By: Reyshimar Arguelles
Understanding the history of dissent in the Philippines is fruitless without mention of the First Quarter Storm, a period of protests that demonstrated the political and social value of student activism in the country. It came at a time when the Marcos administration, already having “earned” a second term in the 1969 elections, was plagued with rising inflation and unemployment. Students, educators, and labor unions took to the streets in a show of force against what was deemed to be an elitist government that was slowly transmuting into a neo-fascist regime.
Beyond that, the period was marked by an upheaval of revolutionary fervor that had swept the globe during the 1960s. It came alongside the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the May 1968 protests in France which were all based on resisting the forces that sought greater control of civil liberties, the continued exploitation of the working class, and the promotion and legitimization of jingoist ideals.
The First Quarter Storm was seen to be a by-product of popular revolutionary ideas at that time, with students chanting Marxist slogans and calling for the dismantling of anti-democratic and bourgeois systems. In some way, the protests were thought to have ideological and, to some extent, countercultural bearings. In actuality, the First Quarter Storm was a convergence of different groups that happened to possess the same aspirations: peace, equality, freedom.
These principles were at the heart of the student movement that blossomed in state-run educational institutions, notably the University of the Philippines. The vibrant activist culture in UP became the catalyst of youth movements that came even after the collapse of the Marcos regime. During the First Quarter Storm, students from UP and other state universities led marches towards Malacañan Palace in an effort to take over the reins of government. They were met by truncheons and water cannons from the police. Many were arrested, and many more were pushed further towards embracing the need for revolutionary struggle.
Another event that further solidified UP’s activist culture was the Diliman Commune of 1971. Students and professors set up barricades within the Diliman campus and fought off police and soldiers in a siege that lasted more than a week. The reason behind the Commune, according to former DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo during a 2011 forum, was to show solidarity with transport groups protesting against high fuel prices. More than that, the event was also triggered by “military incursions and attacks on academic freedom,” to which the Diliman communards responded with Molotov cocktails, firecrackers, and homemade flamethrowers.
Since then, people have the general impression that UP is nothing but a wellspring of leftist radicals and potential rebels. But this is never the case. The First Quarter Storm and other subsequent developments were the result of a broader movement encompassing the academe, the urban and rural poor, the private sector, the clergy, and civil society organizations within and outside Metro Manila. Urban centers elsewhere were also up in arms in defiance of a dictatorship that was already in the offing.
The conditions that gave rise to the modern protest movement still exist today when populist leaders hold the reins of power and peddle their despotic tendencies as though being an autocrat were a badge of honor. So long as these so-called messiahs remain in power, the conditions that subjugate those at the base of the socio-economic hierarchy will continue to normalize state oppression at the behest of powerful puppeteers operating within and outside the country.
Student dissent is still as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. It is a hallmark of freedom, one that lets us realize that there are no chains strong enough to hold down our aspirations for a just society. As students across the country continue to uphold the legacies of momentous events like the First Quarter Storm, we all have to realize the value of activism and what it has achieved so far.
Sure enough, the act of going against a government that thinks it’s right has to be the greatest form of political engagement the youth can exercise. It’s not a question of ideology anymore. It’s now a question of whether you’re doing the right thing or not.
Obviously, surrendering to a system that protects the interests of the rich and powerful few to the detriment of the servile many is all sorts of wrong.
This is something we shouldn’t take sitting down.