“As an activist, encounters with the state’s armed machinery like the police and the military are unfortunately inevitable,” says Trist’n Buenaflor, deputy national spokesperson of the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines. Last year, Buenaflor was arrested along with 63 other peasant, youth, and worker organizers on their way to a rally for the president’s State of the Nation Address.
The police then tried to force the Cavite 64, as they were henceforth known, into a month-long “arrest-quarantine” in a Carmona isolation facility. The organizers refused to leave their jeepneys and were detained outside for hours. “The police were adamant in not letting us go after finding out we were activists,” Buenaflor recounts.
This tale is just one of many involving the Philippine National Police (PNP) that have become all too common in recent years—even more so during the pandemic. From extrajudicial killings, illegal charges and imprisonment, and unchecked abuses of power, the policing system in the Philippines is marred with terror and injustice.
Origins of injustice
“There’s a systemic and historic disdain from the state against any form of dissent,” explains Buenaflor. For as long as the policing system in the Philippines has existed, it has served to quell resistance. The PNP itself was patterned after the Philippine Constabulary, which was formed during the American colonial period to suppress the growing labor movement in the country.
Philip Jamilla, public information officer of human rights watchdog, KARAPATAN, claims that the Philippines was the training ground for the modern American policing system: various methods of espionage, capital punishment, and other actions of the same ilk were first tested on Filipinos then brought back to the United States. “It’s a system of importing and exporting tactics,” Jamilla remarks.
He opines that the foundations of the police force snowballed into a larger mass of injustices throughout the many political regimes that the Philippines has endured. No matter who’s in power, the police consistently reinforce the status quo. For Buenaflor, this is why it’s myopic to judge police brutality as merely a result of individual choices. “You cannot look at [the] police as an individual. It is a sin; they are always judged as an institution, and rightfully so,” he insists.
Jamilla pinpoints that the current regime has empowered the police even further. He adds, “No less than President Duterte called us (KARAPATAN) an organization of demons way back in one of his addresses.”
The police, which is primarily a civilian force, has grown increasingly militarized. He and his fellow human rights workers are regularly subjected to relentless profiling and harassment tactics, such as police surveillance, interrogation, and illegal arrest charges. Once, PNP-Cabuyao publicly red-tagged Jamilla on their official Facebook account. Police dressed up as delivery men have even shown up in KARAPATAN offices with void warrants.
With counter-insurgency operations at an all-time high, human rights workers are endangered more than ever. In 2018, one of Jamilla’s colleagues, human rights advocate Zara Alvarez was included in a terrorist list by the Department of Justice. Alvarez was shot dead by unknown assailants in Bacolod last August, and Jamilla suspects that state forces were behind it.
Buenaflor does not mince words either. Calling the police “Duterte’s lapdogs”, he highlights that state forces have enforced the president’s “de facto martial law rule” by weaponizing the pandemic. “The two bloody massacres that happened here in Southern Tagalog…is a testament to that,” he adds.
All these issues now beg the question of whether police reform is still a possibility. Both Jamilla and Buenaflor are not keeping their hopes up. “What we need is a true nationalist and democratic armed forces that has only one bias: the democratic rights of the Filipino people,” asserts the latter.
Jamilla and KARAPATAN are not ruling out the possibility of a reformed police force. However, he also stresses that removing Duterte from power would be a huge step in the right direction. “You have to remove its enabler, ‘yung kanilang padrino,” he affirms.
But the true goal would be to address “the roots of crime and disorder” comprehensively. Jamilla emphasizes that defunding the ballooning police budget and adequately allocating funds to remedy joblessness and the lack of essential social services is the key to a society without a need for policing.
A worthy alternative to the ideal-but-unlikely police reform movement is proper accountability mechanisms. “If the PNP wants to hold itself accountable…it should allow the International Criminal Court…to look into the cases of human rights violations systemically committed by the PNP throughout the years,” Jamilla posits. However, this is in stark contrast to what the PNP has actually been doing, with the task force constantly rejecting requests and orders of investigation by the United Nations under the excuse that it interferes with the country’s sovereignty.
Indeed, Jamilla believes that there is very little merit in holding out for the government to admit its faults. “Kita naman natin ngayon na they’re saying that the cases [of] police violence in the recent months [ay] hindi related sa drug war…[that] they’re isolated cases, but they’re not,” Jamilla maintains. Although bleak, at the end of the day, Buenaflor reiterates that “you cannot reform an institution rooted in imperialism.”
(We now see how they’re saying that the cases of police violence in the recent months aren’t related to the drug war…that they’re isolated cases, but they’re not.)
A reckoning will come
Buenaflor insists that self-proclaimed patriotic policemen should remember that the Lapu-Lapu symbol in their badge stands for resistance to oppressors. He adds, “They should join the masses in breaking the status quo.”
The rise of anti-establishment movements around the world in the past year alone, such as Black Lives Matter and the Hong Kong protests, only proves that the people will continue to defy tyrannical systems—even if they have to dismantle them piece by piece through organized efforts. Buenaflor states, “And what is activism but the end of individual efforts and the start of collective action?”