(Note: I have had to revise portions of this essay to reflect the intense and tragic events of the past few days. I have not had to revise much, in the sense that the spirit and drive behind the Davao City Barricade of 18 March and the Kidapawan Barricade of 30 March to 1 April are one and the same. That they happened within days of each other speaks so much about our times, and thus, present opportunities to learn that we must nor muddle nor brush aside.)
In my previous column where I tackled the 18 March lumad and peasant barricade in front of the EastMinCom of the AFP in Panacan, Davao City, I said that in addition to sympathy and charity, what the protesting farmers and lumad also needed was that the public understand the political roots and implications of their mass action.
The roots I have taken up previously, but it bears repeating here (especially in the aftermath of the Kidapawan Massacre). The crucial function of protest can be diachronically glimpsed, and it tells us that almost, if not all, the rights we now enjoy emerged from extra-legal acts. We owe many of our freedoms to people and actions that were deemed unsavory and troublesome. Like today, those who belonged to the status quo could not, or would not, have seen the long term effects of the extra-legal acts that they condemn and malign, convinced as they are that they are living in the best possible times. They were too caught up in their own shortsighted ideology of comfort and prejudice against the unwashed masses.
Thus I return to the present to confront this similar trend that has become agonizingly observable in these tumultuous days in Mindanao and in the age of social media.
Those in the comfort of their homes call it mob rule. That the knee-jerk reaction of Malacañang is to blame “Leftists” reflects a poor understanding of “Leftist” involvement in mass actions as well as belittling the initiatives of ordinary people. The farmers themselves have been blamed, “outsiders” have been blamed, security forces have been placed in the position of “victim”, and mainstream media is, well, mainstream media.
This seeming resistance to deepen opinions and perspectives is troublesome. That this is widespread tells us that these are systemic in nature and not just caused by individual quirks.
Mass actions like these barricades are, and should be, part and parcel of any healthy form of governance. At the simplest, these protests are indicators that all is not well. At its most complex, these extra-legal protests can be seen as instances of the most vigorous manifestation of direct action, that is, the constituents of what we call ‘society’ opting to simply present themselves because those who are supposed to re-present them failed to act on their behalf.
Note that there is nothing exceedingly radical in the demands of these farmers and lumad. Indeed, what they are asking for should already be theirs, like access to calamity funds, basic services like education, respecting their civilian status during military operations. Note, too, the lapse of time between when problems were first noticed and their decisions to take to the streets, indicative of their first option to resort to more conventional channels (dialogues with government agencies and officials for example, such as what the lumad community schools did with the DepEd regarding militarization and in the matter of being given a permit to operate).
The lumad’s and farmers’ choice to launch mass protests (from the Manilakbayan to the barricades in Davao and Kidapawan cities, and many others) fit Andreas Kalyvas’ definition of what he called “the politics of the extraordinary” (which is also the title of this highly seminal work in political science), which he says has “…high levels of collective mobilization… the emergence of irregular and informal public spaces; and the formation of extra-institutional and antistatist movements that directly challenge the established balance of forces, the prevailing politicosocial status quo, the state legality, and the dominant value system.” He continues that it is “during these extraordinary moments [that] the slumbering popular sovereign wakes up to reaffirm its supreme power of self-determination and self-government…”
Kalyvas characterized the politics of the extraordinary as related to, but should be analytically distinguished from, the usual dichotomy of “reform or revolution”. Acts that fall under the “politics of the extraordinary” dramatically “expand the scope of the democratic experience”. While Kalyvas’ study focuses upon the politics of the extraordinary as “founding moments” and the origins of democracy, the significance of such politics working within already-established “democratic” societies is undeniable. It enriches our democratic experience and knocks our democratic conscience, depending upon the two possible outcomes that can result from such extraordinary instances.
The first may be categorized as positive outcomes in the sense that democratic definitions are expanded: additional sectors are recognized (such as based upon gender and ethnic affiliations), rights are gained and enshrined (for example, the right to vote, or any form of expanded rights enshrined in any jurisprudence), unconventional channels are affirmed (say, the ouster of Erap Estrada via Edsa Dos).
The second is when extraordinary moments become jarring demonstrations of the might and stubbornness of established groups to cling to their elite position even as they insist on the supremacy of democratic institutions. These are backward outcomes that weaken, rather than strengthen, a democracy. This is what is happening now with the Kidapawan Massacre.
On the side of those in power, they see nothing but disorder in what happened. They cling to the un-theorized and un-empirical view that social life is simply “following rules”. They view extraordinary acts of direct actions and social mobilizations as “inconveniences”, or aberrant forms and low moments of politics. No and no, says Kalyvas. They are originary, foundational, and high moments in any healthy political life of a society claiming to be “democratic”. Ordinary people in those high moments of collective mobilizations learn what the “sovereign will of the people” is, in the “university of the streets” (as perceptive thinkers from historian Renato Constantino to the artist Gary Ganada came to understand).
Armed with the right perspective of politics—noting correctly that these extraordinary acts are sharp indicators of institutional lapses that carry potentials for lessening the gap between the rulers and the ruled—the right response to such “politics of the extraordinary” is better statesmanship and quick succoring of grievances. The State and their apologists cannot therefore in full honesty just invoke democratic principles (such as simple “majority rules”, or “respect the law of the land”) in dealing with such situations.
I remember Davao City Administrator Atty. Melchor Quitain at the Panacan barricade, concerned yet composed, calmly mediating between the protest organizers and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila. If not for the coterie of media following him around, you probably won’t even notice that he was in the thick of things. Quitain and Duterte exercised not only maximum tolerance but also open and dignified dialogue with the barricaders. Contrast this with the intolerant sloppiness of government officials in Kidapawan, capped now with victim-blaming and ass-covering. Rulers who genuinely espouse democratic principles and understand the importance of the ‘politics of the extraordinary’ will never use brute violence against an awakened will of the ruled.
It is ironic that the supposedly uneducated among us are at the forefront of expanding the arenas of political engagement. No doubt this is a consciousness made possible by keen observation and active participation in social struggles, for what can you do when the agencies that should care for you are the first to hang you out to dry? Nothing short of the extraordinary.