By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — During the first year commemoration of the violent demolition of homes in Corazon de Jesus, San Juan last January 23, Mark Louie Aquino, 26, spokesperson and second nominee of Kabataan Parylist, received the loudest cheers from the residents who graced the event. When he mentioned that he is facing 14 court cases for helping the residents during the recent demolition, the cheers got even louder.
Aquino is among the 24 residents and “non-resident activists” who were arrested for protecting their homes from the demolition team last January 11, 2012, a few days before the first year commemoration of the demolition last year. The recent demolition, according to progressive groups, is among the most violent in the history of the urban poor struggle in the country.
Residents, with only their stones, bottles and molotov bombs at hand, confronted armed members of the police and Special Weapons and Tactics unit (SWAT), a bulldozer and a water cannon. The homes of 123 affected families would supposedly give way to the proposed San Juan government center, where its new city hall, patterned after the United States’ White House, is to be built.
“I was there as a mass leader,” Aquino said. He added that he did not join the residents in throwing stones or bottles or even molotov bombs.
Aquino said he was near the village hall, cautioning the other unorganized residents from doing anything “spontaneous” that might provoke unnecessary violence. These residents were not facing demolition then but went to the streets to help their neighbors protect their homes.
The demolition team, after firing a canister of teargas on the residents, managed to get through the people’s barricade. Residents scampered to salvage their belongings. Aquino then went to the narrow street of Corazon de Jesus in front of the community to console the residents, mostly mothers and children, who were crying while the demolition team ravaged their homes.
“I told them not to cry because the struggle is not yet over,” Aquino said. He added that he was also telling some youth not to be too “emotional” when approaching the police. “Some of them were already cursing the police and we do not want to provoke them. But they could not contain their emotions.”
A few minutes later, Aquino noticed that the police were hitting two activists while they were being arrested. “I told the police that they can just turn them over to the precinct instead of hitting them,” he said, “But Arcallana,” referring to San Juan Police Supt. Tomas Arcallana, “turned to me and said that I, too, should be arrested.”
As seen in a video taken by Tudla Productions, Aquino tried to run from the police. But the police still got hold of him. “I was kicked, beaten and hit,” he said.
Along with Aquino, the following were also arrested: Manuel Villoria, 25, Rogelio Rosales, 30, Louie Pedroso, 15, Salvador Gargarin, 55, Edwin Crisologo, 22, Jesus Buallo, Mark Dave Avestus, 20, Jaime Gregorio, 24, Senen Buban. 23, Louiche Nepeito, 17, Jay-ar Brillante, 16, Narciso Alberto, 62, Luke Bagangan, 17, Rodel Tejolan, 17, Roger Gabino and Abel Bantulo.
It is Aquino’s first time to be jailed since he became a full time activist. While he asked Bulatlat.com not to write the details, he said that he witnessed first hand how rotten the Philippine criminal justice system is.
The prison cell where they were brought, according to Aquino, was overcrowded. He said that it should normally hold around only 20 people but there were 45 cramped inside. They had to curl down when they slept and gasped for air with the poor ventilation inside the cell.
Aquino said the police did not lay their hands on them when they were already inside the cell. “Probably because we were interviewed by the media.”
Instead, he said, they went through psychological torture. One of the police, which his inmates identified as Macatugal, a SWAT member, told Aquino, “Do you recognize me? You are so brave. Let us finish everything here. Let’s have a fistfight.” When he refused, the police added, “You should be thankful you are not yet dead.”
Since then, a police asset would check on him three times a day. Aquino’s inmates said the police were really angry at them and that the police would beat them up if they had a chance. They used the term takalan, which literally means to measure, but inside the police precinct it means to be beaten up.
“Arcallana claims that I threatened him during the demolition. But how could I do that when I did not even see him at the forefront of the demolition?” Aquino said. “I know that he had me arrested because he knows that I am a youth leader.”
He added that the arrest of the 24 residents and so-called “non-resident activists” could be considered as a mass arrest because the police, after they managed to break the barricade, “randomly picked up residents.”
As proof, Aquino said, some policemen claimed in their statements that a resident wearing a red shirt or a jacket hit them with stones. “But none among us were wearing one,” he said, “The case is weak.”
On top of these, Aquino said they were not even given first aid treatment. They were only brought to the hospital to secure the medico legal report. Instead, it was the members of the Head Alliance for Democracy who attended to their bruises and cuts.
“I knew that my comrades were doing their best to get us out of there. We were not worried. We were more worried that the homes of the residents were being demolished,” Aquino said when asked how he felt after he was arrested.
Organizing while inside prison
Being a busy student organizer that he is, Aquino said, he was not used to just while away the time.
“I was very bored,” Aquino said. So he spent his time talking with other inmates and got to know them better, “They are also from the urban poor sector. Based on our conversations, we can say that it was not their choice to do whatever they are being accused of. Maybe it was because of poverty and despair.”
Inside the police precinct, Aquino met a former member of the League of Filipino Students, a progressive youth organization, who was arrested allegedly for robbery.
“Even if you drive activists to the desert, they would still grow and bear fruits,” Aquino said.
There were also light moments while inside the police precinct for nine days.
“Our fellow inmates would call us as the ‘Magulo’ not ‘Magdalo,'” he said, referring to the splinter group of the Katipunan, a Filipino revolutionary group against the Spaniards, and also to the military junior officers, headed by Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim and now senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who led a coup de etat against former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Aquino said his co-inmates have high respect for activists who were imprisoned at that time. “They knew that we did not do anything illegal. We were only fighting for the people’s rights.”
Instead of being disheartened, Aquino said, being put to jail for nine days has changed his views in life in so many ways. This experience, he added, taught him to be stronger amid the challenges of being an activist and an advocate for genuine change.
Aquino was a member of the student council of Adamson University from 2003 to 2006. He was on his fourth year college in B.S. Pharmacy when he decided to serve the Filipino people on a full time basis. In 2007, he began organizing urban poor communities. He later on became the spokesperson of Youth Revolt and League of Filipino Students – National Capital Region.
Because of Aquino’s activism, he was nominated as second nominee of Kabataan Partylist during the 2010 elections.
To this day, Aquino said, he would continue serving the interest of the poor Filipino people. After nine days in jail, he added that he could somehow relate to what political prisoners are going through. “It is different when you learn things by the book and when you are actually there.”
He dreams of one day becoming a rural doctor or to develop herbal medicines that would serve Filipinos who cannot avail of expensive medicines. But for now, he vows to continue fighting and protecting the rights of Filipino urban poor families.