The First Quarter Storm Was No Dinner Party, Part 1

The large student rally which called for for a non-partisan Constitutional Convention led by the NUSP in front of Congress that triggered the First Quarter Storm. (Source: "UG: An Underground Tale" by Benjamin Pimentel)

What a time it was, that first quarter of the year 1970! It is impossible to recall it in tranquility. The memory of those turbulent days and nights, in those first three months of the opening year of a new decade, turns the air electric in an instant, and suddenly one is reliving a moment in time, feeling once again a throbbing in the temples, a quickening of the pulse, a fever in the blood.

Sounds and images from the past rush into the mind: the blood-spattered truncheons, the fires in the night, the staccato of Armalites, the thunder of home-made bombs, the tear gas crawling down streets and alleys, the flag carried with the red field up, the fists in the air, the tramp of tired but resolute feet, and most of all, the faces of an awakened nation, the dusty, sweaty, exultant faces of militant young men and women on the march, signing the vivid air with their courage.

It was a glorious time, a time of terror and of wrath, but also a time for hope. The signs of change were on the horizon. A powerful storm was sweeping the land, a storm whose inexorable advance no earthly force could stop, and the name of the storm was history.

In the hearts of all who were an active part of it, that moment in time is now enshrined as the First Quarter Storm of 1970.

No weatherman predicted the storm’s advent. The Sixties had closed auspiciously, it seemed, with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and an age of “harmony and understanding” was apparently at hand. In keeping with the spirit of the age, the first reelected President of the Republic announced his decision to give away all his worldly possessions to the Filipino people.

No one really believed he was serious, not even Malacañang’s paid hacks, not even the limousine liberals who still indulged in the wishful thinking that here at last might be a “true because nonreelectionist and nonpolitical” President; but it was a charming gesture nonetheless, and it gave the man in the street reason to believe that, if for nothing else, 1970 would be good for a few belly laughs.

No weatherman could have predicted the storm’s advent, and yet it was inevitable. Day by day the nation was plunging deeper and deeper into crisis. The rich grew richer by the hour, fattening on the spoils of a neocolonial economy and a feudal system, and the masses of the poor could not turn to a hopelessly corrupt government for succor.

It was a glorious time, a time of terror and of wrath, but also a time for hope. The signs of change were on the horizon.

The government was inextricably in debt, inflation was rampant, and the peso, allowed to float, promptly sank. The minimum wage went up by a couple of pesos which came to nothing in the face of higher prices and increasing unemployment. No money could be spared for public schools but billions were fed into the maws of the insatiable military beast.

While Filipinos got shot like wild boars on U.S. military bases, a “civic action” contingent was dispatched, in exchange for a few dollars, to support the American war in Vietnam. From Capas to Taft Avenue to Mindanao, massacres had become a common occurrence.

The nation was fast turning into a “garrison state,” a senator warned, and the President himself described the country as a “social volcano.” To still the growing discontent, the people were given glowing accounts of yacht parties with movie stars and offered a Constitutional Convention.

No weatherman would have predicted a storm, but hindsight now reveals to amateur historians that ominous rumblings augured its breaking out. When the year began, the talk was persistent that the newly elected President was already eyeing a third term, and the news leaked out that the major political parties were already re-oiling their machines in preparation for the coming Constitutional Convention elections.

Tidings of this sort could only heighten the people’s already intense contempt for the politicians in power. At the same time, unnoticed by a sensation-hungry press, the campuses were seething more violently than a witches’ cauldron.

The previous year had seen the groves of academe rocked by riots that sprang out of purely internal issues, ranging from stinking toilets to increased tuition fees. Before that year was over, the students had once again turned their gaze outward, focusing on national as well as international affairs.

In November, they called for a boycott of the polls or half-facetiously promoted a Dante-for-President movement. Neither event attracted national attention, but in retrospect the latter now assumes significance; in it may be discerned a somewhat romantic identification with that mysterious dissident using the nom de guerre Dante, with whom, rumor had it that year, a former student leader had already linked up.

Then, on December 29, 1969, truncheon-swinging cops broke up a rally at the U.S. Embassy protesting the arrival of American Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who had come for the Marcos inauguration. Three students from the University of the Philippines were roughed up and arrested on flimsy charges. The violence and the arrests made news, but the really noteworthy feature of the rally went unnoticed.

It was the first public manifestation at which the Kabataang Makabayan and the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan, the two largest radical youth organizations which had heretofore been vehemently at odds, acted in concert. At this time the alliance was shaky, but unity of sorts had been forged; and with that, the groundwork for the First Quarter Storm, to mix one’s metaphors, had been laid.

Activists shield student Rene Ciria Cruz from arresting officers at the U.S. Embassy, December 29, 1969 (Source: Romeo Candazo)

When classes reopened in 1970 and students came back from their Christmas vacations, December 29 was the topic of the hour, and the campuses hummed with teach-ins and convocations denouncing police brutality and the “rise of fascism.”

The same theme would be hammered on in the days to come, when the protest spilled out of the campus and ended up in three demonstrations at the gates of Malacañang on January 7, 16, and 22. When Congress opened on January 26, 1970, therefore, the more militant among the student population were all keyed up and ready to go into battle at the mere hint of fascism.

The National Union of Students of the Philippines, with Edgar Jopson of the Ateneo for president, had secured the necessary mayor’s permit for the demonstration. The NUSP made a big production out of the affair. It called a press conference a few days earlier and announced that it had given the projected demo a dramatic name, “January 26 Movement,” and a noble purpose, to press for a “non-partisan Constitutional Convention.”

To the January 26 demonstration came other organizations, other groups, the elements known as radical. They showed no interest in the Constitutional Convention and they had come, they said, to expose the true State of the Nation. The placards they carried were made out of those huge calendars the administration had given away during the campaign; but the photos had been touched up to show the President as Hitler, the First Couple as Bonnie and Clyde.

The KM distributed a printed position paper entitled “A Neocolony in Crisis.” It began: “The rapidly deteriorating plight of the masses of the Filipino people proves the utter bankruptcy of neocolonial politics epitomized by the reactionary, pseudo-nationalist policies of the fascist puppet Marcos …”

Truncheon-swinging cops broke up a rally at the US Embassy protesting the arrival of American Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had come for the Marcos inauguration.

The Congress flag was at half-mast, for the representative of Leyte who had recently died. Around the flag-pole were displayed cardboard emblems: a coffin to represent the death of democracy, a crocodile to stand for congressmen, an effigy of Ferdinand Marcos.

On the elevated platform below the flagpole stood the rally leaders; below them, on Burgos Drive, were the demonstrators, about 50,000 of them; from the sidelines watched the helmeted cops with their round wicker shields and wicked rattan truncheons.

Inside the legislative building, after Speaker Laurel and Senate President Puyat banged their gavels to announce the opening of the first session of the Seventh Congress, after Pacifico Ortiz, SJ, intoned an invocation in which he describe the country as “trembling on the edge of revolution,” Mr. Marcos rose to discourse on the State of the Nation. His address bore the title “National Discipline: The Key to Our Future.” No one would recall what it was all about.

When he came out of the building at half past five, to the flash of bulbs and the scamper of security men, unseen hands hurled the cardboard coffin and the cardboard crocodile in his direction, the effigy was set afire, and down on Burgos Drive there arose an insistent chant, denouncing the puppetry of the national leadership.

Then all hell broke loose. The cops came rushing down from the steps of Congress and charged into the mass of demonstrators. Pebbles and crumpled manifestoes flew, then bottles and chairs; the activists scattered as the cops flailed away with their rattan truncheons.

Student leader Edgar Jopson at a briefing before the rally before Congress on January 26, 1970 (Source: "UG: An Underground Tale" by Benjamin Pimentel)

As suddenly as it began, the battle ceased, and the car with the No. 1 plate made good its getaway. The cops retreated into the legislative building with hostage in tow; the demonstrators, mostly radicals, who were not driven all the way home by the charge of the police brigades, quickly regrouped and, arms linked, surged forward, marching in step to a martial chant: “Makibaka! Huwag matakot!

After a tense noisy lull, during which the activists taunted the enemy, the cops charged again, truncheons wildly swinging, and once more the demonstrators scampered away, only to regroup and go on the offensive, hurling rocks and curses as they counter-attacked.

In the next four hours, Burgos Drive would become a raging battlefield, a crucial arena for which the combatants would contend fiercely. About seven times the cops attacked; about seven times they retreated, often on the run, an army routed by a band of children.

Each time they attacked, the cops grew more frenzied, maddened and bewildered by a defiance they had not expected and could not understand; and in the state they were in, none could expect mercy who stood his ground or was slow of foot.

In full view of the television cameras, the agents of the law beat hell out of anyone who fell into their hands, including a group of young men and women trapped inside a rented jeep. It was the Manila Police Department’s finest hour. Mayor Villegas commended the cops for their “exemplary behavior and courage,” and for protecting the lives of the First Couple long after the First Couple had left the scene. But the words of commendation were drowned out in the general outcry against the unprecedented display of sadism.

The very next day, Tuesday, the students declared a week-long boycott of classes and met to plan separate protest rallies. On Wednesday, the Senate and the House of Representatives created a joint committee to investigate the “root causes of demonstrations in general.” On Thursday, the UP faculty, led by S.P. Lopez himself, marched on Malacañang, were invited into Mr. Marcos’s study room, and got a severe tongue-lashing from the President, who challenged any Communist in the group to a debate on the merits of democracy and communism. And then, on Friday, January 30, the students went out into the streets once more for their protest rallies.   


NEXT WEEK: “The Revolution Has Arrived … 

Reprinted with permission from Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage: The First Quarter Storm & Related Events by Jose F. Lacaba, 1982, 2003.

Jose F. Lacaba

Jose F. Lacaba, better known as Pete, is one of the Philippines' most revered journalist, poet, screenwriter, editor and translator. He is currently the Executive Editor of Summit Media's YES! Magazine.