Drought in Leadership

The recent tragedy in Kidapawan is not just about the drought brought by El Niño. It is also a drought in leadership in both the local and national government in this country.

Drought is defined as “a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.” It can also mean “a prolonged absence of something” or a kind of thirst or dry spell.

Based on how the government handled (or bungled) the response to the drought in North Cotabato which led to the farmers’ protest in Kidapawan last April 1, there is obviously a drought in leadership as well. Let me count the ways.

First of all, how is it that we call our country a liberal democracy (sounds like Liberal Party, right?) and yet we hardly show tolerance for dissent and protest? I don’t know about some government officials, but I was certainly taught that Filipinos’ right to express dissent and peacefully assemble and protest are guaranteed by the Philippine constitution. And last I checked, dissent and protest are considered criminal only under totalitarian regimes.

Second, is the Philippine National Police on board with the concept that the Philippines is a democratic society? If so, are their roles as police and peace officers clear to them under such a society? In a democracy, the role of the police in relation to political protests is basically a politically neutral force that acts primarily to enforce the law and protect the public. On the other hand, in a totalitarian state, the police is used as a repressive force to maintain an unjust social system.

And lastly and the most absurd of all, in my opinion, is the ridiculous reaction of the government in the aftermath of the violent dispersal of the protest. Not only are they more concerned in covering up their incompetence in resolving the drought crisis, they also showed their insensitivity and lack of compassion by blaming the protesters-victims and filing charges against them for “direct assault upon an agent or a person in authority.” Talk about adding insult to injury.

And speaking of insults, North Cotabato Governor Lala Taliño Mendoza, instead of graciously thanking concerned citizens for helping her hungry and injured constituents, she lashed at them and considered those sacks of rice they sent as “insulting” to her.  Gosh, I hate to break it to you, governor, but this is not about you. So get over it and just do your job. And by job, I do not mean campaigning for your Liberal Party or filing charges against your critics and those helping them. You may consult the local government code for this purpose or just review your oath of office.

I don’t know why we keep calling our country a democracy when our government keeps reacting violently to dissent and protest. In the case of the Kidapawan protest, the government keeps harping about how forces identified with the Left (usually critics of the government) have infiltrated their ranks and agitated the farmers into protesting. And they use that lame excuse to deny the protesters what they are asking for. It is not as if what they are asking for is the moon, they are only asking for food. I do not recall any conditions set in the country’s food security program that government should only feed those who agree with and support the current administration.

And what’s up with the violence, police? If you show up at a peaceful protest with military vehicles and weapons, you will definitely make people – especially hungry and angry ones under the heat of the sun – anxious and agitated. If you show up in full riot garb, your faces covered, you dehumanize yourselves to protesters. You are are no longer a fellow Filipino, you become a faceless symbol of an oppressive state that the people are protesting against.

Perhaps, instead of shooting at angry yet unarmed civilians, you should examine why the people you are sworn to serve and protect do not trust and respect you.  There must be a failure in your current community policing strategies when the community is not cooperating with you.

Community policing is a form of policing that stresses interaction over reaction, deescalation over brute force, and that police should have a stake in the communities they serve.

Former Washington, DC police chief Jerry Wilson, on a book on police militarization, said: “The use of violence is not the job of police officers. Intimidating police presence did not prevent confrontation, it invited it. Police are more effective when they are welcomed and respected in the communities they serve.”

In his master’s thesis on policing and protests at the Naval Postgraduate School, Major Max Geron offered this advice: “The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all. You want to let people exercise their constitutional rights without interference.”

Police organizations are fond of protocol and standard operating procedures. In dealing with mass protests, sometimes the best response is not the standard response or what is defined by protocol. In the case of the Kidapawan protest, you have people who are hungry and angry and desperate. You are dealing with a community that feels wronged, that an injustice was done to them. Geron said that while we need to protect the safety of police personnel, we must also be aware of people’s fears and show them we are willing to make concessions to accommodate those fears. Communication is key to establish trust and expectations of what is allowed and not allowed.

In a democracy, the police do not exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process. In an ideal world, preserving order and protecting rights are the same thing. Freedom and safety should not be an either-or, zero-sum relationship.

That we are still confused in 2016 about how a democratic government should handle a crisis like what happened in Kidapawan only proves that we have a drought in leadership in all levels of government, including the police. I hope in the coming national and local elections, we elect leaders who understand, embrace, and support democratic principles and processes. Because this mockery of democracy must stop.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, April 7, 2016