There is nothing that justifies a rally more than the fact that a government dislikes it.
Or, if you’re the PNoy government, via the Quezon City government, you disallow it.
That is, you decide that this year, militant and activist organizations, and every other person who so decides to join them, will not be given a permit to rally during the President’s State of the Nation address. They will not be allowed to hold the rally on the street that leads to the Batasang Pambansa. They will not be able to hold a program that speaks of the real state of the nation as lived by every Pinoy, while the pomp and pageantry that surrounds the SONA speech of PNoy is ongoing.
There was every reason to defy this order of the Quezon City government, there was every reason to see the refusal to grant the people a permit to rally, as provocation to begin with. The lack of a permit gave this rally even more reason to push through, and I mean push through those police barricades and demand for their rightful place on Commonwealth Avenue, where the SONA rally has taken place year in, year out.
The reasons are simple. It is the constitutional right of people to peacefully assemble on any “highway, boulevard, avenue, road, street, bridge or other thoroughfare, park, plaza, square, and/or any open space of public ownership where the people are allowed access,” so states the Public Assembly Act of 1985. Granted that there is the “No Permit, No Rally” rule, in 2004 the the Commission on Human Rights itself released an advisory that spoke of this policy as a “blatant violation of the Constitutional right of every citizen to peaceably assemble and to seek or air grievances which may be expressed through rallies.”
The same CHR advisory cites court decisions on cases where permits to rally were denied by the City of Manila (Primicias vs. Fugoso 80 Phil 71 and Reyes vs. Bagatsing 125 SCRA 553): “If the assembly is to be held in a public place, a permit for the use of such place, and not for the assembly itself, may be validly required. But the power of local officials in this regard is merely one of regulation, not prohibition.”
Regulation, not prohibition. The caveat of course is this: the Public Assembly Act of 1985 also states that “Denial of the permit may be justified only upon clear and convincing evidence that the public assembly will create a clear and present danger to public order, safety, convenience, morals or health.” The CHR advisory of 2004 then further asserts that as such “the burden of showing the existence of a clear and present danger that would justify an adverse action on the application of the permit lies on the mayor as the licensing authority. To justify such a limitation, there must be proof of such weight and sufficiency to satisfy the clear and present danger test.”
Now what was the basis of the Quezon City government’s refusal to grant a permit for the SONA rally?
It was the traffic.
Which of course is not a “clear and present danger” in any way. In fact, had the Quezon City government given the SONA rally a permit on that stretch of Commonwealth, the QC police could have then prepared to handle the traffic on the other side of the highway.
Now, it is easy to think that this is precisely the problem: why do these SONA rallies even happen at all? Why must we go to the streets, and insist that our state of the nation report is as important as PNoy’s? Why mess with the traffic situation, the normal order of the day, for the SONA?
Because we should. The President’s State of the Nation Address is the one time in the year that we hear about the achievements of government, the change it has purportedly affected, the projects it holds dear, the narrative of nation that it sells to a necessarily global audience. It is like a grand press release for sure, about the kind of government we have, the nation we live in.
The day of the SONA should not be a regular day. It is the day when nation is being defined by our President, and we must be listening, ready to read its technical report, and engaging with the things that he asserts are true about nation. Because there is government propaganda, and there is living in nation. There is what government believes it is doing to alleviate poverty, to provide us with services, to effect the important and urgent changes for nation, and there is the real state of the nation as we know it.
That is, there’s the impending MRT and LRT fare hikes and the unsafe public transportation we are subjected to every day; the continued oil price increases and the rising cost of food and basic necessities; the contractualization of workers and the demolition of informal settlements in favor of the promise of development and infrastructure; the rising cost of education and the refusal to give teachers and workers the P125 across the board wage increase, I could go on and on.
It is for reasons such as these, it is for this real state of the nation, that on the day of the President’s SONA, we exercise our basic and constitutional right to public assembly.
Because while there are many of people, too, who might be on the other side of Commonwealth, just wanting to get to work and keep their jobs, those walking in the direction of Batasang Pambansa are fighting precisely for their rights, too. There is no issue that the SONA rally takes on that does not affect the lives of those in the majority. That is, the majority in this country, who worry about putting food on the table for their families, who live off minimum wage and job insecurity, and the lack of basic services.
This majority of course includes the police, the ones who are at the mercy as well of the QC government’s decision to refuse the SONA rally a permit. News footage shows how at around 11:00 AM on SONA day, rallyists reached the barricades near the Batasang Pambansa, and tore through it – including the expensive new barbed wire.
They pushed through until they faced the police barricade, where negotiations with police officials to walk farther failed, and violence ensued.
There is footage, too, of this: at some point rallyists were slowly moving backward, but the police rammed into them anyway. Truncheons and shields are in the air, as are stones and placards.
This violence could’ve been avoided had the QC government just given the SONA rally the permission to hold its program and wait out PNoy’s SONA on Commonwealth.
The violence could’ve been avoided had PNoy himself insisted and demanded that the rally be allowed – the better to prove how he values democracy, yes? The violence could’ve been avoided had the people’s right to peacefully assemble been respected.
Peacefully? You ask. Well yes. Because in the years that we have listened to any president’s SONA, and in the few times that I’ve actually gone to the SONA rally, there has never been this kind of violence. The CHR itself insists that: “Although dispersal units of the PNP are allowed to use truncheons and tear gas on the protesters provided that maximum tolerance is exercised before these methods or means of dispersal shall be effected <…> In the absence of imminent danger to public order, safety, convenience, morals or health, then the use of these means of dispersal is clear violation of human rights.”
In fact it might be said that maximum tolerance should begin with PNoy, who should’ve been able to make sure that the SONA rally was allowed, who should’ve been able to police his ranks, tell the QC government to grant the permit, and keep the QC police as far away from the assembly as possible —the better to prevent provocation by either side.
In fact, there is nothing PNoy proved on the day of his SONA other than his utter disregard for the people’s right to assembly, free speech and expression.
This should mean everything to us all, as we survive, suffer through, the real state of the nation in distressing times, when government believes its own propaganda about better days, and is blind to the suffering of a majority growing by the day.
I, meanwhile, can only think that there is but one response to the total disregard for my basic constitutional rights, and this blatant display of State violence and repression, on SONA day yet:
Defy, Pilipinas. Defy.