In today’s news reports, the word “vandalism” has been used to describe the protest action by militant youth and students at the US embassy yesterday, April 16. The alleged “vandalism” pertains to the paint-bombing and removal of letters from the seal of the US embassy in Manila. One report headlined as “Police caught sleeping as vandals attack US embassy”. (Notice how the usual “militants” tag has been dropped in favor of “vandals” ).
The word “vandalism” is derived from the Germanic Vandals who ransacked Rome and were said to have defaced or destroyed much of the “beauty” of the Empire that was founded on slavery and colonization. Wikipedia says that “The term Vandalisme was coined in 1794 by Henri Grégoire, bishop of Blois, to describe the destruction of artwork following the French Revolution,” The introduction of the term builds on the notion that those destroying art, like the Germanic Vandals, were “barbaric”.
During the Paris Commune, French artist Gustave Courbet proposed before the commune the dismantling of the Vendome Column, a symbol of Napoleon’s empire. Back then, it was a celebrated act of “vandalism”. In certain situations like the Paris Commune, “vandalism” became an act to protest the symbols of the power and conquest. Similar acts would be repeated in history as the portraits of the dictator Marcos would be vandalized in the siege of Malacanang and when the huge bust of the dictator would be destroyed in an explosion launched by the New People’s Army.
But those were exceptional situations because most of the time, the word “vandalism” hewed closer to its ruling-class origins, often connoting an act of barbarism. When I was a young boy, vandalism was a school offense, often referring to writing stuff on the CR wall or on your desk.
The media’s use of the term “vandals” in describing activists was derogatory to the point that it attempts to reduce the protest as a rowdy mob out to sow mayhem in the streets, much like the German Vandals.
The protesters were targeting the US embassy, long a symbol of US neocolonial rule in the Philippines. They were protesting the opening of the Balikatan war games which aim to use the Philippines as a staging ground for US military power projection in the region. They knew full well that the US war machine has been responsible for so many killings and destruction worldwide. The US has gotten away with mass murder and the unprecedented destruction of public and private property in its bid to be the world’s sole superpower.
The students were trying to tell the US government that it should not for a second think that it is unchallenged here in the Philippines. Protesters wanted to send the clear message that they were ready to dismantle, figuratively and literally, the symbols of US power in the region.
Some may be shocked or turned off by yesterday’s protest action, in the same way they were probably turned off by the heckling of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. However, the media’s depiction of activists as a bunch of rowdy goons is grossly unfair.
As I wrote before on the heckling of Clinton, protesters sometimes resort to a kind of “asymmetrical warfare” to convey their message and express their outrage. I’ve seen students hurl paint bombs at greedy oil firms’ offices. I’ve seen workers smash windows of workplaces and vehicles during violent suppression of strikes. I’ve seen UP residents topple a guard house to set up a barricade against a demolition team. Protesters defaced or “vandalized” many of Gloria Arroyo’s posters during her reign of terror. Even before that, protesters did the same thing to huge tarpaulins of former president Estrada.
Instead of calling them vandals, media should have asked what it was that caused such outrage on the students that they would get up early from bed and proceed to pick apart, letter by letter, the seal of the mighty U.S. of A.
Yesterday’s action at the US embassy should be taken in its entire political context, and not just viewed based on the specific act of defacing the seal. It was an act of protest– no different from dismantling Napoleon’s Column or blowing up Marcos’ bust– against a neocolonial power that has done the worst acts of barbarism of the past century. ###