The heat, of course. Is it going to be tolerable? Ah but the scorching summer temperature is like inferno on Earth. There’s also the humid air, succeeded by a brief but heavy rain, and then it’s sticky hot again. Rains are unpredictable but the heat is constant. Clouds deceive because behind them lurk the menacing tentacles of the sun. That’s why the umbrella is useful for various practical reasons: a defense gadget against the elements, a crime deterrent, a companion magnet, and a light but durable weapon when state thugs are ordered to attack.
After sensing the weather, I seek out the strangers beyond the crowd that is already gathering. Are the motorists curious? Are the pedestrians stopping to inquire? The bystanders are a group of their own; can they be persuaded to join our crowd? The vendors, the tambays, and other wandering souls – what are their stories, their daily struggles?
The crowd is getting bigger and my instinct is to find familiar faces and voices. There are backpacks, flags, banners, placards, pamphlets, t-shirt slogans, smartphones and classic Nokia phones everywhere but fortunately amid the frenzy I saw my friends and comrades. What follows is nonstop shaking of hands and rapid conversations about, well, almost everything: How’s the weather, how many are you here, yes I’m going to the fluvial parade, no I can’t join the forum, sorry I was late yesterday, I haven’t seen the movie, email it to me later, tag me in the photo, thanks for the graphics, oh I didn’t know you broke up already, are they really dating, I will visit them this week, here’s the magazine, let’s eat, I hope it’s going to trend.
The crowd is finally moving. I walk with others who are also eager and agitated to reach the destination. During the march, we saw some uninspiring structures such as the decrepit pillars of the LRT, sleazy movie theaters, budget motels, unfinished public works, the so-called green footbridge, abandoned art deco buildings, giant billboard towers. Through the tarpaulins plastered on sidewalks, we learned that the country’s king of contractualization is the new owner of an engineering school. One block later, another banner of a tycoon school owner and tax evader par excellence flaunts the board exam performance of some students. Nearby, a review center ad makes a similar boast.
These are dizzying images of urban reality which are also false indicators of modernity. But they reflect bad governance and chaotic metro planning. The decaying structure, however, is masked by the bright and colorful posters of consumer brands. What is rendered visible to all is the digital effects of the seemingly new. But I reject the seductions of these signifiers and I refuse to adopt them in defining my identity. Perhaps I can do this because my exposure to these visual temptations is restricted. But for those who traverse the same route everyday, have they been desensitized already? Or how do they play the game of resistance?
Suddenly, the march comes to a halt. A clearing opens up. The public space has been reclaimed. It is an event preceded by numerous sub-events in recent days and weeks. An event in anticipation of greater political moments. We made the event possible, we succeeded in mobilizing a crowd, we turned an idea into reality. But there’s lingering guilt and regret caused by unmet expectations. We could have done more, we could have gathered more, we could have aimed for more. Or maybe it was the tactics that mattered.
The self-assessment is getting more serious when a screeching sound distracted everybody. There’s always a technical glitch that disrupts the event. Small or big, minor or major, the interruption actually normalizes and formalizes the event. A defective stereo, a misplaced stage, a broken banner, a missing equipment. Once these problems are addressed, the program commences and hopefully it will run more smoothly this time.
And while this is all happening, my mind is somewhere else: Where did I put the USB? What is the name of that movie character who resembles this person beside me? Are the kids still in school? I think I should buy the shaving kit, or not. I’m craving for cream puffs. Did I pay the jeepney driver? Dinner at home but who’s cooking? Ah coffee, I need my coffee fix.
Then I saw the crowd extension. The police behind the barricades, another flank holding truncheons and shields, a police officer commanding the unit. Meanwhile, moving within the crowd are media people. Armed with cameras, they document the event. They are welcomed as potential friends and allies.
What is the role of the police and media in relation to the crowd? They are partisan non-participants of the event. But their intervention is always crucial. It is the police who placed the barrier between the citadel of power and the emergent crowd. Their every action provokes the crowd because they are seen as representatives of the state which ordered the blocking of the event. The state monitors the crowd through the ubiquitous CCTV monitors. It is Big Brother which instructs the police on how to engage the crowd. Ideally, the police can opt to listen to what the crowd is demanding but they are deployed not to think freely but to carry out a direct order. Can they contravene the hierarchy? Yes, but they instantly becomes part of the crowd.
The media, on the other hand, captures the encounter between the state and the crowd. They have access to history-in-the-making event by bearing witness to the dramatic interplay of politics, collective power, and direct democracy. Some are walking warriors of truth and ethics but some are there simply to sell news, spin the truth, and shoot the sensational. Why bother to tell the truth when it is the odd that rates high on mainstream networks? And so they frame the news by focusing on peripheral and incidental issues like traffic. They simplify and even distort the agenda for social transformation by highlighting an awkward sound byte. But like the police, they are disempowered too since the final decision on what to report rests with the senior editors in the news editing room.
Politics and truth making are decided upon by powerful people who are divorced from the battlefield. Through their privileged location in society, these virtual players of politics reign supreme in dictating the specific discourse that will be preserved and reproduced by opinion-making institutions.
Of course this is infuriating. Worse, apologists of the status quo are quick to legitimize the unequal existing order as a natural, objective state of the world. If you continue to dissent, you are labelled a troublemaker, a nuisance, a purveyor of obsolete truths. You ignore the taunting, you block the persistent rants, but sometimes everybody around you makes the same argument, and you silently succumb to this judgment under duress.
Multiple paradigms tempt you with language games and your mind unwillingly plays with these ideas. Plural perspectives, epistemes, simulacrum, habitus, elective affinities….and then you find yourself back in the crowd. What caught your attention? The fiery anti-demolition speech of an urban poor leader restored your focus, the farmer organizer who spoke about feudal oppression rekindled your passion, and the defiant human rights victim inspired you to remember the basics. The basics? That politics is hostaged by elite interest, that a fierce struggle for supremacy among classes defines any society, that there are truths worth fighting for, that the radical task is to hasten the arrival of the future. That there are discourses that destroy solidarity, narratives that serve the ruling classes, and progressive theories that teach us not just to interpret the present but to change the world.
It is always the crowd, the multiple as one, which rescues us from moments of indecision and passivity. That is why every time the crowd prepares to disperse, we celebrate not the end of an event, but the prospect of going back to the masses, embracing their struggles, and joining them in the future to startup that Big Event we sometimes call the revolution.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: email@example.com