Photo courtesy of Fidel Nemenzo
Soon after we got off the bus, we heard the usual call, “Cultural! Cultural! Pumunta na kayo sa harap! (Cultural, get to the frontlines!)” The rally marshals were calling on cultural workers, a label applied to protest artists, to approach the makeshift stage. Peryante and Patatag inched our way toward the Welcome rotunda monument. As we approached the frontlines, I saw an alarming number of uniformed men already poised in anti-rally formation fronting the student protestors. Whether they were police or military – I couldn’t tell the difference. Despite their numbers, even more were jumping off trucks, several trucks, with their helmets, shields and truncheons. I quickly assessed the situation – why were there were too many police/military for a mere five thousand protestors?
Unknown to us then, a smaller group of protestors who arrived about an hour ahead of the UP contingent had already been subjected to water hoses and tear gas. That explained why the protestors’ ranks were in disarray. Peryante and Patatag were summoned to perform and help calm nerves so that the rally organizers could regroup their constituents. Members of the nego (negotiation) panel were at work – trying to appease the police/military commanders, begging them to allow the protestors to proceed with the rally. Mingling with the student leaders were high-profile personalities who were part of the nego panel – Butz Aquino, brother of Ninoy; Senator Lorenzo Tanada; human-rights lawyer Rene Saguisag; socialite Tingting Cojuangco, stage director Behn Cervantes, and newspaper publisher Chino Roces. Silently, I sighed with relief. The presence of high-profile personalities on the nego panel meant full press coverage; the media in attendance reduced the likelihood of a violent rally dispersal.
Virtually all forms of protest were still considered illegal in 1984. To stage a protest rally, its organizers were required to apply for a rally permit – which, after days of going through the bureaucratic procedures, was most often denied. But that never stopped the students, or labor, or farmers, or the middleclass office workers of Makati from organizing their mass actions. With or without a permit, protestors would gather and cordon off their rally site, set up their stage and banners, and proceed with their plans. The police, usually accompanied by the military, would always be present in their anti-riot gear. If the police moved in to disperse the rally, a negotiation panel – composed of the most “distinguished” attendees -- stepped up to alternately admonish, demand their right to protest, beg for a few more minutes to finish the program, and eventually, implore the police officers to just let the high school and college kids off, and send them quietly home to their parents. Our cue that the rally was over was when the national anthem, the Lupang Hinirang, was sung. At the anthem’s end, we were either going to be clobbered by the police or allowed to disperse orderly, unharmed. At times, under the threat of violence, the Lupang Hinirang was sung, repeatedly – surely even the police would respect the anthem enough for us to complete singing it before they mauled us. Rody Vera of Patatag recalls that at one rally, the anthem was sang five times, in increments, as the students, walking backwards, gradually distanced themselves from a phalanx of cops whose truncheons were raised in mid-air, waiting for the command to bash their heads. Relax, I told myself. For this particular rally, our nego panel certainly had clout; no harm could befall us.
All too suddenly, there was a scampering of feet; people in the front turned and were frantically pushing backwards. Instinctively, we ran, away from the Welcome rotunda and into Speaker Perez, one of the side streets close to the rotunda. After a few minutes, we heard the command, “Regroup!” Peryante and Patatag members joined about two hundred other protestors in the middle of the street waiting for instructions from rally marshals.
Shuk! Shuk! Sounds similar to popping open air-tight bottles came in succession. Tear gas canisters! I had never experienced tear gas before. My instincts had me groping my bag for my tubao, a large handwoven scarf, my only protection against tear gas. Although somehow the fumes never made it to our section.
“Nanay ko! Nanay ko!” Overcome by fear, Beth, one of the freshman applicants of Peryante was calling her absentee mother, and nervously pointing towards the rotunda. I looked up and followed her gaze. About 50 meters from us, an officer was barking orders to men in uniform who were carrying M16 rifles. Following his command, about ten men formed a line facing us. On cue, the men knelt on one knee while propping the other leg for balance… then they raised their rifles, positioned their fingers on the trigger, and aimed the guns directly at us. A firing squad!
A collective moan came from the students. Beth continued to call her mother.
“Naiihi ako! (I need to pee!)” cried one of the Peryante applicants. Unable to control her fear, she stood stiff, unable to run while she wet her pants.
“Takbo! Take care of your buddies!” admonished Chris, who pulled the immobile girl, half-carrying, half-dragging her away from the firing squad. Each one had a buddy – someone whose hand you held and never let go of during a dispersal. My buddy was Ces Millado, Chris’ youngest sister. A quick glance behind me confirmed that all of the Peryante members were together; there were several members of Patatag I didn’t see. At that point, none of us knew that Fidel had been hit.
“Tabi, tabi! May nasaktan! (Move aside! Someone’s hurt!)” yelled someone behind us. Instinctively we moved aside, still running as fast as the scrambling crowd would allow us. In horror we saw a man being carried past us, it took four men to carry him. “Nabaril, nabaril! (He’s been shot!)”
Instinctively we ran towards the residences that lined the street, pleading, “Tulungan n’yo kami! Pinagbabaril kami! (Help us! They are shooting at us!)” To our horror, the residents, in haste, sealed their gates shut. With our fists, we banged on gates, doors and store windows – no one would give us refuge.
Zing! Zing! I knew for a fact that the “zinging” sounds were bullets barely missing my face. The cops were in pursuit. Nonetheless, the students stayed together, with the rally marshals trying their best to guide us through the maze of streets. Had this been Malacanang or the University Belt area in Manila, I would have known how best to escape. But I was unfamiliar with the streets of Quezon City, and apparently, so were the rally marshals.
“Sa Sto. Domingo!” We were instructed to make our way toward Santo Domingo Church, a Dominican church were Ninoy Aquino’s wake was held. The Dominican priests had been supportive of the protest movement and had encouraged its own priests and seminarians to join rallies. With some two hundred protestors, my friends and I tried to make our way toward the church, but at each street corner, it seemed that a new phalanx of cops awaited us. The shooting continued.
It became obvious that the Quezon City side of the rotunda, including the side streets was teeming with cops. If we were to escape, we had to cross over into the Manila side, working our way through side streets and back alleys. We were to avoid the main thoroughfares like Quezon Boulevard which now resembled a war zone, empty except for military trucks with loads of reserve personnel.
“Stay together,” we cautioned one another. Though it was tempting to leave the scrambling mob of protestors, it was considered even more dangerous to “fall out” of the ranks, and be an easy prey for roaming police/military in plainclothes, eager to make arrests. It seemed that the police/military were extra prepared that day, anticipating all possible escape routes the protestors could take. At one point, we heard the “zing” of bullets meant for us though there were no cops in sight. Then someone pointed to the top of a small building and yelled, “Snipers!”
“What can we do?” said Ces, trying to hold back her tears as she held onto my hand.
“Let’s pray!” was the only response I could think of. Together we started mumbling, “Hail Mary, full of grace….” repeating the same line several times in succession as we continued to run.
“Shit! What comes after ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace’? ” Despite 12 years of Catholic school education, here I was forgetting the lines of the Hail Mary in our hour of greatest need!
It was close to 9:00 pm when our group staggered into the compound of the National Press Club, close to Jones Bridge in the heart of Manila. We had been running for almost four hours, covering some eight kilometers from Welcome rotunda.
At least two people were killed that day. One was a security guard who was at his post outside one of the office buildings close to the rotunda; another was a bystander – both were unable to scamper for safety when the shooting started. A bullet hit Fidel one centimeter from his spine as he ran, trying to distance himself from the firing squad at the rotunda and Speaker Perez Street. It punctured his right lung then traveled internally, piercing his liver twice before making its exit through his chest. Fidel survived, but not before surgery and four days in intensive care.
Several young men were seriously wounded when bullets pierced their knees and feet. They came from the urban poor communities - the community youth who formed the “defense unit” that served as a human buffer between the police/military protecting the student protestors. “Sa baba ang tira nila (They aimed low)” was how they described how they were shot at by the cops.
By the following week, I joined Peryante and Patatag back on the streets, performing at the next protest rally. The UP students too were unfazed, and the same call, “Sumama na kayo!” was chanted on campus, enticing both students and faculty to join the parliament of the streets. Defense units, still comprised of community youth and workers, valiantly used their bodies to shield others, and nego panels continued to alternately admonish, threaten, then beg the cops for clemency.
Unknown to us all, we were active participants in preparing the country for imminent insurrection.
(The above is an excerpt from the book "Subversive Lives: A family memoir of the Marcos Years, Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo (eds.), Anvil Press, 2012)