Today Focus: Between the Barricades

TODAY Newspaper, Focus Section
January 28, 2001
Between the barricades
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Photos by Jose B. Diego

JANUARY 18 was supposed to be the day when a million Filipinos would march on Malacañang Palace and surround it, and hopefully, convince its tenant to resign if not evict him outright. But word began to filter out that neither Cory nor Cardinal Sin wanted the march to push through. There were too many young people at the Edsa shrine; too many youngsters eager to be heroes, but too inexperienced to face the possible consequences of squaring off with a PSG already preparing its arms; the march was, to avoid widespread disappointment, announced as having been “postponed.” The 11 am assembly preparatory to the march, we were told, early in the morning, was being called off in order to await delegations expected to arrive from the provinces. But other plans were afoot.

From the 16th to the early hours of the morning of the 18th, I’d gone to the shrine night after night to shout with the rest, then come home to get some sleep and crank out editorials and columns; with the march called off on the 18th, I looked forward to some rest before returning to Edsa for a scheduled Mass at 5 pm on the 19th. It was while resting at home that I saw, on television, the sudden collapse of the Estrada government and the strange defection of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It was less of a defection that a carefully stage-managed balancing act. Angelo Reyes, AFP Chief of Staff, appeared on television to say that while he thought Joseph Estrada was “a good President,” the AFP was, anyway, joining the side of the people and withdrawing its support from its commander-in-chief. Nothing more, nothing less.
This announcement, more along the lines of a publicity stunt than a courageous and firm stand, certainly relieved the public; there was widespread jubilation –even Satur Ocampo, noted Communist, clapped, perhaps one of the few times in his life that he has applauded the military. ABS-CBN had already shown footage of helicopter gunships on the tarmac at Villamor airbase and tanks lurking between buildings in Fort Bonifacio: at the very least it seemed the sword of war, if not exactly returned to its sheath, would not be used against the people.

It was at that point, with the AFP’s top brass having gingerly tiptoed to the side of the people at Edsa, that I returned to Edsa to hear the crowd roar with delight as Johnny-come-lately after Johnny-come-lately was proclaimed as having suddenly seen the light and, to prove it, was appearing on the stage of the Edsa shrine to be caught in the light of the cameras. Even in revolutionary times, our politicians follow Filipino time. Always late, but somehow, they manage to show up. If a conscience and love of country won’t move your heart, the fear of missing out on a historic photo opportunity will: this thought occurred to me as I saw suddenly-resigned Interior Secretary Fred Lim’s familiar white hair, and again, the same thought occurred to me much later, when I heard the crowd on the steps of the shrine booing and jeering Robert Jaworski (one of the 11 notorious senators’ whose refusal to let the evidence be opened sent us into the streets and aborted the impeachment trial in the first place) who tried to show up, only to be hooted at. Served him right.

But between seeing Lim and hearing Jaworski being yelled at to go home, together with a friend, I was able to hear the Cardinal’s prayer and Cory’s speech; confetti was raining down from every flyover. Never had the crowd been so dense. But after a few hours, it was nothing but speeches. We circled the shrine; I saw Mar Roxas, who had resigned over the corruption in the government months ago, shyly lurking in a corner of the chapel seemingly embarrassed to be associated with those who were only climbing on to the bandwagon now.

I shook my head and told my friend we needed food. With other members of the bourgeoisie, Jay and I headed to Ortigas to get some food. In the restaurant, two televisions were on; Joseph Estrada appeared on TV to announce he was calling for a “snap” election in which he would not run. Too little, too late. Footage on television also showed the scorpion tanks of the Presidential Security Group revving up, and the heavily-armed members of the PSG themselves, both in the sort of urban camouflage we hadn’t seen since the coup attempt of 1989, preparing to defend the man who was still President. We headed back to Edsa; the speeches had given way to dancing and music. I told my friend, “the action will be at the Palace, I want to see what’s going to happen.” And so to the Palace we went –or as close to it as we could possibly get.
At first we headed to Mendiola, saw a small stage, and decided that the press pass on my car was an invitation for trouble. The place to be, I felt, would be JP Laurel street. That is where we headed; spotting a GMA network pick up truck, I parked my car in front of it and proceeded to cross the street where two very large GMA mobile vans were parked. Every few minutes ABS-CBN pick-ups and mobile vans would zoom by; several pickups from radio stations reconnoitered the area more cautiously. I kibitzed with the kind people from GMA.

It was already about 11:00 pm by then. Word was that Estrada was holed up in the Palace with, depending on whom you talked to, a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label, presidential buddy and thug Baby Asistio, notorious senator and martial law mastermind Juan Ponce Enrile, and Executive Secretary Ed Angara, all of the above, some of the above, none of the above. The GMA crew in one of the mobile studio vans monitored channels 2 and 7; their colleagues ate instant noodles and other napped on chairs; then came news that Nani Perez and others were headed to the Palace to parley with the President.

“Looks like he’s getting ready to leave,” I told Jay. “Let’s stick around to see if he’s going to leave by chopper or if we’ll witness the last motorcade of his presidency.”

Shortly after midnight a source called me and told me the talks had broken down because Gen. Angelo Reyes, so recently the man who was proclaimed a hero even though he had said he still thought Estrada was a good president, had made certain commitments to Estrada that were unacceptable to the opposition. I talked to someone in charge of the GMA crew and asked for independent confirmation of the call I received; after a few minutes, the lady came back and said yes, their reporter within the Palace confirmed what had happened. Meanwhile, the radio stations announced that the opposition delegation had left the Palace but there was no news of whether talks had been fruitful or not.

By 1pm everyone knew the talks had broken down and that Estrada wanted five to seven more days to do something that did not seem to include signing a letter of resignation. The GMA reporters and I talked things over; the man in Malacañang showed no signs of leaving. “This means people are going to march, isn’t it?” I asked them. They agreed; the opposition had given Estrada until 6 am to step down, or the march would push on as was originally planned the day before.

Around half past one, the PSG soldiers manning the already barricaded JP Laurel gate had increased from a couple to four or five; an hour earlier we’d tried to get through, but had been politely refused entry; a couple of foreign journalists now tried doing the same thing and were told to get lost. I sat on the sidewalk, listening to the radio.

The evacuation of San Miguel’s residents began. Cars of homeowners from the neighborhood of Malacañang trying to exit were turned back from the JP Laurel gate; fifteen minutes later small groups of people carrying suitcases and plastic bags began walking out. You could, apparently, leave the Palace perimeter on foot. An old woman, carrying two big bags was helped along by two young men: this must have been her umpteenth evacuation since the war. A little while later some vans and a Tamaraw FX taxi or two arrived outside the JP Laurel gate, and families trickled out from the vicinity of the Palace. By this time Jay and I had been joined by a Chinese Filipino who lived in the San Miguel neighborhood but who couldn’t get back home because his car wasn’t allowed to enter the restricted area that his neighborhood had become. He waved goodbye to his departing neighbors.

It turned out he’d just arrived from Edsa. I asked why he’d gone to Edsa: “I went,” he told me, matter of factly, “because I was ashamed of what the senators did, and I want to live in a country where I don’t have to bribe the Bureau of Internal Revenue to keep my business going.” He explained that he had to pay off the BIR so much he couldn’t even give his employees a raise. “I think this is the country’s last chance. If things don’t change, even my people want to go abroad, and I’d want to go abroad.” He called his wife on his cellphone and told her he wasn’t allowed back in, and for her not to worry. He would become our companion for the rest of the day.
Around 2:30 in the morning, starving, Jay and I had breakfast in the Goodah! at the corner of Adela and JP Laurel. A sour-faced, rather pale Filipino was sitting at the counter, listening to a portable AM radio while his rather more pleasant-looking Chinese Filipino looking companion idly leafed though a copy of the Bulletin. “Are people going to push through with the march,” I asked, referring to the 6am deadline given by the opposition to Estrada. The man harrumphed and replied that he didn’t know what was taking everyone so long, they should have begun marching the moment news that the negotiations had failed had been broadcast.

A roly-poly Chinese Filipino and his girlfriend were on another side of the counter, enthusiastically having breakfast with a mestizo friend. After everyone had eaten, we all crossed the street and stood around a lamp-post staring at the JP Laurel PSG checkpoint bristling barbed wire. The mestizo, in between amused “coños” and other expletives speculated Estrada was drunk as a skunk; the rest debated on what to do. Should they wait for the crowd? One bystander agonized that he had an important business meeting in Makati. “Puta!'” exclaimed the mestizo, “I’m not going to any meetings, this is history!” But within twenty minutes they had all left; some said they would head to Mendiola; the others didn’t explain where they were going. An overweight, extremely dark man sporting a Lakas-NUCD Secretariat Badge materialized and accosted me, demanding to know what was happening. I told him what I’d heard on the radio: talks had failed; some people had already begun to march toward Malacañang; the rest would march after mass at 6 am; he inquired about the PSG. I pointed at the PSG checkpoint and informed him they weren’t allowing journalists through. “Aha,” he snorted; “I-psy-psywar ko sila.” He waddled over to the PSG, shook their hands, and, I suppose, did his best to do psy-war ops in the best tradition of the leadership of Lakas. Then he waddled over to the GMA crew, and then waddled out of sight. It was now 3:30 a.m.

Expecting an assault on a presidential palace is like waiting for an invasion to begin; it involves one part adrenaline to three parts boredom and fatigue. Jay went off to take a nap in the car (after we’d moved it, for safety’s sake, to a small side street). I engaged in that favorite time-killing activity of media men and women, speculating on what might happen, with the kind people of GMA. More of their colleagues arrived. By now I was falling asleep on my feet and went to my car to nap a bit.

Sometime between 4 and 5 in the morning Jay jolted me awake and told me the radio had announced that the vanguard of the marchers had already gone past the Welcome Rotonda, reached España Avenue, and were regrouping, waiting for the rest. I got out of the car where one of the Channel 7 people said to me, “I’ve been looking for you, they’re headed here, although the Cardinal and Cory don’t want them to go.” It seemed only the militant groups were intent on marching on the Palace. “It’s only a matter of time,” the lady from GMA said. Shortly thereafter, the OB-Vans of GMA revved up their engines and headed for Mendiola.

All night long, Philippine National Police trucks, hardly any of them fully laden with troops, had been zooming around the neighborhood, apparently headed toward Mendiola. Squad cars would whisk by. But at 5:30 am about thirty PNP soldiers, without helmets, but armed with shields and very nasty looking wooden clubs (not even proper police batons) showed up. By the side of the road, a stack of packed breakfasts also materialized. The policemen ate; ten minutes later the PNP men in blue were reinforced by PNP troops in brown. “What’s the difference between your being in blue and those people being in brown?”Jay asked one policemen. “Well,” explained the cop, “we’re NCR PNP, those are from RECOM 3,” that is, from the provinces. The same policeman volunteered that those in brown were the ones authorized to carry weapons while those in blue only had shields and their nasty wooden clubs.

After breakfast a new barricade was erected at the beginning of JP Laurel St.; street urchins enthusiastically helped push metal barriers into place. A pudgy officer showed up and directed his troops to fortify the metal barriers with barbed wire.

Then, more waiting. Policemen smoked. Some could be seen sending text messages. Two or three were reading the Pinoy Times. Having planted a copy of Today on a nearby log used as a rest area by the policemen, I was pleased to see one cop pick up the paper, read it, and pass it on to a fellow cop. Two cops read Today’s op-ed section, two others seemed to prefer the lifestyle section. Again, tedium, broken only by a surprise visit from General Aglipay, who arrived to say hello from the other side of the barrier, but wasn’t allowed through. “We like him,” one cop volunteered, “he cares for our welfare, unlike Lacson who is just a political general.”.

At 6:30 a.m. a woman arrived, in a woven straw hat with a yellow ribbon, the rest of her draped with a yellow sash; she got on her knees, and, through a megaphone, began to wail a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The policemen looked puzzled; several made the sign of the cross; orders were issued for them to firm up their formation. By 7 am the flags of the militant left could be seen approaching beneath the Nagtahan flyover, while the flyovers themselves began to be filled with people. The cops, during idle moments, practiced swinging their clubs.

In half an hour the protesters were there in full force; former Interior Secretary Raffy Alunan made a dramatic appearance; a few minutes later, noted professor Randy David was by his side; militant leftist leader Teddy Casiño showed up; an impromptu stage was erected. There was a program. The national anthem was sung; Bayan ko was sung; an artist got up on the small stage and proceeded to lead the crowd in hurling good natured and quite scandalous abuse at Estrada and the 11 senators of by now, more-than-ill repute. It was as if every time the fuse was lit, the protesters made a deliberate effort to snuff it out. They even called for cheers for the policemen. The policemen looked embarrassed.

Several times, Raffy Alunan, Randy David, and various politicians who decided to make a cameo appearance at the JP Laurel barrier linked arms, while others shouted, “let us through!” But then the tension would subside, and people would start cheering, or chanting, or singing.

Then the truck appeared in the distance. It was an enormous truck; probably a 16 wheeler. It tooted its horn several times. And for the first time, one heard drums in the distance. What seemed to be close to a hundred people stood on the flat bed of the truck, waving flags; the banner-waving militants on the ground by the barricade waved their banners. Fists were raised; CNN’s Mike Chinoy was spotted on the rooftop of the Chow King behind the barrier; everyone cheered and started chanting “Erap resign!” The truck was coming closer.

The officer in charge of the police called for two PNP buses, lurking in a side street, to be called out to barricade the street further; JP Laurel now had seven lines of defense; the line of barbed wire; the line of shield and truncheon wielding troops; the two buses; another line of policemen, this time those dressed in brown combat uniforms; another line of buses; a line of Philippine Air Force troops; and finally, the original PSG checkpoint.

While all this was going on, the news on the radio was that more marchers had decided to go through Mandaluyong, down Nueve de Febrero Avenue; and that the Air Force had decided to order “persuasion flights” over the Palace. Soon enough, the choppers spotted at Villamor air base the previous day soon thud-thudded overhead; people cheered; people began to chant “Erap resign!” once again, and this time, not merely for the gratification of the CNN crew; the policemen looked up, looking puzzled, and then looked more alarmed when a crowd of civilians, caught between the Chow King and the 7-11, both of which were within the police’s first line of defense, started chanting “Erap resign!” too. The defenders of the Palace had civilian oppositionists at their front and rear.

The ominously large truck, which the PNP officers obviously expected to attempt to ram through their defenses, suddenly began to swing away. The radio announced those at JP Laurel were giving up on trying to get to the Palace through this street, and would join their comrades now storming down Recto. The truck would be more useful there.

Upon hearing this news, we decided to head to Mendiola, trudging down Concepcion Aguila until we reached Mendiola bridge. The foot of the bridge nearest the Palace was even more strongly fortified than it was the night before; by the statue of Chino Roces at the other foot of the bridge, there stood a media platform where more potbellied police generals surveyed the scene. We went to the sort of plaza where Recto Avenue meets the foot of Mendiola bridge and, looking forward toward Recto, saw the left side of Legarda Street barricaded by policemen wearing modern-style American army helmets, to hold back the Estrada loyalists, while the right side of Legarda was barricaded by policemen with shields and clubs to hold back the rallyists awaiting reinforcements. Catcalls were being exchanged. A line of brown-clad policemen, wearing padded body armor, and with the usual shields and clubs, blocked Recto itself.

I sat on a sidewalk, hoping I wasn’t sitting on human waste, for everywhere, from canal, from sidewalk, from street and gutter, from JP Laurel where we earlier were, to Mendiola where we now milled around with the rest of the media, one could only smell the stench of garbage: the sickly-sweet, putrid odor of decayed and decaying things. Another line of policemen was ordered to form at the foot of Mendiola bridge itself; behind this line of troops, mainly policewomen, was parked a fire truck, twin of the one parked along JP Laurel.

Slowly, but inexorably, you began to see the flags. Waving constantly. Moving forward agonizingly slowly. Then the truck, the same truck that had menaced the JP Laurel barricades, could be seen in the distance. If there had been a less than two hundred at the JP Laurel gate, here now approached thousands, if not tens of thousands. The other group of protesters on Legarda street could hear their comrades coming. And still the protesters marched on. Foot by foot, tirelessly waving their flags; the truck was getting closer and closer. You could hear the steady beating of drums. This was the steady tattoo of a plebian army intent on liberating the Palace.

The second line of policemen on Mendiola bridge itself was ordered into formation and banged their shields in the manner Roman legionaries must have done as they prepared to do battle. I overheard an officer say that they would hold the line at the last column of the still uncompleted MRT before the bridge itself.

Closer and closer came the truck; from the radio came a call from the pro-Estrada leaders telling their people to abandon their position on Legarda. But the pro-Estrada people stayed. The truck passed column after column of the unfinished MRT; then something strange happened.

The truck began to turn; it passed between two columns and proceeded to block the entire breadth of Recto. It was not going to ram the troops after all. It was going to be turned into an impromptu stage. How funny, I thought; here they were, ready to run over policemen in padded body armor, and instead, they were going to put on the Leftist equivalent of a vaudeville show.
But journalists more experienced than I, apparently sensed what was going to happen, and a photographer beside me advised me to pull back to Mendiola bridge itself. We clambered on to a shack.

As far as the eye could see, Recto was a sea of humanity, waving the banners of cause-oriented groups; the impromptu stage provided by the flatbed of the truck now filled with people. Fists were raised; the national anthem was sung. The last lines were not even sung at all; they were roared. At the police.

At which point, the sound system on the truck started to blare out one of the rock and roll songs from the famous Ôwhite album”; and the tens of thousands of the proletariat, which only a minute ago seemed ready to charge the police, began to dance. They danced and shouted; their comrades on Legarda began to shout.

The dancing was not, as I thought it was, an attempt to defuse the tension. It was, instead, what was needed to provide the last, vital surge of adrenaline that led to the conquest of Mendiola bridge.

For even as the song ended and the tens of thousands at Recto cheered, a great roar went up from those at Legarda, and in their enthusiasm, the crowd surged forward and knocked over the barricade; Jay, who was closer, later recounted to me that even as the barricade collapsed, the surprised activists at first instinctively pulled back; some even shouted “peace, peace!” But the police themselves fell back, and with a great roar those on Legarda charged ahead.
Padded body armor, shields and clubs and all, the policemen barricading Recto hadn’t a chance. Their comrades having broken through, those on Recto surged forward, linked arms with those coming from Legarda, and in a few moments, a sea of flags covered the ground between Recto, Legarda, and the foot of Mendiola bridge. Where the statue of Chino Roces had had been surrounded by police officers and media men, a swarm of men and women waving flags now stood.

The moment we saw the barricade on Legarda give way, we pulled back to the fire truck on Mendiola itself; from there we saw the two groups of rallyists link up; from the fire truck we saw policemen drop their shields; policewomen ran past in shock; the thousands at the foot of Mendiola seemed preparing to regroup and were about to surge ahead; indeed, they did start moving forward again. A long-haired photographer, perched on the fire truck with me and a perhaps a dozen other media people, turned to me and said, “brod, lumipat na tayo, matindi na ito.”

So we pulled back some more, to the vicinity of the San Beda College and Centro Escolar University. Where, minutes before, we’d been perched on a fire truck the Police in their hurry to flee hadn’t even the presence of mind to use, more militant protesters now stood, waving their flags.

From Concepcion Aguila St. came screeching the black SUV of General Aglipay, followed by two pick up trucks of SWAT teams. A new phalanx of policemen bearing shields was ordered to form; behind them, the SWAT teams began preparing their weapons. After the position of the SWAT team, there was only the PSG gate at the foot of Mendiola and then the ornate Commonwealth-era gates of Malacañang itself.

On the radio, the night had been spent with news of Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo being urged to take her oath of office as president, and news too, that Chief Justice Davide was prepared to swear her in, provided Estrada would resign. The 6 a.m. deadline of the opposition for Estrada to resign was moved to 12 noon; then it was announced, around the time the truck of the militants had been inching its way up Recto, that the Vice-President was in an emergency meeting at Villa San Miguel, Cardinal Sin’s residence. Soon after that, Justice Panganiban would announce that Davide had agreed to swear in Arroyo as President at noon, at the Edsa shrine, to avoid bloodshed.

It was shortly after the SWAT teams had set up their positions that people suddenly went quiet and those who had radios turned them on, so people could hear what was going on. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was about to take her oath of office. The SWAT teams relaxed; the soldiers rested their shields on the ground. The tens of thousands at the foot of Mendiola began another impromptu program. It looked like the tension had been defused.

Now the attention of the country turned to the Edsa shrine. Jay and I trudged toward JP Laurel, stopped at a carinderia which had a television showing the ABS-CBN coverage of the inauguration of the new president.

We were joined in the carinderia by sweaty policemen and tired rallyists; we watched the crowds at Edsa roar as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in. We hurriedly finished our food and headed back to Mendiola to see what, if anything, would happen. Policemen were sitting on the ground. The rallyists were holding a program on their truck-cum-stage. Citizens stood by, listening to the new President’s inaugural speech. An old journalist asked me if Estrada had resigned; we both stood silently as a hoarse, tired Edgardo Angara announced that Estrada had prepared a resignation letter but would not sign it because the Supreme Court had taken matters into its own hands. At the conclusion of Gloria’s speech, a few people applauded; the rest seemed stunned.

There would be no invasion of Malacañang. The statue of Chino Roces was as far as the army of invasion headed toward Malacañang ever got. Cory and the Cardinal’s call for a halt to the march had been defied; but the marchers never did get to Malacañang. When Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr. said he did what he did to save lives, and when it was later announced that both Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino had told Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to take her oath of office now, lest blood be shed, they knew what they were doing.

For there was all the making of a bloodbath on Mendiola that day. And even as I trudged back to my car, eventually to escape the closely guarded perimeter of Malacanang by being allowed to squeeze through a one-way street leading to San Rafael, I could hear a group of young girls singing this song (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic):

Gloria, Gloria labandera
Gloria, Gloria labandera
Gloria, Gloria labandera
Labandera lang si Gloria!

It was not the victory nor the manner of victory Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may have wanted; but she prevented a bloodbath by shifting attention from the attempted invasion of Malacanang by taking an oath of office she wanted to take only when Estrada had properly resigned. I head the drums of the Left; I saw the clubs and rifles of the PNP; the whole country saw the scorpion tanks. Edsa II as peaceful people power was literally kept as such at the last minute, by the swearing in of a little woman by a kindly white haired man.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.