The First Quarter Storm Was No Dinner Party, Part 2

The siege of Malacañang between activists and riot police (Source: "UG: An Underground Tale" by Benjamin Pimentel)

This is the second part of "The First Quarter Storm Was No Dinner Party". Part 1 was published last week



To Malacañang went Jopson’s NUSP and the National Students League, headed by Portia Ilagan of the Philippine Normal College and, later, of Tower Film Productions. The radicals had their antifascism rally at Congress, but at five o’clock, the rally over, they proceeded to Malacañang.

At about the same time, Jopson, Ilagan, and several other student leaders of similar stripe were in Mr. Marcos’s study room for a dialogue. They had been there since half past three. The President had told them he was not interested in a third term, Jopson had demanded: “Put that down in writing,” and Mr. Marcos, piqued by the boy’s insolence, had lashed back at Jopson by calling him the “son of a grocer.”

Sometime past six, Jopson, Ilagan, and their companions ended their dialogue with the President and headed for the Palace front door. They were met by the sound of glass breaking and pillboxes exploding.

The long night of January 30 had begun.

Jopson and company fled back into the Palace, taken aback by the fury that had broken out at the gates. They were graciously shown the back door, ferried across the river, and allowed to go home safely, presumably to watch television. They missed out on all the action.

On J.P. Laurel, the militants had captured a fire truck and were ramming it into Gate 4. When the locks gave way and the gate clanged open, the more daring among the insurgents darted onto the Palace grounds, lobbing rocks, pillboxes, and molotov cocktails.

As sheets of flame unfurled on the driveway and the smell of gasoline floated in the air, the Presidential Guard Battalion came out in full force, guns barking. The rebs drew back, but not before putting the fire truck and a government car to the torch.

Within minutes, the army, the navy, the marines, the riot squads, the constabulary, the Metrocom, and even the dreaded Special Forces were at the gates of Malacañang to protect the President, whose family had already been whisked away by helicopter. It was these formidable forces that the activists, with their molotov cocktails and pillboxes and steel bars, ripped out of the railings that then separated the lanes of Manila’s thoroughfares, now did battle with.

Again, it was a seesaw battle between the youth and the military. When the enemy attacked, the activists retreated; when the enemy paused, the activists counter-attacked. In the face of a superior force, the rebs were steadily driven out of J.P. Laurel and farther down Mendiola.

All hell broke loose. The cops came rushing down from the steps of Congress and charged into the mass of demonstrators.

They held Mendiola Bridge for a time, lost it to the enemy, regained it, lost it again, recaptured it again; but by nine o’clock Mendiola Bridge had fallen to the military.But the end was not yet in sight. All through the night and into the early dawn, the battle raged with an intensity that could only stagger one who had for years been brainwashed into believing that the Filipino was a timid cringing creature hopelessly sunk in apathy and despair.

For here was life and energy and anger lighting up the night, animating this battle that now spread out to Recto and Legarda and into the darkest alleys and crannies of Sampaloc and Quiapo, keeping the city awake with bonfires and barricades and earsplitting explosions. Neither guns nor tear gas could drive the demonstrators home or keep the city residents in the squalid quarters of noninvolvement.

Dispersed, the militants kept returning, massing at every street corner to harass the military with rocks and jeers. Cornered, they found doors being opened to them and sanctuary being given them in dingy accesorias where they would be refreshed by food, water, and spontaneous expressions of support and encouragement.

Into the streets they would storm once more, where always there was a gathered mass, activists and city residents together, surprised by their own unity, buoyed up by their new-found audacity, all their senses tingling to strange new sensations.

Four young men were felled by government bullets that night, hundreds of others were wounded, battered or bruised, and in many a middle-class home parents could only shake their heads in sorrow and bewilderment, no, my child was not a part of it, my child was an innocent bystander, my child was never an activist.

But that night of January 30 no one who did not belong to the camp of the enemy could remain a bystander; anyone who was not a minion of the state became instantly an activist, even if only for a moment. Every soul who had ever experienced poverty and oppression found himself linked to his neighbor in those hours of turmoil, welded tightly by a shared fate and a common exhilaration. A spirit was abroad that night, and the streets spoke of it in whispers: the revolution has arrived ….

And indeed, the revolution was on everybody’s mind, before everybody’s eyes.

Student leader Edgar Jopson (seated, 2nd from left) in face-to-face meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos, asking him not to run for a third term and to put it in writing. Marcos answered: "Who are you to tell me what to do? You're only a son of a grocer!", January 30, 1970. (Source: Mar M. Galang)

Mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends sat by the radio throughout that sleepless night, all on edge, thinking of the revolution. That night, an exodus of privilege made ghost towns of the exclusive villages in the suburbs; the chi-chi crowd, fear in their guts and guilt in their hearts, holed up with their hysteria in the big hotels, driven there by the certainty that Forbes Park and Bel-Air and Dasmarinas and Magallanes would be set afire by an avenging people.

But the revolution is not a Hollywood movie, its alarums and excursions completed at the fadeout. The long night of January 30, which ended at dawn of the following day, was so far the most violent night in the city’s postwar history, but it was not the revolution.

The following day, as panic buying emptied the groceries and supermarkets, a mass of thanksgiving was celebrated on the Palace grounds and the President appeared on television to inform the nation that what the armed forces had so valiantly repulsed was “a premeditated attack on the government, an act of rebellion and subversion.”

The attackers, he said, waved red banners, carried the national flag with the red field up, called the streets they occupied “liberated areas,” and shouted: “Dante for President!”— proof, in Mr. Marcos’s eyes, that this was a “revolt by local Maoist Communists.” The accused would deny the charge.

“For the general information of Marcos and his cowardly ilk,” said an Ang Bayan release, “the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army are now engaged in a protracted people’s war which is at this moment in the initial stage of strategic defensive. The Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army are not putschists.”

The students themselves would insist that the revolution they were waging was primarily a cultural revolution, and in the days that followed they made clear what that was all about.

Coffins symbolizing the death of the 1970 Constitutional Convention and the death of students during siege of Malacañang on January 30, 1970  (Source: "UG: An Underground Tale" by Benjamin Pimentel)

In demo after demo, in “people’s congress” and “people’s march,” the militants would bring their cause to the people, explaining the issues and problems that they felt needed to be known. The aim was to “politicize the masses,” to awaken them to the truth of their social condition, to make them aware of their own history and the roots of their current misery, which decades of brainwashing and historical distortion had blotted out of the national consciousness.

The ills of the nation were traced to three evils and named imperialism, feudalism, and fascism (later in the year, bureaucrat capitalism would come in as the third evil, with fascism being explained as the instrument with which the three evils maintained their dominance), and the aim of the cultural revolution was to lay the foundation for a national democratic society—a society free from foreign exploitation (hence, national, anti-imperialist) and for the benefit not of a tiny oligarchy but of the masses of peasants and workers who constituted the vast majority of the population (hence, democratic, antifeudal, antibureaucrat-capitalist).

But the salvation of the people lay in themselves, not in bourgeois messiahs, and this was the reason why it was necessary, through a cultural revolution, to make the people know and accept the truth that would set them free.

In those two months after the January eruptions, a new political force would come on the scene: the national democratic movement. All others would acquire meaning only in juxtaposition with it. “Makibaka! Huwag matakot!” became the national battlecry.

The Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP), a loose alliance of national democratic groups, came to the fore and won the grudging respect even of its enemies because of its ability to mobilize and attract, without benefit of bribery or compulsion, a staggering number of people to its demonstrations.

Gerry Barican, Nelson Navarro, Gary Olivar, Chito Sta. Romana, and Crispin Aranda became familiar names, and Nonie Villanueva, with his fiery speeches and colorful language, became the darling of the Plaza Miranda crowd.

But for those who were caught up in the First Quarter Storm, it is the mass actions rather than the organizations and the personalities that have become indelibly etched in the memory.

January 30 was followed by February 12, when the MDP made its bow before the public. A rally at Plaza Miranda was scheduled, then almost called off when some MDP leaders agreed to a dialogue with Mr. Marcos on the eve of the demo.

‘Makibaka! Huwag matakot!’ became the national battlecry.

The MDP realized its mistake in time, seeing the fatuity of dialogue, and pushed through what turned out to be the biggest demonstration ever on Plaza Miranda, a veritable avalanche of dissent. The protest did not end in violence, and this was what the press noticed; but for many a youth who sat entranced like children discovering the alphabet, the giant teach-in was the first introduction to those mysterious words: imperialism, feudalism, fascism.

On February 18, Plaza Miranda was the scene of another mammoth gathering. This was the first demonstration to be called a “people’s congress,” and it lasted well into the evening. Sometime past eight, when the people’s congress formally came to a close, around 5,000 of the most militant activists, chanting “Makibaka! Huwag matakot!”, broke off from the rest of the home-bound crowd and marched on to the US Embassy.

There, they went on a rampage, turning their intellectual denunciation of U.S. imperialism into a concrete manifestation of rage, storming the Embassy with rocks and pillboxes, even crashing bodily into the building. Before the cops arrived, an hour or two later, the Embassy lobby was in shambles.

The next day, the American ambassador delivered a note to protest the “wanton vandalism” at the U.S. Embassy, and within three hours the Philippine government, which had not even received so much as a reply to three diplomatic letters regarding the killing of Filipinos on U.S. bases, sent a note of apology to the U.S. Embassy.

A week later, on February 26, the MDP militants took to the streets once again. Mr. Villegas had denied them a permit to rally at Plaza Miranda, but the radicals had defiantly proclaimed, believing that the right to assembly could not be curtailed so gratuitously, that with or without a permit the demonstration would go on. And go on it did.

Police arrest militant students at the Congress rally, January 26, 1970. (Source: Romeo Candazo)

The state was equally determined to enforce the law. Hardly had the demonstrators settled on the plaza when the Manila police and the Metrocom set upon them. The activists dispersed and reassembled at the Sunken Gardens, and after a few speeches marched a second time on the U.S. Embassy.

They stoned the Embassy again, gave battle when the cops came to the rescue, then fled, only to reappear hours later on Mendiola for a reenactment of January 30. The cops retaliated by breaking into the Philippine College of Commerce, hitting out at student and professor without discrimination, ransacking the offices and classrooms.

Still undaunted, the MDP organized a “people’s march” on March 3, a long march that grew longer by the hour as it wended its way through the major thoroughfares of the city. The jeepneys were on strike, it was necessary to walk just to get to the assembly points, and yet the organizations taking part in the march had multiplied, the streamers that bore their names waving in the wind.

The march passed by Tondo, ended up at Plaza Lawton, and from there went on to the U.S. Embassy, for another confrontation with the cops. The cops were ten times as relentless and ruthless on this day, chasing their quarry all over the city. In Intramuros, they caught up with a boy named Enrique Sta. Brigida and mauled him to death.

On March 17, still unbeaten and unbowed, the militants were on the march once again. This was the second people’s march, and unlike the first it was focused on a specific issue: Against Poverty.

It was a longer march than the first, starting out in the morning and leaving the beaten path to tread on new territory and enter the ghettoes of the poor. It stopped at Plaza Moriones, where a mock tribunal to pass sentence on the enemies of the people was held; and with nightfall it proceeded to its usual rendezvous: the US Embassy.

The cops were there ahead; the activists decided to avoid a confrontation and headed for Mendiola. It was quiet when they got there; they proclaimed it a liberated area, along with part of Recto, and made bonfires in the middle of the road. In an hour, the cops arrived and the tear gas spread and Mendiola was quiet once more.

The First Quarter Storm was over. But the cultural revolution is still going strong.


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

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.