From Placards to Memes

| Written by Fred Dabu

The Diliman Commune. Photo from The University of the Philippines: A University for Filipinos, edited by Gloria D. Feliciano (1984)
The Diliman Commune. Photo from The University of the Philippines: A University for Filipinos, edited by Gloria D. Feliciano (1984)

 

The University of the Philippines, the country’s national university, is known globally as a university system that fosters the ideals of academic excellence, freedom and human rights, nationalism and development, and progressive thinking, hence its campuses, especially the UP Diliman and Manila campuses, are also famous for being centers of student activism and dissent.

 

UP students hold a demonstration against the Manila Times in one of the first protests in UP. Photo from The University of the Philippines: A University for Filipinos (Feliciano, 1984)
UP students hold a demonstration against the Manila Times in one of the first protests in UP. Photo from The University of the Philippines: A University for Filipinos (Feliciano, 1984)

 

The culture of activism in UP that we recognize today has largely been shaped by the student and people’s movements that challenged the prevailing social order and culminated in historical events from the 1960s to the present. Younger generations of scholars have taken the helm and are carrying on with the “fight for a better world,” bringing with them the valuable lessons of the past and learning from existing social realities and the people’s ongoing struggles.

 

From Placards to Memes

 

How it began

The earliest protests in UP happened between 1915-1920, when students petitioned university officials and held demonstrations during the term of UP’s first Filipino President Ignacio Villamor. They involved the wrongful arrest of an instructor during the celebration of the first University Day, extended scholarships, and most loudly then, the “unwarranted press attack” on Villamor. From the UP campus along Padre Faura, students and faculty marched toward the Manila Times office in Sta. Cruz, Manila to condemn the newspaper’s editorial and to defend UP’s Villamor. The issue of tuition hikes first surfaced during the term of President Rafael Palma (1923-1933).

 

Student leaders welcome the first year students of UP Diliman during the Freshie Welcome Assembly on August 7 at the University Theater (Villamor Hall) in UP Diliman, Quezon City. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)
Student leaders welcome the first year students of UP Diliman during the Freshie Welcome Assembly on August 7 at the University Theater (Villamor Hall) in UP Diliman, Quezon City. (Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO)

 

The first UP administrations up to the 1970s are credited for institutionalizing academic freedom and excellence, student leadership, service, and patriotism, core principles of present-day activism. Palma “encouraged discussions on social and political issues confronting the country.” Jorge Bocobo “promoted patriotism and love of culture in the university. He also promoted values such as discipline, duty and sacrifice, values which he believed were essential for nation-building.”

A bastion of nationalism

Social contradictions transformed UP “into a bastion of intense nationalism” in the 1950s to 1970s.

According to Jose Maria Sison (AB English, 1959), “student activists originating from the UP stirred up the masses of youth and working people to conduct concerted protest actions, shaking the entire country in the entire 1960s, from the demonstration of 5,000 UP student demonstrators… to the First Quarter Storm of 1970 which rocked the national capital region with almost weekly marches and rallies of 50,000 to 100,000 people against the Marcos regime.” Sison should know; he founded a new Communist Party in 1968.

 

The UP Diliman Gender Office doing a groufie for One Billion Rising in February and March 2017 (photo from the UPDGO Facebook page)
The UP Diliman Gender Office doing a groufie for One Billion Rising in February and March 2017 (photo from the UPDGO Facebook page)
Rally against tyranny at PNU-Taft, Sept. 21, 2017 (Photo from UP MPRO)
Rally against tyranny at PNU-Taft, Sept. 21, 2017 (Photo from UP MPRO)

 

Crises and the radicalization of youth in the 1960s to 1970s gave birth to organizations such as the Kabataang Makabayan. Rising prices of basic commodities, worsening poverty of peasants and exploitation of workers, and corruption and abuses reported during those years fueled militancy and social upheavals.

The most dramatic examples of student militancy engaged in by UP students during this period were the massive protests of the First Quarter Storm, including the barricading of the UP Diliman campus against police assaults during the Diliman Commune of February 1971.

 

Students light candles to campaign for justice for Kristel Tejada (Photo from UP MPRO), 2013
Students light candles to campaign for justice for Kristel Tejada (Photo from UP MPRO), 2013
Indignation rally at the UP Diliman Oblation plaza calling for justice for the victims of the Marcos dictatorship and Martial Law era, Nov. 8, 2016 (Photo from UP MPRO)
Indignation rally at the UP Diliman Oblation plaza calling for justice for the victims of the Marcos dictatorship and Martial Law era, Nov. 8, 2016 (Photo from UP MPRO)

 

From radical organizations came the thousands of youth who would become progressive leaders of aboveground organizations, on one hand, and revolutionaries of underground organizations on the other, both aiming to defeat fascism and, soon after, with President Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law in September 1972, the overthrow of the dictatorship.

According to Dr. Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, former vice chairperson of the UP Student Council, “Activists took very seriously the revolutionary imperative of bringing about the downfall of the oppressive status quo… student activists were at the forefront of breaking the “tyranny of silence” by scribbling defiant slogans on blackboards and walls, smuggling manifestoes, holding secret discussions and conducting lightning rallies.”

During martial law, “subversive” organizations were banned, along with the student councils, publications, and organizations that were closed down or tightly watched by the State. Despite the repression, students persevered in fighting for what they believed in, linking up with workers and farmers for social change.

 

UP Baguio's Class of 2016 conduct the traditional lightning rally during the commencement exercises on 23 June 2016 at the Baguio Convention Center (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
UP Baguio’s Class of 2016 conduct the traditional lightning rally during the commencement exercises on 23 June 2016 at the Baguio Convention Center (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
UP Visayas Tacloban College 40th Commencement Exercises, June 27, 2016 at the Arts and Sciences grounds (Photo from https://www.upv.edu.ph/index.php/news/281-upvtc-holds-40th-commencement-exercises)
UP Visayas Tacloban College 40th Commencement Exercises, June 27, 2016 at the Arts and Sciences grounds (Photo from https://www.upv.edu.ph/index.php/news/281-upvtc-holds-40th-commencement-exercises)

 

Meanwhile, the Philippine Collegian and the “mosquito press” continued to publish critical analyses and alternative news and views that the dominant media failed to propagate. Student alliances also succeeded in reviving student councils and publications, and persisted in community service and organizing.

Fraternities such as Alpha Phi Omega also defied the dictatorship. To raise political awareness, APO staged its first Oblation Run in 1977 “to promote “Hubad na Bayani,” a play which exposed Marcos’ myths and denounced the atrocities committed under martial rule. This year, APO is staging the Oblation Run in UP Diliman to call for an end to wars and to extrajudicial killings.

Evolving with the times

After the People Power Revolt at EDSA in 1986, activism in UP continued to address the fundamental ills of Philippine society. The forms of protest and the culture of militancy evolved to adjust to the new challenges and opportunities created by the age of the Internet and the cellular phone, moving from placards to memes.

UP campuses have continued to be centers of activism, evidenced by lightning rallies during commencement exercises; public forums, alternative classes, sit-in demonstrations, room-to-room campaigns, and indoor rallies, among others. Students have also mastered the use of publications and other forms of media; creative and provocative visual campaign materials such as posters, stickers, leaflets, ribbons, effigies; online activism with the use of hashtags, selfies, wefies, videos, profile photos, and websites; community organizing, and many others.

 

Lightning rally at the UP Mindanao 19th Commencement Exercises on June 28, 2016 (Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO)
Lightning rally at the UP Mindanao 19th Commencement Exercises on June 28, 2016 (Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO)
rally during commencement exercises at UPLB (photo from the UPLB Perspective).
Rally during commencement exercises at UPLB (Photo from the UPLB Perspective)

For Renato Reyes, Jr., a student leader in UP Diliman during the 1990s and currently the secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), activism in UP “is something to be proud of,” convinced that “collective action” is the most effective means to make an impact on society.

All UP Academic Employees Union national president and UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences professor Carl Marc Ramota adds that important issues are brought up to policymakers through protest actions. These issues have included tuition and other fee hikes, worsening poverty and human rights issues, election scandals, corruption, and the higher education budget. As a student in UP Manila, Ramota recalls participating in the protest actions leading to EDSA II.

“Activism comes with the realization of one’s role and place in society, that one does not just cater to individual interests, whims or wants and that one’s individual existence serves a higher purpose or calling,” explains Ramota. “UP provides venues by which one can explore, be interested in, and experiment on quite a number of ideas. One must always remind oneself about what activism is for. For whom does one do these things?”

For the Isko, activism is not only a time-honored tradition but an important part of the UP way of life.

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Email the author at upforum@up.edu.ph.

 

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