Friday, January 30, 2009

FQS: MENDIOLA, JANUARY 30, 1970

I am posting this on a Friday, and I have just rediscovered, while re-reading my old article, that January 30, 1970, was also a Friday. Which means, of course, that January 26, 1970, was also a Monday.

The following piece, and my previous post on the January 26 confrontation, first appeared in the same issue of the Philippines Free Press (February 7, 1970). January 26, 1970, was a Monday, and my deadline was the following Monday, February 3. As usual, I was procrastinating and waiting for deadline day itself to finish my article. I therefore saw Friday, January 30, as a TGIF night, and I went with an officemate to a drinking session with his neighborhood barkada in Sta. Ana, Manila, where our drink of choice was probably the then-popular lethal concoction known as beergincoke—San Miguel Beer, Ginebra San Miguel, and Coca-Cola mixed in a plastic pitcher, drunk in tagay-tagay fashion.

Fortunately, I was not yet plastered when we heard over the radio that something was going on in the vicinity of Mendiola and Malacañang. Duty calls, I told my drinking mates, and stood up to go, but they insisted on coming along. We all piled into a taxicab that was willing to take us as close to the action as possible. We got off together, but when the military started its dispersal operation, we somehow found ourselves scampering off in different directions, and it wasn’t until several days later that we saw each other again for another drinking session.

That’s the crazy part that I decided not to include in my reportage. I didn’t think my editors would approve.



THE JANUARY 30 INSURRECTION


JANUARY 26 SEEMED EXPLOSIVE ENOUGH—but it was a whimper compared with the horrendous bang of January 30. The papers called January 26 a riot. January 30 was something else. “This is no longer a riot,” said a police officer. “This is an insurrection.” And the President called it a revolt—“a revolt by local Maoist Communists.”

January 26 was a Monday. On Tuesday, about 120 student leaders, representing thirty-six schools and at least a dozen national youth organizations, gathered at the Far Eastern University. NUSP President Edgar Jopson, of the Ateneo, presided over the three-hour meeting, during which a resolution was passed demanding the resignation of certain officials of law enforcement agencies, and Friday was set as the starting date of a series of rallies. While the students were conferring at the FEU, the President was in a huddle with law enforcement officials in Malacañang. He told them to be “more tolerant to the future leaders of the country,” and ordered them to drop the charges against the students arrested on January 26.

On Wednesday, Mayor Villegas announced that the Manila police would stay away from future demonstrations to avoid trouble, but that they would stand by, “within beck and call if violence erupts.” The NUSP and the National Students League rejected an invitation to meet with the President in Malacañang, saying they preferred to have the talks on Friday. Another group of student leaders went there anyway and heard the President say: “I personally do not want to have anything to do with the Constitutional Convention.” The Senate and the House of Representatives created a committee to investigate the “root causes of demonstrations in general.” The Manila police filed complaints of alarm and scandal against eighteen students caught in the battle of Burgos Drive. “The whole world is in ferment and youth is on the march,” said Brigadier General Vicente Raval of the Philippine Constabulary. “It is essential that, in our country, we take the greatest care in dealing with the problem.” He proposed the immediate acquisition of “nonlethal equipment” for the police and urged that they be re-trained in “the highly sensitive science of dealing with demonstrators.”

On Thursday, there were four groups of demonstrators. Students from the Philippine Normal College and members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines held separate rallies. Students from the University of the East gathered first at Malacañang, then moved on to Maharnilad, where trouble was avoided when a policeman whose jeep was stoned simply drove away without a fight. When the UE students left Malacañang, UP professors led by S. P. Lopez arrived and were angrily reprimanded by the President: “You yourselves are vague and confused about the issues you have raised against the government.” The President challenged any Communist in the group to a debate, and when a student leader accused him of using the army and the Special Forces in the elections, he asked: “Are you a Liberal?” Meanwhile, police reporters agreed to wear distinctive uniforms when covering demonstrations, to avoid being stoned by students and clobbered by cops.

And then it was Friday, January 30.

Again, there were simultaneous demonstrations. To Congress went members of the KM, the SDK, the MPKP, and other militant groups. The NUSP and the NSL marched on Malacañang.

At about three in the afternoon, Jopson, Portia Ilagan of the NSL, and other student leaders went into Malacañang for a meeting with the President.

Sometime past five, the rally at Congress came to an end, and the demonstrators marched on to Malacañang, arriving there at about six.

What specific event precipitated the battle that spread out to other parts of the city, and lasted till dawn the next day, may never be known. The students who came from Congress claim that, as they were approaching J.P. Laurel Street, they heard something that sounded like firecrackers going off. When they got to Malacañang, the crowd was getting to be unruly. It was growing dark, and the lamps on the Malacañang gates had not been turned on. There was a shout of “Sindihan ang ilaw! Sindihan ang ilaw!” Malacañang obliged, the lights went on, and then crash! a rock blasted out one of the lamps. One by one, the lights were put out by stones or sticks.

A commotion was now going on at the Mendiola gate of the Palace. A firetruck inside the Palace grounds advanced and trained its hoses on the student rebels. The students retreated, and a brief period of lull followed. At about seven, a truck from the Manila Fire Department, responding to an alarm, came up from Sta. Mesa, its sirens dead, and slowed down in front of St. Jude Church. The firemen probably intended to blast away at the students, but water must really be scarce. Nothing but an ineffectual sputtering spurt came out of their water cannon. The students charged, the truck backed off—but not fast enough. The firemen who were not quick to flee got beaten up.

The rebels now had a captured firetruck at their disposal. They drove it toward the Mendiola gate and used it as a battering ram of sorts until the locks gave way, the chains broke, and the gate clanked open. Into the breach surged the more daring demonstrators. They had apparently come prepared for the assault. They lobbed molotovs and pillboxes into the Palace grounds; the flames spread down the road when the molotovs crashed to the ground, the nails and broken pieces of glass scattered when the pillboxes exploded.

Once inside the gate, the rebels stoned the buildings and set fire to the truck and to a government car that happened to be parked nearby. Before they could wreak more havoc, however, the Presidential Guard Battalion came out in full force. They fired into the air and, when the rebs held their ground, fired tear gas bombs at them. The rebs retreated; the few who were slow on their feet, or were blinded by the tear gas, got caught on the Palace grounds and were beaten up with rifle butts and billy clubs and good old-fashioned fists and feet.

About this time, reinforcements from the constabulary arrived, later to be joined by the army, the navy, and the Metrocom. The pattern of the January 26 battle was repeated: the military would attack, the students would retreat; the students would counterattack, the military would draw back. At about nine, the soldiers had gained control of Mendiola and J.P. Laurel. The students were holding M. Aguila, Legarda, and Claro M. Recto; some had retreated down Arlegui and into Quiapo, where looters took advantage of the situation in the Lacson Underpass, breaking display windows and grabbing jewelry and shoes.

On M. Aguila, when I got there at about nine o’clock, the students were turning away all vehicles. The soldiers were at the corner of M. Aguila and Mendiola, and steadily advancing. The students held their ground, hurling rocks, until they heard the sound of rifles being cocked. Then they scattered, some jumping over high walls into the yards of houses, others being voluntarily let in by apartment dwellers. I fell in with a small group that took shelter at the mouth of a dark alley. A boy of about twelve, in slippers, obviously a resident of the place, said there was a way out if we wanted to take a chance. He guided us down the long dark winding alley, down narrow catwalks, past walls smelling of urine, past accesorias with crumbling facades, until we came out, to our surprise, on Claro M. Recto.

At the end of Recto, where it hits Legarda, the students were massed, tense, turbulent, flinging rocks and insults at the men in uniform—they looked like constabulary troopers—guarding the bridge that leads to Mendiola. In the center of the cross formed by Recto, Mendiola, and Legarda was a burning jeep, its flames a bright yellow curtain separating the combatants. From the left side of Legarda came more shouts; there were other demonstrators there, and the troopers had to guard the bridge against two armies of students, one attacking from the front, the other attacking from the side.

It was at this point, with the students closing in from Recto and Legarda, that the troopers started firing—rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, the sound of a Thompson submachine gun—into the ground. Dust and tiny pebbles exploded from the cement. Where I stood, two rows behind the front lines, I felt a sudden sharp stinging pain in my chest. I’m hit, I thought, when I saw spots of blood on my shirt front; but since I didn’t fall, I gingerly unbuttoned my shirt. Embedded right below my right nipple was an itty-bitty piece of cement. I carefully pulled it out and was examining it like a jeweler scrutinizing some precious gem from the moon when, before my eyes, there passed a student, supported by his comrades, one of his hands—the right, I think—now nothing more than a mess of blood and burning flesh, the fingers dangling like dead worms attached to his wrist only by a few threads of broken bones.

I was standing there in horror when another student, limping, fell into my arms. I recognized him to be one of the students who had come with us through the alley from M. Aguila. He had one wound on his right leg, below the knee, and another on the outer ankle bone. A bystander watching from the sidewalk helped me carry him up Claro M. Recto, where we found a white car—a Taunus, I think—whose owner was good enough to take us to the UE Memorial Hospital. There they treated my very minor wound, but they could do nothing, they said, for the boy who had been shot in the leg. We then took a taxi—the owner of the car had gone back to the battle scene, looking for some fraternity brods—and brought our ward to the Orthopedic Hospital. At that very moment, as bad luck would have it, a small fire was raging on one of the upper floors. The fire did something to the X-rays, and the interns had to put the wounded boy’s leg in a cast, unable to check if a bullet was in his system.

The doctors at the Orthopedic Hospital agreed to let the wounded student stay for the night, until his friends or relatives could be contacted; and the bystander who had helped me carry the boy now invited me to his apartment house in Sampaloc for coffee and conversation. It was about midnight. When we were near his place, we saw that Legarda was still in tumult. So we forgot all about the coffee, and off to the battlefield we went again.

The demonstrators had captured an army truck near the market, near a PNB branch, and a noisy debate on what to do with it was going on. Some wanted to push the truck into the line of Metrocom and army men down the road, but its wheels had been punctured, and this proved to be a difficult task. Others wanted to burn the truck down, and indeed someone threw a lighted match into the sheets of paper that had been dumped inside the truck. Another demonstrator, however, quickly jumped onto the truck and stomped out the fire; the houses were too close, he said, “huwag na nating idamay ’yong mga tao.”

While the debate continued, two more army trucks beamed their headlights on the demonstrators and started moving forward, followed by the soldiers. The students started throwing stones. Some toughies in the area who had come out to join the demonstrators used slingshots, but kept swearing under their breath because they had no stock of homemade arrows. “Metrocom!” went the shout. “Sumuko na kamo! Bato ini!” The soldiers kept advancing, and then they started firing with Thompsons into the ground. We all scattered, except for one boy who did not even flinch, and called on everybody to return. “Balik kayo, balik!” he cried. “Hindi magpapaputok nang deretso ’yan!” I don’t know what happened to him, because when another round of firing started, I found myself in another dark alley, with a new group of companions.

When I got out again, the army truck was gone, and the soldiers were back at the corner of Recto and Legarda. A long lull followed, about thirty minutes. Then the soldiers started to advance again, someone hurled a molotov cocktail at them, they charged, cocking their guns and following their quarries into dark alleys where, as before, demonstrators found doors being opened to them, or people at second-floor windows warning them with gestures about the presence of soldiers in alleys the demonstrators would enter. I somehow got separated from all my companions and found myself all alone under a kulahan, sitting on damp cement. The resident of an apartment house across the alley saw me and discreetly turned off his lights.

Quiet once more. I emerged from my hiding place and walked out into a street from which I could see the church on Earnshaw. There was a small group of students clustered at the door of an accesoria, talking animatedly, and I joined them. I was listening to them relate their experiences when, at the corner of Earnshaw and this street we were on, a squad of Metrocom men appeared. Everybody fled, except myself, two students, and the occupants of the accesoria, who worriedly told us to get in if we didn’t want to get hurt. In that dark, dingy, cramped accesoria, the two students and I stayed for a whole hour, seated on the steps of very narrow stairs, gulping down glasses and glasses of water, smoking, talking in whispers—“Rebolusyon na ito, brod,” they said—until the coast was clear.

It was three o’clock in the morning when we came out. Later that morning the papers said that four students, some of them nondemonstrators, had been killed: Feliciano Roldan of FEU, Ricardo Alcantara of UP, Fernando Catabay of MLQ, and Bernardo Tausa of Mapa High School. Almost 300 demonstrators and bystanders were arrested; most of them were detained at Camp Crame.

That night, the President appeared on television to inform the nation of the “premeditated attack on the government, an act of rebellion and subversion,” which the military had successfully repulsed. “The mob that attempted to burn Malacañang,” he said, “was not a mob of students, nor were they simply arsonists.” They waved red banners, carried the flag with the red field up, called the streets they occupied “liberated areas,” and shouted “Dante for President!” Therefore, said the President, “these were men dedicated to an evil purpose, and that is to destroy Malacañang Palace and/or take it over.” The plan to take over Malacañang, he went on, was hatched by either one or both of two groups—“one of them Communist-inspired and the other one not Communist-inspired.” Both groups were under surveillance.

To his nation, the President had a message: “Rest assured that the situation is under control. Rest assured that we will maintain peace and order. Malacañang Palace is well guarded, but more than this, the country and our government [are] well guarded. There is no takeover by any group of the military or of the civilian government. In the matter of the preparation of the plans of reaction against any attempt to take over this government, the action that will be taken will be well-studied, deliberate, cautious, and legal, and there will be no attempt to curtail constitutional freedom.”

To the “insurrectionary elements,” he gave warning: “Any attempt at the forcible overthrow of the government will be put down immediately. I will not tolerate nor will I allow Communists to take over.”

The same day, the nation learned that the retirement date of General Raval of the PC, which was supposed to be on February 1, had been postponed to April 1. The entire Armed Forces of the Philippines were on red alert.


From the book DAYS OF DISQUIET, NIGHTS OF RAGE, by Jose F. Lacaba
(New edition: Anvil Publishing, Manila, 2003. First edition: Salinlahi Publishing House, Manila 1982. Second printing: Asphodel Books, Manila, 1986.)

First published in the Philippines Free Press, 1970 February 7.

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