clear to the vendor that he can’t curse the government in front of the uniformed state forces, but he could be candid with us, complete strangers, whom he assumed were burdened with the same problems, and like him, were walking out of the ranks of the SONA protesters on the other side.

The towel vendor was not simply angry, he was charged. But who wouldn’t be, after a day of absorbing the vibes from a gathering of thousands united for a common cause. As one activist had put it, joining rallies is like taking vitamins, getting a boost of energy, even getting high. Indeed, a protest action is the place to express your anger, grief, and yes, even get love and happiness.

Because red-letter-day rallies, such as the SONA, is like going to a big party, a fair, a rock concert, a family reunion, an art exhibit, a convention – it’s all of those things rolled into one.

It’s a venue to catch up with old friends. (I had hoped to see a friend whom I last saw in UP heading to a SONA protest 20 years ago. Tough luck on that, though.) It’s a common thing to see people being surprised, hugging each other, being reunited after so many years. I saw a young, green-haired Fil-American, who was looking for activists he had met two years ago. He said he couldn’t find anyone, but it was okay because he saw lots of cute guys. (I used to do that, decades ago, too.)

There was Chikoy Pura of the Jerks, whose performance of “Sayaw sa Bubog” and “Rage” sent people rushing forward, to sing, bounce, and dance. Even the catwalks in front of Ever Gotesco were filled to the brim with people, mostly passers-by, tapping fingers and swinging to the beat as The Jerks performed. Of course when Datu’s Tribe came on stage, for a split-second I wondered what I was doing at a noisy, younger crowd’s concert.

Even the police, who had to endure a day’s worth of idleness, probably appreciated the sounds, beat and even the lambasting from the side of the protesters. When Tinay Palabay of Karapatan condemned the government’s misuse of people’s taxes, she sideswiped the men in blue: “Our taxes, which pays these morons (she said “mga gunggong”) police men who are watching us today” she called out to them, and many – from both police and the crowd – snickered. Well, even the police can’t deny what Tinay said next: the cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and illegal arrests, perpetrated by state security forces.

At the end of the speeches came the time for protesters to confront the cement barriers and concertina wires, at the risk of romancing a police truncheon and incurring a skull or bone fracture. Unlike in the past SONA, the cement barriers and steel railings were piled in several rows, and as soon as the first barriers were moved, the police water cannons got busy. The first blast was greeted with “boo” and “Where’s the fire? Aren’t you supposed to conserve water?” Then, more pink water came flowing, not just from the front, but also from the left side, and generously flowed all around, drenching the crowd. Some women protesters near me were soaked, but instead of getting pissed, they were laughing; one took out a comb and started combing her hair. After the hose sputtered and stopped, the crowd jeered, and chanted: “Noynoy Aquino, patalsikin sa pwesto!”

It took a few more minutes before everyone, protesters and police alike, arrived at the decision that that’s that. A robot-like voice blared something about assuming position, apparently a police commander ordering the troops through a sound system. The public address system on top of Bayan-Southern Tagalog’s mobile stage answered back: “Okay na, ser, uuwi na kami. Makakapagpahinga na kayo!” As the crowd retreated, pink water flowed on the pavement, and the wet women protesters, shouted jokingly at the anti-riot ranks: “Ser, nabitin kami sa tubig!”

For the religious, it’s going to the Nazareno procession. For the sports fan, it’s going to the UAAP/NCAA/PBA games. For the social and financially able, it’s going to a big party or concert. For the socially-aware, it’s the SONA protest. For it is in rallies like these that different people commune and drink from the same cup – the cup of trust in their collective strength, of pride in the gains from decades of struggle, of hope for a better future.

The towel vendor was there to sell towels, the urban poor were there to assert their right to housing, the workers were protesting contractualization and low wages, the indigenous peoples were losing their ancestral homes, the teachers need salary upgrade, the families of victims of human rights violations need justice. Each had a different story of struggle to tell, a different reason to be there. But the big difference between the towel vendor and the protesters is that the latter have their organizations, and it is through these units that they are working to solve their problems, fight for their rights, and change society. They may have carried different placards and banners, but they were holding up the same trust, pride, and hope in the people’s movement.

Even after the tarpaulins were folded, the placards collected in their vehicles, many protesters still stood around, just talking, reluctant to leave. When they do, they will be going back to their communities, return to face the threats to their homes, livelihood and lives. But they will be more invigorated to carry out the daily tasks in the struggle, more confident of winning both the smaller, current battles and the final one in the distant future.

The sun was still out, there were no bones fractured, the medic vehicle was empty, and no one was arrested from the Gotesco protesters. (We later learned that police arrested two and used Taser gun on two others, including a child.)

I was almost as high and fired-up like the towel vendor. But then I got home and heard the state of Aquino’s nation. ()

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