Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Rallies and most marathons for a cause have many things in common. They both require a massive gathering of warm bodies in order to succeed. After converging at a certain point, the participants will soon march to reach the finish line, the target destination. The sheer number of the crowd is eclipsed only by the more persuasive power of the visible togetherness, the collectives in action, the multitudes united by a common purpose. The distance is overlooked since everybody is more eager and determined to survive the street challenge.

The professionals and veterans participate in 42K marathons while newbies, volunteers, and trend followers prefer the short distance runs. Meanwhile, rallies could be a long march (annual lakbayan of southern Luzon peasants), picket, lightning protest, or a procession in old Manila near Malacanang Palace.

Rallies and marathons cannot be organized overnight. There must be a substantial amount of time devoted to public awareness and education campaigns. It isn’t enough to simply announce a rally or marathon. The organizers have the duty to convince the public that it’s necessary to march and run in the streets in support of a particular cause.

The recruitment/marketing process is exciting but difficult. It’s easy to choose an issue since there is no shortage of causes to advocate in #itsmorefun Philippines. But one must be patient, persistent, and creative when convincing people to break habits, challenge norms, sacrifice time, and become agents of change. There are numerous skeptics, cynics, and hecklers who would not only reject an invitation to join the event but would also not hesitate to spread nasty rumors about the initiative. But if converted into the movement, these naysayers will most likely become effective organizers and cadres.

Nobody can predict the outcome of the event proper. Will it rain, will people come, will accidents happen? The success of the activity is initially revealed a few minutes before the start of the march. The key indicator is the size and broad character of the crowd at the starting line. Since the aim is to articulate the sentiment of a community, the participants must represent various constituencies. Big attendance, quality representation, high public and media interest – these are what every organizer hopes to see before the march.

The participants, on the other hand, might view the pre-event scenes differently. They might be more impressed with the large family delegations, the colorful banners and streamers, and the presence of kibitzers. The excitement rises as everybody prepares to march. Each participant has an assigned place in the front, middle, or back rows.

Forward march! The mood in the air is electric. The rush of adrenalin boosts the physical endurance of the participants. There’s an empty space to conquer, there’s a race to finish. The crowd moves in unison, slowly, steadily, carefully reaching the goal at a near distance. It’s a community on the move. Fellow crusaders, fellow travelers, fellow runners. Perspiring as one. Tired bodies. High spirits. The smell of victory is at hand.

The gaze of outsiders – media, police, motorists, vendors – agitates the participants. The runners might be thinking and asking these questions: Do they want to join us? Do they find the running strange, funny, or extraordinary? But the sympathetic onlookers might have other views and questions: Will they be able to finish the race? How many will quit or get hurt? What’s the relevance of their running? Is this going to cause traffic?

End of the march! The organized dispersal will soon take place but only after the participants have checked the safety and well-being of their friends and comrades. There is usually a short program to officially declare the success of the event and to remind the public about the noble objectives of the gathering.

Participants will go home fulfilled despite being exhausted from the street exercise. The Bayanihan Spirit is not that difficult to revive after all.

But if marathons and rallies share many similarities, they have essential differences as well.

Marathons take place in a protected and enclosed space secured by the state. It is well guarded against hostile elements that might provoke violence during the march. Rallyists in rallies, meanwhile, are often considered by the state as the hostile elements that must be kept under constant surveillance. Despite the defined route of rallies, the march is always unpredictable since it can change directions to avoid police blockage or it can first enter an urban poor village before proceeding to a plaza or in front of a government office. In short, rallies are generally peaceful but the situation can be volatile.

Marathons are time-specific. The finish line is literally the finish line. For many participants, the end of the marathon marks the end of their direct involvement in support of the cause. They go back to their normal lives and wait for the announcement of the next marathon.

It’s quite different for rallies. The end of a rally signals the start of preparation for a bigger rally in support of the same cause. Or the cause might be new but it’s still related to the old issue. Rallies, small leading to big, are always interconnected. A rally in Manila is an assertion in behalf of the ‘imagined community’ in the archipelago. A small protest gathering can trigger similar outbursts of collective power in different communities until they lead to a revolutionary situation. A rally is just a sideshow, a dress rehearsal for the Big One. The rally mutating, spreading to all. The here becomes everywhere. The now transforms the future. The future arrives in the present.

The state, which seeks the preservation of the eternal present, is ruthlessly not in favor of rallies. It denies the use of public space for the airing of subversive messages. It instinctively acts to disband the formation of marching militants in the streets. It prefers fun runs and marathons even if it disagrees with their cause. Why? Because the activism espoused in marathons is a case of what Herbert Marcuse calls ‘harmless negation.’ It is ‘digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.’

Marathons are presented as the new and fun mode of volunteerism and activism. Everybody has the chance to participate in the less radical ‘struggle’ without the threat of state reprisal.

Beneficiaries of corporate-sponsored marathons are usually those pitiful subjects who can’t fight back like dolphins, stray animals, and abandoned children. Unfortunately, the victim-beneficiaries are stigmatized by CSR planners as living creatures which require permanent charity. People are asked to run in behalf of the voiceless, the marginalized, and those who are living in subhuman conditions.

On the other hand, the victims are among the active participants and organizers of rallies. The voiceless learn to speak and shout their grievances. The marginalized fight their exclusion by joining a collective. The poor struggle to end exploitation in society. In short, the victims are not to be pitied in rallies. They rub elbows, link arms, and exchange stories with fellow activists in rallies. Solidarity, not charity, is the dominant spirit in rallies.

Marathons? Or rallies? Ready. Set. March.

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