Militant Journalism

Rise Up confronts Duterte’s war on the poor in the Philippines

“My son Djastin Lopez didn’t deserve to die. He was twenty-five with two beautiful children, Jailo & Quiana. He was a basketball player and a craftsman. When the police ambushed him right over there by those train tracks, his hands were up. He surrendered but the police slapped him first before riddling his body with bullets. While he was still breathing, they fired the coup de grace. These alleyways where we live in Tondo are ground zero of the war on us poor Filipinos. The police ambushed my son, intent upon killing him. We were victims but today thanks to Rise Up we are advocates for life and organizers against Duterte’s extrajudicial killings (EJK’s).”

–Normita, member of Rise Up

Rise up for Life and for Rights is a coalition of families whose children or loved ones were ambushed and murdered by Rodrigo Duterte’s police because they were suspected of being low-level drug dealers or addicts. Normita is one mother who emerged as a leader of Rise Up in Tondo, Manila’s largest shantytown of over 700,000 people, after her son was executed by the police. She explained that the coalition focuses on making the relatives of the victims see the reality of life in the country, helping them with their livelihood and trying to bring cases against the police to the courts.

As Duterte’s ever-more cavalier statements about killing off the poor make world news and an average of ten bodies turn up dead every night in Manila with cardboard labels claiming they were “criminals,” there is a lesser known story, the story of Rise Up, the burgeoning community resistance to Duterte’s death squads and vigilante violence.

Understanding Duterte’s rise to national power

Rodrigo Duterte emerged as a prominent national figure in Filipino politics after serving 22 years as the mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindinao. Much like former New York City mayor Rodolph Giuliani and a whole slew of conservative politicians across the spectrum of global politics, Duterte built up his reputation as a politician who was “tough on crime.” In his seven-term tenure as mayor, Duterte oversaw a campaign to eradicate suspected criminal elements from the streets of Davao City. Under his reign, human rights organizations documented over 1,400 extrajudicial killings (EJK’s) of alleged addicts, dealers and street children, many by the infamous paramilitary police unit known as the Davao Death Squad. Duterte himself brags about having personally murdered three kidnapping suspects at a police checkpoint. All too often, these “suspects” were simply everyday workers from “high violence” areas, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For anybody from East New York, the Bronx, West Oakland or any of the U.S.’s oppressed communities, this police terror sounds all too familiar.

Powerful sections of the Filipino ruling class, including the military, used “Duterte Harry’s” reputation to win the 2016 presidential race. On May 9, 2016 Duterte won 39.01 percent of the votes, defeating EDSA-establishment candidates Mar Roxas of the Liberal Party (23.4 percent) and Senator Grace Poe of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (21.6 percent).

Operation Tokhang

Upon assuming power, Duterte implemented Operation Tokhang, the official name for the state execution campaign targeting the most marginalized.

Tokhang is a portmanteau formed from two words in Cebuano, Duterte’s native language. Tuktok is an onomatopoeia for knocking and hangyo means request, in reference to the police’s aggressive raids of the homes of the poor. In coordination with the military, local police precincts compile lists of suspicious men in the barangays (neighborhoods). Often, they rely on coercion, bribing the police and snitching to develop “black lists.” The police then raid the homes of the suspects, following a policy of shoot first, rarely asking any questions.

This was how Rise Up member Princess lost her father, Pablo.

“The police murdered my father Pablo Cabangon. He was 46. They executed him right where I sit with three shots to the head. My mom died giving birth ten years ago. My father never recovered. Melancholic & depressed, he reached for a common escape, shabu (crystal meth). That was his death sentence. The police raided at midnight & executed him. This portrait you see in my hand, my father, this is Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Like alcohol, shabu is a common drug in disenfranchised communities that workers use for an extra pick-me-up or to deal with rough times. It is highly addictive and has been called “the cocaine of the Filipino poor.” Rise Up puts a human face on the victims and addicts vilified by the mainstream media. Rise up sees addiction as an illness directly connected to poverty, unemployment and the inability of capitalism to resolve the issues of the vast majority of humanity. The per capita GDP in the Philipines is a paltry $3,500 and roughly a quarter of all households survive on less than $5 dollars per day. These are the families Duterte’s EJK’s target.

Tricycle taxi driver King said shabu helped him work double shifts to put food on the table for his family. A recovering addict, he thanked Rise Up for rehabilitation programs that saved his life. Like the Black Panthers and Young Lords two generations before, the rank-and-file of Rise Up see organizing as a key part of individual rehabilitation and community healing.

16,000 murdered and counting

With the backing of powerful sections of the ruling elite and flattered by Trump’s praises during his visit in November, Duterte scoffs at the official number of 16,000 EJK’s to date and boasts that he is just getting started. He has been quoted as saying that 100,000 more dead bodies will be dumped into Manila Bay and that if Hitler can kill millions of Jews, he can kill millions of “criminals” in the Philippines.

Like Trump, Duterte preys upon the most vulnerable sectors of society. Seeking to score points with voters and his powerful backers, he scapegoats, bullies and slaughters who he perceives to be “the perfect victim,” because he thinks the most vulnerable cannot fight back.

But like the immigrant rights movement, Muslim and woman’s organizations in the U.S., Rise UP is proving that a united resistance can confront and defeat state-sponsored divide-and-conquer schemes and state terrorism.

The Filipino state’s highly touted “war on drugs” is nothing more than a war on the poor. It is all too similar to “the war on drugs” Black America and poor communities across the U.S. have endured. Rise Up member Isabelita described the police’s two-pronged approach:

“If the suspect is rich, they’re set free. If they’re poor, they end up sprawled on the street.”

Duterte’s campaign comes as his son Paulo was recently linked to the P$6.4 billion pesos (U.S.$128 million) shipment of shabu that was smuggled into the country from China. The fact that there was never any investigation into his involvement in drug-dealing shows the hypocrisy of “the war on drugs.” Instead of pursuing any leads on Paulo Duterte, state prosecutors instead targeted the two senators who acted as whistleblowers, accusing them of “tax fraud.”

Irma, whose son Bong Bong was executed by the police one year ago, emphasized the hypocritical nature of the government’s “war.”

“We are from Bagong Silangan in Quezon City. Our community is the epicenter of Duterte’s war. Just in our neighborhood alone, we have lost 45 of our children to this war. The police raided a wake right across this alleyway and shot my son dead in a case of mistaken identity. They would never do this in Forbes Park or Dasmariñas [the wealthy neighborhoods of Manila].”

‘Mourn the dead, fight like hell for the living.’

Socialist labor organizer Mother Jones’ quote captures the spirit of Rise Up. The most affected families have come together, not only to mourn but to fight. Reality demands no less.

Rise Up’s efforts are similar to the People’s Vigils which seek to unite families around a deeper understanding of the massive “opioid epidemic” afflicting working families in the U.S. The 66,000 overdose deaths last year in the U.S. and the 16,000 EJK’s thus far under Duterte’s reign have a common source, an unequal, predatory class system. Moving forward, there are a lot the two organizations can learn from one another and collaborate on.

The National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) is the legal front of the movement which seeks to prosecute the police officers and hired vigilantes who fired the lethal bullets. Attorney Kathy Panguban is one NUPL lawyer who has brought fourth cases on behalf of the grieving families to make sure there is an end to state impunity. Panguban documented a long history of state sponsored terrorism where the courts have always ruled in favor of the executioners.

Progressive churches are at the center of the organizing efforts. Following a tradition of Filipino Liberation Theology, religious people have been instrumental in providing psycho-social, logistical and legal support for the Rise Up families. Quoting the Bible, Norma Dollaga articulated what motivated her as a Christian to join the struggle:

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

The BAYAN alliance (short for Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or the New Patriotic Alliance) which brings together different workers, women, migrant, barangay (neighborhood) and peasant organizations to struggle against the imperialist pillaging of the Philippines is clear that addiction, hustling and the EJK’s are but three tragic manifestations of capitalism, a system diametrically opposed to the interests of the vast majority of this super resource-rich country of over 100 million people. The BAYAN alliance is equally confident that through unity and struggle the Filipino people can overcome imperialism and its local lackeys in order to construct a new society based not on profits and pilfering but the diverse needs of the population.

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