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People Power: 37 years hence

By Joel Pablo Salud Published Feb 24, 2023 8:04 pm Updated Feb 24, 2023 8:25 pm

People Power.

It has been hailed, praised to high heavens, celebrated, hammered, ravaged, stabbed, shot full of holes, sawed in half, deboned, skinned alive, gagged with barbed wire, interned, exhumed, burned at the stake, hanged by its eyelids, and left to die. 

Thirty-seven years since the day millions gathered to overthrow a dictator: Where are we in understanding it? We’ve done pretty much everything to figure out its continuing riddle, shy of slamming it onto a petri dish. Reportage after reportage, literature after literature, TV shows, talk shows, videos, indie films: We’ve mashed it so dry that if not for the hope and love of memory, it is almost unrecognizable.

Thousands of unarmed men and women stand against the Marines and their tanks with machine guns on Ortigas Avenue (Presidential Museum and Library PH)

I walked the length and breadth of EDSA as a young man knowing little of what was going on. The only thing certain was that we wanted them out. "Nuf’s enough. As to what might follow in the wake of the ouster, we left it all in the hands of Fate. Thirty-seven years after the fact, I am forced to look at it again, now from the lens of a writer. What can I say that hasn’t been said?

Democracy is a tricky business. Like life it has its ups and downs. Everyone’s interpretation of that shining moment mixed in a hot bowl of social media vitriol, and what do we have? Quite surprisingly, a slice of history that has been to hell and back. Try as people might, no one can put a good Filipino down.

Marines and their war machines along Ortigas Avenue (Presidential Museum and Library PH)
Standing with their arms linked, men face the military tanks as they cried, "We are all Filipinos. Are you going to shoot fellow Filipinos?" (Presidential Museum and Library PH)

Surely, we’re far from perfect as the return of the ousted has shown. What could’ve been democracy’s definitive hour began smelling like corpses with the loss of Leni Robredo. Our hopes dashed, we gathered the pieces and licked our wounds if only to fight another day. We set out for the work of mending relationships, finding better jobs, teaching our children, saving cats from the streets, hoping against hope that the atrocities of martial law will not return to knock us off our feet.

Thousands of Filipinos on the streets on Feb. 23, 1986 (Presidential Museum and Library PH)
A woman gives a daisy to a Marine (Presidential Museum and Library PH)

It's funny because now, many Filipinos rise to a new day with eyes wide open. This is more than I can say for many of our countrymen who, in the 1970s, hardly saw the wolves at the door. They went about their ways oblivious to the clear and present danger in their midst. 

I don’t blame them. People are said to have this knack for the irrational, evermore reluctant to change. Because of systematic poverty, having been robbed blind from under their noses for years, many were too busy making ends meet even as they busy themselves with the possibility of meeting their end due to hunger.

Those able to rise from the ashes attended schools, got married, bought a house, raised a dog, bagged a job in Dubai, because, c’mon, let’s face it: What can people do against impunity? Even then words don’t come cheap. Several people paid for theirs with their lives. Ask anyone, even the bravest of the lot. They will tell you it’s not that easy to break the ties that blind.

A reformist is gunned down from a helicopter (Presidential Museum and Library PH)
People crying and begging to the Marines with their hands leaning against tanks (Presidential Museum and Library PH)
Nuns pray the Rosary along the path of armed soldiers (Presidential Museum and Library PH)

But the millions who went out that day to face soldiers and tanks on a wing and a prayer (throw in a stem or two of petunias): to what do they owe the honor? To democracy? To freedom? To the struggle for human rights? To the Aquinos? To the gilded leaders of the Opposition? To Cardinal Sin? To Enrile and Ramos? To activists, journalists, and writers who for decades fought tooth and nail against government’s authoritarian tendencies at the risk of being killed?

No. They knew they owed it foremost to themselves the minute they decided to step out the door. They owed it, likewise, to that barefoot child making her way to school, to that mother dragging boxes of sandwiches to Camp Crame, to that mani vendor who gave up a day’s profit to feed the rallyists at EDSA. They owed it to that grandmother who, despite her gout and arthritis, walked beside millions using her cane. They owed it to the physically handicapped, the band of students with their guitars, and that inconspicuous couple who, despite having eaten only once that day, sang and danced and hoped with the masses.

People rejoice as the helicopters did not fire (Presidential Museum and Library PH)
Former president Cory Aquino's oath taking at Club Filipino in Greenhills (Presidential Musem and Library PH)
Thanksgiving mass at EDSA on Feb. 25, 1986 (Presidential Musem and Library PH)

The EDSA Revolution was about the Filipino people—faceless, nameless, and after 37 years, nearly forgotten. Be that as it may, what had set them apart, what had carved their invisible images in the pages of history, was the courage that refused to blink in the face of power. 

Forgetting EDSA is easy. But forgetting that sort of boldness will leave all cowards and traitors biting their nails for a long, long time.