Unearthing Manila’s Radical Punk Scene Living Under the War on Drugs
“[One] time, we were at a secret punk shop in Manila. After I’d stopped rolling the camera, the guy I was interviewing moved some records from a shelf—the shelf was a secret compartment to store an arsenal of weapons—he told me he needed to be ready for whatever was going to happen.”
— Jess Kohl, Anarchy in the Philippines (Dazed)
June 12th is Philippine Independence Day, commemorating the Philippines’ liberation from Spanish rule in 1898. However, under the Duterte regime, we are far from free. What the numbers will tell you is that the Philippine poverty rate declined from 21.6% to 16.6% between 2015 and 2020. The part that these statistics fail to show is that many Filipinos in poverty were not granted opportunities for socioeconomic mobility: they were killed—and now their advocates are at risk, too.
Contextualizing the War on Drugs and Anti-Terror Law
On June 30th, 2016, President Duterte called for his lethal ‘war on drugs,’ which has stolen thousands of lives through countless killings and unwarranted arrests. That number continues to grow, primarily through underhanded police operations and vigilante-style shootings carried out by emboldened supporters of the Duterte administration.
“If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.”
— Rodrigo Duterte in his inauguration speech on June 30th, 2016
One strategy of the Philippine National Police (PNP) has been the “knock and plead” campaign, in which officers storm the homes of suspected drug traders and hunt them down. Families of victims have discovered that the police have actually planted drugs in their homes to support their suspicions. To make such grisly matters even worse, police have also made deals with individuals in custody to execute organized killings for a price. Most of the victims have been young, impoverished men, leaving many Filipinos suspicious that this alleged ‘war on drugs’ is truly just a ‘war on the poor.’
Among the many Filipinos whose lives were brought to ruin under the Duterte regime, the children left behind by the victims of these operations “are often driven deeper into poverty, suffer deep psychological distress, often drop out of school for financial and other reasons, and suffer bullying in their schools or communities."
As the number of killings and arrests continues to grow, so has the global awareness of Duterte’s atrocities. However, since last summer, Filipinos who have sought to expose the government for its crimes against the people face a whole new set of barriers: the Anti Terrorism Act. Also known as the Anti-Terror Law, signed by Duterte on July 3rd, 2020, this enactment criminalizes “the destruction of any asset or system, the working of which is vital to societal functions” (Mishra). Since essentially all forms of dissent are meant to disrupt societal functions in an effort to expose their underlying corruption, this would mean that any protest could be considered terrorism, and would be persecuted based on that definition.
As part of the Anti Terrorism Act, the Duterte administration has appointed an Anti-Terrorism Council to oversee all plans and operations in the name of counterterrorism. The Council is also free to red-tag whoever they believe fits this dangerously ambiguous definition of a “terrorist,” putting them at immediate risk of arrest without a warrant or charges. Countless Filipino activists, journalists, and mere civilians alike have been red-tagged, arrested, or worse––murdered in cold blood––in the name of “order.”
These practices manifested themselves all at once last June, when at least 26 people were arrested at an LGBTQ+ Pride event protesting the Anti Terrorism Act. Despite the fact that the protesters were following social distancing protocols and wearing masks, they were charged under the Law of Reporting Communicable Diseases (2019) and the Public Assembly Act (1985).
“The first Pride parades, held in the United States, commemorated the 1969 “Stonewall Riots,” when LGBT people in New York City fought back against police brutality and raids on LGBT spaces. In recent years, activists in the Philippines as well as Hong Kong, the United States, and other countries have used marches during Pride Month to protest state repression of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Cracking down on protests is an affront to the very notion of Pride.”
— Ryan Thoreson, Philippines Police Crack Down on LGBT Protest
As a young Filipina American and budding organizer, I felt nothing short of horror witnessing the upsurge in crackdowns and killings. My kasamas at Anakbayan North Jersey work tirelessly, mobilizing and calling for justice every week because the numbers never stop growing. Witnessing their work has only affirmed what I already know about our people. Resilience born from centuries of resistance couldn’t just be undone in a few years. Therefore, even seeing how all forms of public dissent have put Filipinos at risk under Duterte’s rule, the question wasn’t whether mobilization was still possible. Instead, I needed to ask: what does it look like from within the confines of the regime?
The simple answer: on-the-ground activism moved underground.
Creativity and Resistance in Manila’s Underground Punk Rock Community
In the outskirts of Manila and Tarlac, an underground community of Filipino anarchists cope with the ‘war on drugs’ through what they know and love most: punk rock. Dazed filmmaker and visual artist Jess Kohl explored this subculture from up close, and put together the 2018 short film Anarchy in the Philippines. Through Kohl’s cinematic skills, viewers are exposed to the beautifully gritty and fierce Filipino punk scene. It completely captivated me—and looking at the rich history of punk rock, it also makes total sense.
“Short, fast riffs, lyrics pushing back against the mainstream mundane. The original DGAF attitude and a no-rules-allowed genre for self-identifying misfits that emerged at a time where music was becoming a little too clean.”
— Sana Saeed, The Very Black History Of Punk Music | AJ+
Aside from the usual (white) faces that we’ve seen in punk rock, the genre was actually pioneered by marginalized communities, especially those involved in the movements for sexual and racial justice. These were communities of artists who were disenfranchised and ostracized by their respective societies—oppression that much of punk rock’s anarchic messaging actually challenged. For Black American musicians especially, underground organizing and resistance were inseparable from the creative process.
“The foundations of what people do that creates punk culture, say, going on tour, booking your own tour through an underground network, that’s what Black musicians had to do because we weren’t allowed to play in clubs. When we have been pushed to the margins but we create in those margins, it doesn’t get more punk than that.”
— Shawna Shanté, musician and organizer
In other words, the cornerstones of punk rock had just as much to do with liberation as they did with self-expression. Filipinos turning to this subculture as an outlet for dissent was the embodiment of all that it has ever been known for. In a society where individuals are quickly judged and brutalized for being suspected drug dealers or “terrorists,” openly wearing punk rock attire in the streets of Manila is undeniably an act of protest.
In my own experience attending on-the-ground actions, there are some chants that are particularly prominent, one of which being:
Chant lead: “Tell me what community looks like.”
Everyone: “This is what community looks like!”
As I watched Anarchy in the Philippines, this chant was all I could think about. Couples and children were chilling in the lounge areas of underground concert venues. In another room, someone was getting “Anarkiya Pilipinas” tattooed onto their ankle. Where the main stage was, punk rockers were opening up an aggressive mosh pit. At one point in the film, a group talked about a benefit concert that they were holding for a sick young girl who was struggling to make ends meet. It was the same vibe: bands singing and dancing together, audience members getting rowdy, everyone bursting with energy, all for the common cause of supporting the young girl.
Now, when I think of “what community looks like,” this is what I envision. It is radical compassion in its highest form. It is unconditional. It creates within the margins and demands better for everyone.
As one of the individuals in the video described to Kohl, the underground anarchist punk scene is all about “making the ugly beautiful.” It can’t help anyone escape the horrors of Philippine society under Duterte, but instead builds a strong sense of collectivism so no one needs to struggle alone. There is no ignoring the ugliness, the atrocities, or the undeniable fear of existing as a Filipino under Duterte. Instead, they celebrate the life that they do have while still demanding better for generations to come.
Reflecting upon the principles that these underground rebels seem to share, I am reminded of the lessons I was taught as a young Filipina. This may come off as strange when taken at face value, but we always celebrate after funerals. It is usually done in the form of a family gathering with lots of food and lively conversations. In the Philippines, funerals are not only meant to mourn the dead, but also to celebrate the life that they lived and the memories we shared.
Likewise, advocacy is not only reducible to condemning the oppressor and the atrocities they’ve committed. It is also uplifting and loving our community in the moment. If there is anything that was deeply ingrained in me by my lola, it’s the importance of family and the home. Seeing how Filipino punk rockers made homes out of their venues and venues out of their backyards, it reminds me of exactly that – when all else fails, the home we built keeps us safe.
“This is the punk scene in the Philippines. Unity, equality for all. Because the purpose of this all is to achieve freedom for everyone. That is everyone’s goal. That’s why we are here, why we are here in this scene.”
— Unnamed individual, Anarchy in the Philippines
If you want to learn more about Manila’s underground punk scene, you can watch the full-length short film here!