Art is visible dissent for the poets of this Anti-Terror Bill collection

Someone once said that a revolution is not a dinner party. For the 122nd Philippine Independence Day celebrations however, many Filipinos attended a grand mañanita (in reference to National Capital Region Police Office chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas getting away with social distancing violations) to protest against the passing of the Anti-Terror Bill and demand justice for all the victims of the government’s militarized COVID-19 response. It’s one of those things that you didn’t think to put on your 2020 bingo card but surprisingly will be a part of the annals of history.

The need to continue fighting for freedom isn’t lost to the writers who started a project called “Section 9 Poems.” We talked with one of its organizers, diaspora poet Ethan Chua, about the importance of art in democracies.

Hi, Ethan. Thanks for agreeing to do an interview with me. Happy Independence Day from the other side of the world! Well, maybe not exactly “happy” considering the current political climate. How did you spend your day? Did you join any of the mañanitas for the Philippines’ 122nd birthday? 

Happy Independence Day! I would have loved to join some of the mañanitas here in the Bay Area, but I’m currently sheltering-in-place on campus, and they’ve been a little strict about mobility. So I’ll be celebrating Independence Day from my dorm, mostly working on my honors thesis and getting ready for the summer.

Independence Day is the final of submissions for Section 9 Poems. Can you introduce the project to our readers and tell us if there’s a reason behind choosing today as the deadline?

Section 9 Poems is named after Section 9 in Senate Bill No. 1083, or the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which threatens “any person who… shall incite others to the execution of [terrorist acts] by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end” with penalty of imprisonment of 12 years.

The initiative was started by a group of Filipino poets in the homeland and the diaspora who wanted to mobilize creative dissent against the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which severely threatens freedom of expression and democratic rights in the Philippines. As such, we’re calling on Filipino poets to write in response to the Anti-Terrorism Bill and to post their work on social media with the hashtag #Section9Poems. Folks can submit their work to [email protected] and can request anonymity. We did pick the June 12 date as a deadline to line up with Independence Day as a kind of reminder that independence is a constant struggle, not a simple inheritance from our ancestors. But we’ve gotten a lot of interest and are subsequently extending our deadline for submissions to June 19, 11:59 p.m.!

How did this project start?

I’m currently a senior at Stanford, in California, and a big catalyst for starting this project was the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin. The subsequent employment of social media as an organizing tool for black movement leaders and their allies to rally against state-sanctioned police violence felt historic to me, and it was deeply inspiring to see the movement for black lives extend across the world, including the Philippines. 

I was able to attend a couple of rallies and phone some local officials in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and this led me to a more sustained reflection on how the movement for police and prison abolition, led by visionary black activists such as Angela Davis, might intersect with activism in the Philippines. 

I thought of the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have happened under the Duterte regime, many carried out by police and military forces. Just as the police are systemically mobilized against black communities in the United States, the Philippine state employs the police and the army to crush dissent and social upheaval among the indigenous and the poor. These phenomena are, of course, interlinked not only by the neocolonial relationship between the US and the Philippines, but by the military aid which the US provides the Duterte regime (an example is the Trump Administration’s recently announced arms sale to the Philippines). 

The Anti-Terrorism Bill is only the latest example of the Philippine government’s turn to fascist militarism, and I, along with a group of other poets in the homeland and diaspora, thought we could use social media to amplify our dissent, just as members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement had to amplify their call for abolition.

I saw Juan Miguel Severo share your post on Twitter. Are you part of any Filipino writing groups?

I’m not formally part of any Filipino writing groups, although I did perform as a guest poet for one of Words Anonymous’s anniversary shows (which is how I know Juan Miguel Severo). I’m learning constantly, though, from Filipino poets both in the homeland and the diaspora. I’m a big admirer of Rick Barot’s collection “Chord,” and I’ve also translated some of Palanca Award-winning Abner Dormiendo’s Tagalog poetry into English.

Written in Section 9’s call for submissions are the words “Visible dissent is essential to democracy.” Can you tell us more about this?

One of the endemic risks of ostensibly liberal democracies such as the Philippines is the narrowing of the democratic mandate to electoral politics. In other words, there’s a risk that citizens see voting as the only viable means of political participation. Although voter turnout is essential to a vibrant democracy, it’s only the first step; genuine democracy requires political organizing within communities, grassroots movement building, and principled discussion and dissent. 

Duterte’s election to the office of the presidency is not, and never has been, a mandate to abrogate the values of the constitution (and the nationalist aspirations of our ancestors) through the repression of dissent in the guise of counterinsurgency. To hold Duterte to account, we need to do much more than vote. We need to exercise our power as a people and remember that sovereignty ultimately rests in our collective will, not in the hands of a few members of the executive branch.

The country has a rich history of protest poetry and diaspora poetry. With diaspora being a political concept, how intertwined are these poetry genres?

That’s a great question! The two, of course, are intimately intertwined. Given particularly that the Filipino diaspora today is largely a product of neoliberal policies enacted under the Marcos regime that shifted the burden of paying the growing national debt onto the remittances of Filipino migrant workers. 

Our national economic dependence on overseas Filipino workers is not a natural fact, but rather a matter of state policy initiated by Marcos both to fund state corruption and to keep the Philippines in the good graces of the neo-imperial International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Although post-EDSA presidents such as Corazon Aquino publicly disavowed the Marcos dictatorship, they’ve largely maintained his neoliberal agenda, resulting in thousands of Filipinos leaving the country daily. 

Given that intersection between diaspora and politics, there are lots of writers in diaspora who confront the peculiar precarity that Filipino migrants, especially migrant women, are exposed to due to state policy. A couple of good poetry collections are “Microchips for Millions” by Janice Lobo Sapigao and “Driving Without a License” by Janine Joseph. Of course, neoliberal capitalism doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, so it’s no easy feat to write poetry that challenges its discursive terms, but the Philippines does have a strong tradition of anti-capitalist, leftist poetry as well, with Emmanuel “Emman” Lacaba being an exemplar.

In the past few weeks, there’s been a surge of political art being created and shared. Do you think this means that more artists are choosing to showcase their cultural identity in their work as opposed to deliberate ambiguity?

I’m not sure I quite agree with the framing of this question, since I’m a firm believer that all art (and all poetry) is political. One of my writing heroes and mentors, Solmaz Sharif, puts it much better than I ever could in this essay of hers on erasure. 

Poems that appear non-political do so through strategic erasures and subtle foreclosures. For example, Walt Whitman’s celebrations of the pastoral American landscape rest on the occlusion of indigenous genocide. On the flipside, poems can gain political charge precisely from their attentiveness to personal detail. A poem I think does this super cleverly is Abby Orbeta‘s “Hindi Namatay si Rizal Para Lumandi Ka.” 

In a similar light, a close reading of any poem will reveal cultural assumptions which are also operations of power. The deliberate display of cultural identity can be a powerful aesthetic choice (the popularity of slam poetry comes to mind), but separating out a sphere of “political” poems or “cultural” poems risks erasing the historical conditions which allow some artists to appear “universal” and “apolitical” while others cannot.

I saw that you were a member of Stanford’s Students for Workers’ Rights. Can you talk a bit about the recent campaign for the benefit of Stanford’s subcontracted service workers?

For sure! One group I work with at Stanford, Students for Workers’ Rights, conducts labor organizing in support of on-campus service workers. A lot of service workers at Stanford are Filipino, and I work with a couple of Filipino-American activists to organize programming specifically for them. Sometimes I do translation work into Tagalog for the local union, too. 

After COVID-19, Stanford extended pay and benefits for its laid-off direct hires, but didn’t do so for its contracted workers, who do largely the same work. So a bunch of students and I organized a campaign in support of contracted workers that called on the administration to extend pay to them; we raised over $175,000 in funds to support laid-off workers, gathered over 700 faculty signatures on our petition and got notable alumni to amplify our cause on Twitter. We even got featured on the Washington Post

After many months of organizing on our part, Stanford administrator Persis Drell announced in a campus-wide email that laid-off contracted workers would receive benefits and pay through August, and contracted UG2 custodial staff finally got the first installment of their pay a few weeks ago.

It’s a problem faced by Filipinos here as well. How similar are the COVID-19 responses and policies of the Duterte and Trump administrations?

Well, both political responses are awful. In both cases, you get to see starkly how COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities that are already vulnerable. For example, in the United States there’s a huge amount of cases in the black community, while in the Philippines it’s largely the poor who are hardest hit by COVID-19. But I think one telling difference between the Duterte and the Trump administrations has been in their use of state force. 

When states in the U.S. started announcing shelter-in-place policies, many, largely white protesters rallied against lockdown. These protesters were treated gently by the police, unlike the later #BlackLivesMatter protesters who were often black activists and community leaders. But state force hasn’t been employed en masse in the U.S. to force implementation of COVID-19 policies (To be fair, this is also because U.S. policymaking is a lot less centralized, as individual states have significant leeway). 

In the Philippines, though, the Duterte administration almost immediately responded to COVID-19 through a broad increase in policing and military mobilization, with state forces employed to enforce community quarantines, curfews, and restrictions on movement in and out of Metro Manila. COVID-19 is being treated by the Philippine government not as a public health risk, but almost as a terrorist threat. The militarization of COVID-19 by the Duterte administration (a militarization further naturalized by Duterte’s own machismo rhetoric) is designed to further increase state power over popular dissent, and it’s deeply chilling to see how Duterte and his political allies have consistently prioritized counterinsurgency and repression over the health and safety of their constituents.

Why is it important to make art about these?

Art is visible dissent, art is profoundly political, art is essential to democracy. One last thing I’ll add is that art is utopic. It gestures towards imaginative possibilities and political alternatives to the present moment, which are sorely needed in the totalitarian space-time of the Duterte regime.

Are we seeing more of Section 9 Poems in the future?

No plans are in the works as of yet besides our extended deadline, but I hope so!



Photo courtesy of Ethan Chua

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