Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Something Different: A Christmas Incident Involving Me



I’ll try to write this article from a journalistic perspective, although I trust you’ll forgive me if I tend to ramble on and insert my personal feelings here and there and if I refuse to drop any proper nouns here. The video attached to this post covers the entire incident involving the police, although it probably will not make sense to you unless you understand Hiligaynon. Also, let me make two things clear here:

  1. I'm not a professional journalist (no one is paying me to do this)
  2. I got personally involved in this incident

It happened at around 12:30 – 1:30 AM on December 25, 2013. I was inside my house together with my mother – washing the dishes after our late Christmas Dinner (a little Filipino tradition called Noche Buena in our country.) We heard the continuous crackle of fireworks and saw a succession of multi-colored fireworks explosions in the sky from our house and immediately thought, “Isn’t that illegal in our area?”

This is because we live in an area where people manufacture and sell fireworks during December and although I can’t say I’m fully familiar with it, there is a law in effect that prohibits the testing and setting off of fireworks within the vicinity of these fireworks factories as well as places selling fireworks.  Of course, my mother and I got a bit worried as well because we rent out the area that is beyond our walls, but still within our private property to some neighbors who sell fireworks annually.

When I arrived with my mother outside, I started taking a video immediately with my smartphone just in case there was anything amiss. The neighbors explained the situation as follows: Someone had set off a 16-flare fireworks display called an “air show” and it was apparently done by someone just across the road. They had already been reprimanded by the “Barangay Tanod,” (a sort of local peacekeeping force consisting of citizens who live in the neighborhood, but who are not armed with guns like actual police) but they refused to listen.

Eventually, a concerned neighbor went and called the police because some of the disgruntled fireworks vendors were getting restless and violent. Voices were being raised against the people who allegedly set off the fireworks and I personally saw someone take out a metal baseball bat.

Now here’s where it gets interesting: when the police arrived, they immediately went right across the road from our house and about two blocks to the left where the fireworks had apparently been set off. My mother and I got curious and we moved in a little bit closer but still across the road to get a better look at what exactly was happening. I warned her in advance not to get involved unless it was necessary. This is when one of the neighbors who had been renting the space in front of our house asked us for help. Apparently, the police were refusing to take action because no one could be positively identified so they had no one to arrest. Since we did have some personal stakes in this since our house could have been burned down if there had been an incident with the fireworks, she decided to get involved, so I reluctantly joined her to talk to the police. The video shows the entire talk we had, but allow me to summarize it because it’s mostly in Hiligaynon.

At the point when we started talking to the police, I was still taking a video with my smartphone camera. My intent in continuing to take the video this time was to protect my own personal interests in case things got ugly – which is quite reasonable in this kind of situation, right? Anyway there were three police  officers present and since they refused to take action, I pointed out that there were dozens of witnesses and at least 4 of them were Barangay Tanod who were allegedly present during the incident. The police officer, a man who looked to be somewhere in his mid-thirties to forties told me that they couldn’t do anything because they couldn’t make an arrest if no one could be positively identified – in this case, I simply shifted the responsibility to him: I asked him, “well, what can you do in this type of situation wherein you know that there has been a violation of the law, but that no one can positively identify the exact culprit?”

(Voice that starts speaking at 9:52 into the video) Suddenly, a younger police officer, who looked to be about 5 years younger than me (and half a head shorter) talked to me from behind and said in a stern but low voice in Hiligaynon “So what’s your point really, sir?  What’s your point with that camera here? What are you really taking that video for?” I was taken aback by this young upstart because he was literally thrusting his chest out to within an inch of mine, his boots were almost on top of my sandals, and he was – by all appearances attempting to threaten my person. I told him to take a step back and to stop invading my personal space – which he took about 30 seconds to comply with. In any case, this was enough time for my mother to notice this and become visibly alarmed at what he was doing/attempting to do. So much so that I had to tell her to “stop” and to “let me handle this.”

There was a lot of confusion, but eventually, I managed to tell him honestly that I was taking the video because I was gathering evidence just in case some abuses took place. It could happen on the part of the police, or on the part of the people in the vicinity – since a considerable crowd had already gathered. There was a lot of talking and a lot of hyperventilating that ensued (mostly on my mother’s part, because she got understandably emotional), but what it boils down to is that none of the Barangay Tanod (who were witnesses) would agree to identify any of the culprit/s and that the police eventually agreed to have a blotter report written on behalf of the neighbor who complained about the incident pending further investigation at this point.

What does this say about us Filipinos?

Now I would like to say that this was just an isolated incident wherein one of the police officers got a little high-handed and incompetent, but from what I’ve seen/heard on the local media (until now that I actually got involved), this kind of thing happens on a daily basis.

Basically, what ticks me off here is that if it had been anyone less knowledgeable about their rights than me, that police officer would probably have used his position to push me around and then forcibly confiscate my smartphone. What he was doing was unwarranted and totally unjustifiable because as you can see in that video, I was talking quite calmly and rationally the whole time. This also highlights another problem: not all Filipinos know their rights very well – not even the ones that are constitutionally guaranteed by the bill of rights. After the incident, one of our neighbors said that, “It’s a good thing that it was someone as smart as you.” I replied that, “even if it hadn’t been me, that policeman was overstepping his authority.” The neighbor was dumbfounded and could only reply, “Really? You mean they can’t do that? They do it all the time here though.”

Another thing that irritates me is that the lack of knowledge leads to fear of authority and legal processes. The  four Barangay Tanod who were present refused to identify any of the alleged perpetrators here not because they didn’t really know who the culprits were but because they were afraid to be investigated by the police and that this incident would be taken against them for failing to uphold the law.

Relevant to this: the policeman who attempted to harass me also had the same mindset. From his actuations, it was clear that he thought that I must have had some kind of vendetta against the police and that I was taking that video with evil intentions in mind. It was well within my rights to take that video not only because it was a public incident, but also because it was the best way to have a good record of the entire procedure to protect my rights just in case they were violated. After all, they have the guns: I don’t – and I seem to have had every right to think this way based on the clear lack of knowledge demonstrated by that policeman in this video.

A local government legislator refused to take action

One of our neighbors who is a local government legislator blatantly refused to take action or get involved in the incident for fear of tarnishing his reputation for the next local elections.

The police apologized

The two older policemen present at the incident apologized for their partner’s actions and the policeman who attempted to harass me personally apologized to me as well. I thought nothing more of the incident although I cannot say the same for my mother. I don’t intend to take any legal action against the officer who clearly overstepped his authority and I’m not really the proper party to file a complaint against the culprit/s who set off the fireworks display. I was just trying to do my part and set things straight because we were inadvertently personally involved with this issue. The problem with that police officer was quite evident – lack of knowledge of the boundaries of his authority. In the end, I felt the need to point out that even if he did apologize, his initial approach towards me was very threatening.

Implications on the legal systems in effect in the Philippines

I truly hope that this was just an isolated incident and that this kind of thing doesn’t happen on a regular basis – but again, based on what I’ve seen/heard on local media, this was probably not a one-time thing as far as the execution of the legal systems in effect in the Philippines are concerned. In fact, I’ve always been convinced that the people in power in the Philippines are pretty damn incompetent – and this incident just serves to further cement this belief in place. I’ve never voted for a single elective official in my life and I probably never will. If you live in the Philippines or plan to live here: the greatest piece of advice I can give you is to arm yourself with sufficient knowledge all the time – otherwise, opportunistic idiots can and will take advantage of you.

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