Manila Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso, who’s more popularly known as Isko Moreno, is thinking of putting up a “Freedom Wall” on which citizens can express their frustrations, call on others to be involved in public issues, and post their demands on government agencies or private entities like the media and employers. Such a facility would help enhance the capacity of students, labors, farmers, environmentalists, journalists, human rights defenders, and other groups to bring their concerns to their countrymen and engage them in their advocacies.
The mayor didn’t say so, but he was implicitly acknowledging everyone’s right to free expression as well as the legitimacy of the social, political, and other demands that often end up as spray-painted graffiti on whatever space is available in the mean streets of Manila and elsewhere.
If implemented, his proposal would offer to anyone with something to say the opportunity to publicly speak their minds even if only in writing. But it won’t be anything new. The United Kingdom’s Hyde Park is a free speech zone where anyone can say practically anything. Singapore’s own Speakers’ Corner provides the same opportunity. When it was still socialist, China’s “wall newspapers” empowered citizens to express themselves and even criticize government policies.
The mayor had earlier threatened to force those responsible for the “vandalization” of the newly painted walls of Manila’s Lacson Underpass into licking off with their tongues what they had spray painted on them. He has apparently relented.
A cultural organization has claimed responsibility for painting the mayor’s walls. Its members justified what they did by saying that first, the public issues they were addressing — high prices, extrajudicial killings, the continuing threat of authoritarian rule — should take precedence over keeping walls and other spaces immaculate. Second, they said they had no other, or only very limited means through which to express their views, hence their use of whatever space is available to call the public’s attention to those issues.
But judging from the reactions over Twitter, Facebook, and the online news sites, most of those who access either old or new media are not buying into the group’s argument. Never mind the usual trolls and obvious bots, but most of the comments were exactly opposite of that of the Panday Sining cultural group’s views. Some said, between calling them other names, that they were just vandals. Others said political and other demands should find expression elsewhere; activists should leave Manila’s precious walls alone. The usual hate, violence, and death mongers also called on the mayor to take even more drastic steps than those mandated by anti-vandalism laws.
All were in effect belittling the reality of inflation, the urgency of the Philippine human rights crisis that’s escalating in the context of police and military impunity, the runaway corruption, and the de facto undeclared martial rule in many areas of the Philippines. Instead they were making keeping walls immaculate their and government’s first priority instead of affirming the right to free expression as a means of combating the torments that define life in much of these sorry isles. They were also implying that there are other means of expression available other than city walls.
Were they perhaps thinking of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram? Or of the newspapers and the television and radio networks? Probably. Unfortunately, neither social media — despite exaggerated claims to the contrary — nor the corporate press are the best means through which to engage others politically and to bring about change in either their outlook, commitment, or lack of it. Both old and new media harden existing views rather than challenge them. It’s a reality that leaves those groups that want to call attention to their concerns with very limited options.
Like “freedom walls,” painting political and other demands on walls, as well as pasting newspaper strips or masking tape (called peryodikit) on them with calls and slogans as well as comments on a variety of issues isn’t exactly new either. Because the government-controlled media were incapable of doing it, anti-martial law activists used both methods during the Marcos dictatorship to describe what was happening and to urge citizens to join the resistance against martial rule. The use of walls and other spaces to call attention to social and political issues and to resist tyrannical rule isn’t as pointless and misdirected as many Filipinos with no sense of history think.
In many other countries, among them the United States, where such issues as global warming, unemployment, racism, gun violence, and discrimination are still major concerns, merely spray-painting walls with protests has morphed into street art. It is equally possible in the Philippines. What groups like Panday Sining can seriously look into is harnessing the energies and commitment of its members in transforming available space into paintings and murals through which their messages could be more powerfully conveyed and could better resonate among passers-by than mere words.
It would be within the Philippine artistic community’s long, historic tradition that goes back to Juan Luna of using art to protest social injustice, colonial rule, imperialist plunder, authoritarian violence, and other inequities. Some of its current expressions have in fact been plainly visible in the caricatures, cartoons, and papier-mâché effigies that, produced by unnamed folk and professional artists, often accompany and are the centerpieces of rallies, demonstrations, picket lines, and other mass actions.
Meanwhile, those truly concerned with vandalism as more than the defacement of walls with calls for political engagement could do better by seriously protesting the continuing assault on human rights and the rule of law, Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, and plain bad manners that have become the new normal because of what passes for government policy and public discourse today. These are the worst forms of vandalism in that they are rapidly reducing most Filipinos into the unquestioning robots on whose support tyrannies thrive.
The truest Vandals among us are those heralds of despotism and corruption who, two years before the 2019 elections, were already plastering every available space with tarpaulins and streamers bearing their faces and exaggerating their value to this country and its people. With them are the Goths who are laying siege to the Constitution, and who, with their profanity, illogic, hate speech, violence, and unreason are shredding the already tattered remains of Philippine democracy.
The Vandals and the Goths of history were Germanic tribes that pillaged ancient Rome and destroyed much of what remained of the Empire. We have in our midst today the replicants of those very same barbarian hordes. But they are not all in the highest posts of government. Some are also brain-dead senators and congressmen, lawless judges, self-aggrandizing bureaucrats, and corrupt military and police officers.
But they also include those social and broadcast and print media hacks who, disguised as journalists, daily contribute to the debasement of public discourse in behalf of their well-paying masters. Add to that company your common middle-class boors who despise press freedom and free expression. Made ignorant by the diploma mills pretending to be universities that they attended, they shrug off the killing of their countrymen, the destruction of entire communities, and the demise of civility in favor of whitewashed walls and other public spaces unsullied by demands for justice, common decency, and respect for human lives, values and aspirations. They too are in the worst sense Vandals and Goths.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).