Black T-Shirts and the Political Controversy

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Black T-Shirts and the Political Controversy

by Manuel L. Quezon III

In Manila, the wearing of T-shirts has become a political issue, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since anything in the Philippines is liable to having a political interpretation attached to it. Last Friday, a group of disaffected Filipino citizens gathered for the purpose of wearing black as a sign of protest against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and to engage in additional symbolic acts of resistance and dislike for the president of the Philippines.

They intended to gather in Manila and go to a public promenade called The Baywalk, and walk about doing the thumbs-down gesture for a few minutes and then disperse. A rather tame, perfectly peaceful activity in a city that’s seen hundreds, thousands, even tens and hundreds of thousands previously march with banners, flags, megaphones and in the middle of major boulevards and streets.

It never got to that. As the people in black lined up on the sidewalk to cross the street, the police appeared; a debate followed. Those in black were told they were engaging in an illegal assembly; a “no permit, no rally” order was in force. Those in black countered that what they wanted to do could hardly be called a rally. The police argued back that it was a rally, and that furthermore they were wearing offensive T-shirts. The T-shirts, the police said, were proof of the intentions of the group to disturb peace and tranquility of those at the promenade. The end result was when the group decided to cross the street, two of them were arrested.

The arrest provoked a media sensation, and continues to do so; and the discussion has triggered a debate on what people can wear, since, in their desire to prevent a walk by Manila bay, the police cannot even claim they discovered the people in black actually in the act of breaking what they interpret to be the law.

The other day, Eduardo Nachura, whom President Arroyo just named solictor-general (that is, chief lawyer for the government), weighed in on the issue. As far as I can understand the news reports, he suggests five points.

1. For an ordinary citizen to wear a black T-shirt with the logo “Patalsikin na! Now na!” (“Kick it out! Now, immediately!”), is not wrong in itself.

2. For an identified critic of the president of the Philippines to wear it is wrong.

3. For anyone to wear it in the company of other people wearing the same thing, whether identified publicly as people critical of the Philippine president, is wrong and can possibly be considered seditious (Philippine law dating back to the 1930s says “sedition” is anything the state says is harmful to enforcing obedience to it: Back then, of course, non-violent resistance was still in its infancy and not widely-accepted as a legitimate political activity).

4. With regards to getting together with like-minded (not to mention equally black T-shirt with same logo wearing people) the sole judge of what is a permissible assembly are the Philippine police. Perception is as important as any factual circumstances surrounding any gathering; that is, if the police have a hunch people will do something that they don’t like, regardless of whether the hunch is inspired by false reports, gazing into a crystal ball, perhaps visions derived from cloud formations, or watching Tom Cruise in the “Minority Report” (which proposed a principle of law enforcement based on mutant visions of crimes yet to be committed), then the police can disperse assemblies and arrest people.

5. People are free to distribute the shirts, but they are liable for the consequences of their actions, which begins with distributing the shirts: So that if someone buys a shirt, and then throws a rock, or in any way violates the law, it can be assumed by the police that the root cause of the breaking of the law was the act of selling an evil T-shirt to that lawbreaker.

More than one observer has described the Philippines as “a nation of lawyers,” and the current controversy of the T-shirts fits that observation to, if you will pardon the pun, a T. The Philippines can be said not only to be a nation of lawyers, but a nation in which every person aspires to lawyerly debate. Add to this the reality that the Philippines is not only a class-conscious, but fashion-conscious society, in which not only how you say something but what you wear can immediately categorize you, and you certainly have a delicious topic for debate. Color-coding has long been useful politically; opposition to Ferdinand Marcos was colored yellow; Joseph Estrada made orange his trademark political color; opposition to him used red and yellow and eventually, black. Arroyo has tried to monopolize blue, and opposition to her comes in many colors, red, yellow, orange and yes, black.

A Filipino lawyer, Teddy Te, recently quipped, “black is the new yellow,” referring precisely to the color of resistance against President Marcos in the 1980s and which is now a color of resistance against Arroyo just as it was against President Estrada in 2001. For that, Arroyo can thank the police, who have helped push forward the idea that a person’s individual choice to wear black, with or without a logo, makes that person part of a larger cause. The police prevented twenty-odd people from doing a thumbs-down in Manila last Friday.

They’ve ensured that more people will be wearing black on future Fridays, not just in Manila, but elsewhere. Last I heard, people from places such as Davao City, Baguio City — the Philippine extremes of north and south — and even Filipinos overseas, were looking for the T-shirts that caused the government so much irritation. They want to add to it. And that’s something, in the end, any lawyer, even government lawyers, can’t stop.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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