The first time I heard about how a group of students successfully did a lightning rally against Budget Secretary Butch Abad at the UP Diliman School of Economics, I thought: good job!
Because to my mind, while any person, any government official, any personality, has the freedom to enter the State U and feel safe within its walls and fences, no government official—least of all the architect of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)—should get away with coming and going in peace. I presumed that visiting as he was the School of Economics that Secretary Abad had been welcomed with open arms, complicit as that college has always been in prevailing political economics, no matter who the President is.
Suffice it to say that I welcomed the news, no matter how flimsy the details were at that point, that student activists had mobbed him. Good for them I thought. And how silly of Secretary Abad to have expected any less of UP students. I would’ve been disappointed had he come and gone without some display of public disgust from the iskolar ng bayan.
Ah, but the spin was quick and easy, and it was what allowed for the most entertaining display of anti-activist sentiment this side of democratic Philippines. Secretary Abad said he was in fact willing to have a dialogue with the activists outside. He declared his collar had been grabbed, he feared for his life. He called them hooligans.
And wow, did many shoot from the hip, maybe to defend Abad, but more importantly to take a stand against these students activists! How dare they! How disrespectful! How crass! How violent! Such hooliganism! They shuddered. Not everyone in the State U is like that, they declared. Those students are not the State University, they insisted.
But pray tell, who is the State University? I shudder to think that it is the high-and-mighty voice of the Economics professors who condemned this student action and demanded a public apology. Who told the University Student Council (USC) and other student organization to disassociate themselves from these student activists.
And then on Pinoy social media, it got really muddled in some katangahan. Or just such simplistic thinking, one could not but be aghast. Say those who decided to parallel this act of student activists with the violence inflicted upon them by the elements of government, i.e., Jovito Palparan. Where the decision is made to ignore the failed parallelism, and see it to its illogical end: how can activists demand justice against violence instigated against them, when they themselves are violent?
Because you know, the disappearance and torture of activists is on the same level as being pelted with crumpled paper and coins.
Civilized but pointless
In the course of reading these anti-activist sentiments, with the School of Economics releasing a statement of disgust and too many others un-intelligently weighing in, what one gathers is an insistence that the State University be space for a specific and particular kind of debate and discussion.
The kind that the School of Economics must have had with Secretary Abad in that Balitaktakan Series, where he spoke about how the National Budget works. Where the open forum was limited to five minutes, and questions were censored . . . este . . . filtered beforehand.
That does not sound like a forum in the State U. It sounds like a conversation one would have with Malacañang. Or the kind that a press conference with complicit media participants would sell on nationwide television to be a democratic and free discussion. Which is precisely why activists hold protest actions outside of these purportedly democratic venues: free speech in these spaces is but an illusion. There is no place for real honest—if not angry—criticism here.
And student activists know this to be true. We also all know how Secretary Abad would be allowed to evade questions about what fundamentally ails his budget process: the lack of accountability, the fact of patronage politics, the truth that it does not—will not—trickle down to those in need. One does wonder what that conversation with the USC and other student organizations was like. Because what kinds of questions were they allowed to ask? What kinds of answers did they get that we have not seen in a press release from the DBM?
I take it that it was a discussion that was pointless. Because what do you need to learn about Abad’s budget process that has not appeared as an infographic on government sites? What question could have been asked of him that would’ve brought us to a better understanding of what ails this budget process, why it rationalizes the DAP, why there continues to be specific ala-PDAF allotments for each Congressman in the budgets of various departments?
No wait, we wouldn’t have been allowed to ask those questions in this forum of decency and civility, where questions would be filtered, and dissenting voices necessarily suppressed.
Only those who go out to the streets with the flimsiest of causes, or merely because it is fashionable, would think of putting down this protest and dismissing it as merely violent or disrespectful. Any person who has studied in the State U with eyes wide open would know that student protest is guided by a very clear sense of the national state of affairs, the power relations between government and activists, the impossibility of engaging within the realms that are deemed acceptable, or decent, or respectful.
Only those who think little of protest to begin with, who imagine it to be pointless and unnecessary, would unthinkingly take on the term hooliganism and run with it, like it did not come from a man like Secretary Abad. Like it did not come from a man who works in a government that dismisses criticism, that decides it is not worth listening to, that deems all critics mere destabilizers.
And this is truly what offends me about those who have taken a stand against these student activists: their voices are now part and parcel of this government’s grand narrative against critics, a grand narrative that hews too closely to censorship, to the repression of the basic right to free speech.
We know it to be true because critics are now being called hooligans.
I’d rather be called a hooligan than be tagged a puppet.