“What use do I have for school if we lose our home? My parents work as vendors in Makati, I attend school in the nearby high school. If we lose our house, we will be forced to live on the streets. I’m here because I want to help defend our community. We’re poor, but we have dignity. They can’t just drive us out like we’re wild animals,” said Jeffrey, 17.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — They stood their ground and bravely defended their homes. If their adversaries had fought fair, without using teargas and water cannons or wielding guns, the urban poor of Guatemala St. in the village of San Isidro, Makati might still have homes.
Six urban poor community residents of Guatemala St. were arrested on September 24 after a five-hour stand-off between residents and members of the Makati City local government unit’s demolition team. The stand-off that began in strong defiance of the urban poor ended in the destruction of their make-shift houses after the demolition team fired teargas on the residents’ barricades.
Dennis Leona, 21; Romulo Leona, 43; Rodito Yaranon, 34; Jestoni Pagamocan 17; Jerric Abrogar, 18; Ricardo Arrayo, 20; Michael De Lima, 36; and Gildo Gonzales, 20, were taken to the Makati Police district after the Makati City Engineer’s Office brutally broke down the barricade put up by the residents at one end of Guatemala street.
Members of the Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay-NCR), Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) National Capital Region (NCR) and Akap-Bata party-list immediately sent a team to help secure the release of the arrested residents. But as of this writing, the latter have yet to be set free pending formal charges.
Makati City ordered the demolition of structures in the 800 sqm. street to give way for the construction of a multi-purpose building that includes a sports complex and a barangay (village) hall.
Makati City government destroyed urban poor houses
The demolition began at 7 a.m. with the arrival of the demolition team at the other end of Guatemala St, corner of Batangas St. The residents, by then, had already put up barricades made of plywood, wooden boxes and barbed wire to block the entrance of all vehicles of the demolition team. They had also prepared their only means of defense: old bottles of beer, soft drink and other alcoholic beverages as well as rocks and chunks of solidified cement the size of a grown man’s fist.
By 9:00 am tension was already high as a number of “blue guards” or the actual demolition team members wearing blue shirts and helmets, and bearing crowbars, swelled to an estimated 150. The arrival of a firetruck and a backhoe also heightened the tension, prompting residents to gather more bottles and rocks.
Around 10:30 am, members of the demolition team began walking toward the barricade in phalanx formation. The residents then started lobbing rocks and glass bottles at them. The air was filled with flying glass and flecks of concrete. In less than 10 minutes, the stretch of pavement separating the residents from the demolition team was full of shards of glass and shattered rocks.
By 11:00am, the demolition team was forced to retreat, unable to make even 10 feet’s progress toward the barricade.
The same method of attack was repeated at 11:30am, and again sometime before 1:00pm. In both instances the residents repelled the demolition team. They also built a bonfire halfway across the street. By 1:30pm, the demolition team again retreated, prompting the residents to issue loud cheers and jeers.
Many of the residents who were at the frontlines of defense were teenagers. Some had opted to ditch their high school classes that day to help their parents defend their houses. There were young women who wrapped their hair and heads in bandannas, and they, too, held rocks in their hands as well as lengths of wood.
“What use do I have for school if we lose our home? My parents work as vendors in Makati, I attend school in the nearby high school. If we lose our house, we will be forced to live on the streets. I’m here because I want to help defend our community. We’re poor, but we have dignity. They can’t just drive us out like we’re wild animals,” said Jeffrey, 17. In his left hand he clutched a rock, in the other a bottle with a broken neck.
When the demolition team’s backhoe tried to drive toward the barricade, the driver had the immediate sense to stop as soon as rocks and bottles rained on his vehicle. Some of the residents had made it to the roof of nearby warehouse establishments and from a height they threw lit molotov cocktails that exploded when it hit the pavement and the side of the backhoe.
By 2:30pm, the residents began shouting at the opposing group that they only have until 3:00 pm to continue their attack. The demolition team started at 7:00 am and their eight-hour work day should end at 3:00pm. The residents themselves did not leave the barricade and instead gathered more ammunition.
“We are ready to die here, but it would of course be better if it doesn’t come to that. We just want to remain here. We’re Makati voters, most of us have been here since late 70s. We’re not demanding for anything from Mayor Jun-Jun Binay, just some compassion for the poor,” said Mang Nestor, 45.
The whole time the menfolk were guarding the barricade, most of the women were tending to the children, making sure they were away from the battleground. Some were nursing mothers, their babies clutched to their chests. Others tried to cope with the stress of the situation by doing their laundry, bathing their children, or folding clothes that had dried on the clothesline.
Suddenly, yellow-uniformed men arrived at the opposite end of the street. They were members of the Makati police, some of them traffic law enforces, and with them came members of the Southern Police District, plus the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team of the Philippine National Police (PNP). The men in yellow took the frontline, surrounding the backhoe that then drove faster, followed by the fire truck that almost immediately let off strong jets of water directed against the barricade.
Chaos erupted as the residents tried to direct their missiles at the firetruck and the backhoe, but in seconds the SWAT team fired up to three tear gas canisters. Half the street became covered in its grayish-white fumes. This time the residents were forced to run for cover, and the attacking demolition team got a free field to do what they were tasked and paid to do.
The air was filled with sounds of crying and wailing as mothers ran to rescue children. Teenaged girls screamed that they were dying because of the sharp burning sensation of the teargas that stung their eyes, noses and skin. Fathers rushed to stop policemen or demolition lackeys from punching, kicking and generally beating up the teenagers they managed to get their hands on.
In less than five minutes and after three unsuccessful attempts, the stand-off was finished. SWAT team members in gas masks, wielding automatic rifles and .45 caliber pistols, rushed forward to the abandoned houses, aiming their weapons at residents who tried to get away from the teargas.
Almost immediately as well, the blue men with their crowbars began to bash in the wooden walls, destroy tables and countertops, and ransack the houses. Like a swarm of termites they descended on the houses and began methodically demolishing everything within site.
The houses of the urban poor of Guatemala St were soon no more.
Two hours after the violent demolition, over 200 families desperately scrounged through the wreckage the demolition team left, trying to salvage clothes, radios, old stuffed toys, kitchen utensils, and small electric appliances like electric fans, television sets and radios. Men, women and children sat or stood on the pavement some 50 meters from what used to be their home trying to come to terms with their loss and the severe challenges posed by their sudden homelessness. The grandparents looked lost, their eyes red from weeping.
The whole time, SWAT team members stood guard, their short fire-arms unlocked. They refused to let all of the residents to return to the demolition site, nor let their relatives retrieve their personal belongings. “Women only,” they said repeatedly.
Some callously told jokes to each other about the effectiveness of teargas while blowing smoke rings amidst grieving victims.