Editorial: Rethinking the use of force

WHEN members of the Civil Disturbance Management Unit (CDMU) of the Cebu City Police Office (CCPO), wearing anti-riot gear and bearing high-powered firearms, assembled outside of the University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu where about 30 persons were holding a rally on the morning of June 5 to protest the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, the stand-off; dispersal and chase by the enforcers of the rallyists; and the arrest of eight individuals, exploded online as netizens pointed out what the videos of the incident documented: the stark contrast between the orderly demonstrators, who wore face masks, brought quarantine passes, and practiced social distancing, and the police’s inappropriate use of force to break up an assembly they deemed as illegal.

The CCPO’s breaking up of a demonstration by citizens exercising their rights to assemble and express dissent to a controversial bill reifies many citizens’ fears of the return of state repression and suspicions of abuse committed by authorities using the pandemic quarantine as an excuse to suppress citizens’ rights and legitimate criticism.

The real-time uploading of journalists’ and eyewitnesses’ reports, videos, and posts on social media drew unfortunate parallels between the CCPO’s dispersal and arrest of the rallyists on June 5 and the May 25 death of civilian George Floyd while under the custody of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

No one was reported as physically harmed in the June 5 dispersal. Yet, UP Cebu constituents posted on social media that rallyists who sought refuge inside the campus were prevented for hours from leaving due to operatives that remained outside the campus.

As narrated by reporter Annie Fe Perez on June 5 in “TV Patrol Central Visayas,” with corresponding footage, operatives wearing civilian clothes breached the campus walls and pursued the rallyists on campus grounds.

This violates the 1989 UP-Department of National Defense Accord that prohibits the police, military, and their civilian agents from entering any campus in the UP System without permission from the university authorities. The agreement shields UP constituents’ peaceful protests on campus grounds from police and military interference.

Police heads must review their June 5 handling of the citizens’ action to evaluate and recalibrate their responses to civil disobedience.

The death of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests, including riots, that decry police violence, excessive use of force in dealing with civilians, and abuses by rogues in uniform.

However, the rallies have demonstrated how the handling by the police of civil disobedience significantly determines whether the protest action ends peacefully or descends into chaos and violence, with perpetrators coming from the ranks of both enforcers and citizens.

The willingness of the police to discuss and negotiate with protesters, even to the extent of showing sympathy with the cause of seeking social justice for Floyd and other victims of police brutality and racism, has resulted not just in unexpected rapprochement but also release of pent-up trauma and violence among former antagonists.

In her official statement on the June 5 dispersal and arrest of the rallyists, UP Cebu Chancellor, lawyer Liza D. Corro, wrote that, “we are deeply disappointed that none of the police officers tried to coordinate with UP Cebu in regard to handling the situation which we hope could have led to a more sound and sensible resolution...”.

In his short story, “The Use of Force,” William Carlos Williams uses a battle of wills between a doctor and his young patient to demonstrate how the use of force corrupts and leads to abuse, even with the ostensible purpose to achieve something good.

The doctor admits after he forces his patient that he “had got beyond reason... I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her.”