The extent of my host Flora’s notoriety in her work as a community organizer is becoming clearer the more time I spend as her tag along. Lately I’ve been present at lots of impromptu street meetings convened on concrete steps or leaning on bollards when one of her urban poor affiliates has a problem. At any time of day on a street corner somewhere I hover in the background while she gradually accumulates a crowd of a dozen or so and gives counsel. Inevitably someone disappears then reappears with food and drink, they all look at me like I’m stupid every time I try to communicate that I’d like to give them some money in return. I actually only yesterday figured out that as a full time organizer Flora has no income and relies on small gestures of generosity like this.
I get the full story of her involvement in the conflict over the San Roque North Triangle demolition attempt. She tells me she went door to door to incite the people to take the fight onto the road and shut down the arterial North EDSA. This little old lady has a naughty smile on her face and chuckles when she tells me how they were able to paralyze a whole section of Manila for 7 hours and succeeded in making international headlines and embarrassing the President on his visit to the US.
I also got the background to Sitio San Mendis-the slum ‘success story’ I’d visited earlier and spent the night in. This apparently also started with a violent demolition. Then figuring they’d take their fight to where it was most visible the community marched on city hall where they remained - for 6 weeks. 500 people slept on the concrete under the wide open porticoes and choked QC city hall with daily placarded demonstrations and requests for an audience with the Mayor and his aids. Flora tells me they had organized teams to keep constant pressure on City Hall while other teams solicited donations and support (and food) from elsewhere to sustain the protesters. At one time Police resorted to using tear gas but were unable to dislodge them. The conflict also made international headlines and came to an end when a representative of UN Habitat sought Flora out personally and offered their support. I cant help but admire her balls (but having said that I appreciate at present I’m only being exposed to one side of the story; apologies to anyone who’s better informed than me if I oversimplified the above).
Politics here seems to have a lot of kitsch pop culture overtones, almost like you have to market yourself as a celebrity action hero to succeed (one QC Councillor Suntay does exactly that and replaces the ‘S’ in his name with Superman’s insignia and poses with a guy wearing a foam muscle suit likeness of himself in a cape). For an outsider its just a little bit hard to take seriously (for example earlier one of Flora’s helpers asked me if I want to hear her ‘theme song’. Turns out when running in the last Barangay election she commissioned a jingle where her name is repeated over and over to the tune of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’).
Nevertheless the work done here is serious. I recently got the chance to meet some of the rest of Flora’s organization Sanlakas, including one Rasti. Rasti is a Filipino who has the Dalai Llama’s haircut and GI Joe’s khaki pants and combat boots. After talking to him for 5 minutes I’m pretty sure this look is not an accident. He introduces himself and he’s clearly very sharp, he speaks with a slight American twinge and is the first person I’ve met so far with whom I can converse in English at normal speed. He’s an almanac on political philosophy and tells me he was last in Australia 10 years ago to attend a Marxism convention in Sydney. The Australian consulate in the Philippines at the time initially denied him entry stating they had reason to believe he had links with terrorist organizations in the Middle East. I ask him what would make them think that and he tells me immediately prior to his visit to Australia he had been in Baghdad attending an anti-imperialism conference with Sadam’s then Deputy PM Tariq Aziz (who’s currently on death row). This was during the blockade immediately before the first gulf war started and as there were no flights, attending the conference meant a 13 hour truck ride across the desert.
When he speaks he refers to Australia as a junior imperialist and the Aquino government of the Philippines as a regime. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve heard refer to it like that and he says ‘This is the politically accurate term, if we call it a government or a democracy that is an apologist glossing over of its shortcomings.” He asks me what my political persuasions are and how I came to be here and the look on his face gives me the impression I’m being judged on my answer. This is not something I carry around in my head ready to recite to people but I have a pretty clear idea so I launch into an impromptu monologue and quote the Venus Project to him. I tell him I believe that globally, suffering originates from scarcity, and through a peaceful replacement of those parts of the system that propagate scarcity and inequality we can eventually remove the need to compete with each other. I can see his eyes light up a little when he realizes I have something to say on the subject. He turns his chair to face mine and says “Comrade Marcus, I respect your position but...” and tells me he’s been dealing with idealistic young people like me since the 80‘s, and the problem with me and NGO’s is that we naively want to operate within a system that's rotten to its core and can do nothing to change the systematic exploitation of everyone else by the elite. Rasti speaks very passionately and its obvious his knowledge on the subject is huge. He gives examples from Latin American revolutions and refers to different figures as his Comrades; ‘Comrade Chavez’ and ‘Comrade Guevara’ etc. His belief is that the only way to pursue equality globally is a complete removal of capitalism.
I tell him that it sounds like we’re talking about very similar ends we just envision very different means of getting there. My knowledge is like a pebble to his mountain so I have to ask him to pardon my ignorance but I didn’t know of any example of an attempted sudden radical change of a political system that wasn’t violent and ultimately doomed to failure. He looks a little bit deflated and tells me that the only successful example is Cuba. At this point I’m thinking that that Che Guevara movie I watched a few weeks back seemed to feature an awful lot of shooting and death, but I don’t mention this. I’m worried if I do this will lead to him telling me that some degree of violence is necessary, and I really don’t want to have that conversation because I want to keep liking this guy.
Rasti goes on to explain (at length) the political orientation of Sanlakas, which is somewhat more radical than I was aware of-not that you’d know it from observing Flora’s work. He’s articulate and its enjoyable to listen to someone so well informed but eventually I start thinking if someone doesn’t interrupt him he will literally talk all night. There must be something inherit in human nature that makes you inclined to agree with someone who’s been talking passionately at you for 3 hours (even if its just to make them stop talking at you isn’t that how Mormons recruit?) but I cant help but find these people a bit inspiring. I feel like they make the things I fill my head with and get worked up about back home seem so trivial.
We eat and the mood lightens right up and Rasti the Radical Socialist tells me he is a head banger and asks me if ACDC are still around. I tell him he’s got the wrong haircut for a head banger. Earlier we’d been talking about separatist groups in the South of the Philippines and I mentioned one I’d heard of who were considered terrorists the ‘Mondo Islamic Liberation Front’ or ‘MILF’. He grins and says “I could tell you about this MILF, but I am also interested in the other kind of MILF.” I tell him I’m very happy I finally found someone here who gets that joke. The women order us to pose for a photo and Rasti puts one fist up in the air (I thought that was black power) I don’t think I’m quite the model revolutionary so i just stick one thumb up instead.