Harassment of community pantries leads to clamped operations

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Harassment of community pantries leads to clamped operations
Residents get their own free food items at a community pantry initiated by some male college students in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday, April 18, 2021. The students received canned goods and other grocery items as well as assorted fruits and vegetables from local farmers at the province’s Nueva Vizcaya Agricultural Terminal.
The STAR / Victor Martin

MANILA, Philippines — Pressure and harassment from Quezon City police led to the halt in operations of a community pantry meant to help feed the hungry amid a pandemic-induced quarantine on Tuesday morning. 

At a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Ana Patricia Non, who set up the very first community pantry along Maginhawa Street, said she would halt operations for the time being amid fears over the safety of her volunteers.

"We didn't require any sort of political affiliations for who wants to help and needs help. Community pantries aren't judgemental...But we had to close because of the allegations," she said in Filipino. 

"The people told us the pantry inspired them to help out in their communities. It's painful to have to stop it after just one day and think about the families we could have helped," she also said in tears. 

Community pantries popped up one after the other once Non’s pantry was set up over the weekend, but many, like Non, reported red-tagging from state forces.

For Non, all it took was a bamboo cart and the solidarity and volunteerism of concerned citizens — many of whom were tricycle drivers and street sellers — to keep it going.

The rules were simple: "Take what you need, give what you can." It was less about inciting outrage towards the government and more about helping people in need, she said. 

Yet after organizing a pantry to help the hungry, Non and her volunteers were met with unfounded allegations of links to communist rebels. Even her mother was accused of being a communist, she said. 

Lawmakers and progressive groups alike have said these pantries were evidence of the national government's inability to take care of its own people amid the pandemic. 

Through her community pantry, Non said, she learned firsthand that Filipinos listen to each other and are not "pasaway," contrary to the government's popular narrative. Most people took sparingly and made sure to offer what they could, she said. 

"Let's not kill these when Filipinos are helping each other just to have something to eat at night," Non said. "Let's listen to their stories and not just discount their poverty as isolated cases." 

People line up at a community pantry set up along Maginhawa in Quezon City on Sunday, April 18, 2021. The pantry aims to help alleviate hunger during the COVID-19 lockdown by letting people have what they need for the kitchen while others are also welcome to donate.
The STAR/Michael Varcas

'It felt like a threat to us'

In a phone interview with Philstar.com, Ia Marañon, who organized another community pantry in Quezon City reported similar harassment at the hands of the Quezon City Police District. 

It was on Tuesday morning when their pantry in Brgy. Loyola Heights was approached by two cops in drab camouflage asking for information on the organizers and their affiliations. 

"They were really adamant looking for the names of the organizers. They even asked us if we knew what happened in Maginhawa...it felt like a threat to us, and they even sounded proud of what they did. I don't get why they had to bring it up in that way," she said. 

"It was very intimidating... their questions were very pointed. They said it was ordered by the station." 

When no information was given to them, they simply reminded residents to observe social distancing and walked away. 

As in the case of Non, the visits were clear attempts at redbaiting the volunteers, the organizer said. Asked if she felt they were there to profile volunteers, she said: "I really think so. No doubt about it. I think the barangay was also spooked."

"We really condemn the closure in Maginhawa in the highest degree. It's just really appalling that this government has to go to this length to target not just activists but well-intentioned people who just want to help out in the community," Marañon said. 

Philstar.com sought Police Lt. Col. Imelda Reyes, Anonas police station chief, for comment, but she has not responded as of this post.

Two other organizers in Metro Manila that Philstar.com reached out to refused to speak up for fear of their personal safety. Their posts alleging intimidation from police have also since been taken down. 

"I'm not sure why the community pantries are being red-tagged... all organizations are welcome to keep the community pantries going," Non also said in her press briefing in Filipino. 

"They're looking at things like if you're an activist or if you were in the student council in college... my request to the government is not to discredit these things, especially activists, who are not bad people. I just want to help with the community." 

QC gov't vows protection of organizers, but QCPD red-tags them 

Both the PNP and the DILG have denied that orders to keep watch on community pantries were ever issued. 

In separate issuances, the city government vowed that organizers would "remain safe and unimpeded" in the city as it ordered the QC Task Force Disiplina to "maintain peace and order" and enforce health protocols in other community pantries in the city.

Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte in a statement said she had already spoken to QCPD leadership about the fears of the organizers, adding that she has yet to receive a report on the matter. 

“In these difficult times, let’s allow kindness and selflessness to prevail,” said Belmonte.

"The People's Law Enforcement Board of Quezon City will investigate the apparent red-tagging incident on the organizers of the Community Pantry in Maginhawa. It is beyond comprehension why allegedly certain members of our PNP approached them to ask for the organizer's cellphone number and her affiliations," lawyer Ralph Calinisan, who chairs the QC People's Law Enforcement Board also told Philstar.com in a text message. 

"In Quezon City, abusive cops will not be tolerated. We will investigate this matter and get to the bottom of this. Relatedly, we would like to inform Ms. Ana Patricia Non that the PLEB is open for any of her concerns."

QCPD has not yet responded through requests for comment through its public information office. 

What happens now?

Non added that she still hopes to open up the community pantry, but with fears over the volunteers' safety, coming up with a timetable is difficult. 

"These pantries are supposed to be a wake-up call about what's happening on the ground," Non said. 

She added that the QCPD actually reached out to her directly and asked her to file a formal complaint, but she did not reply. 

"What about the other community pantries experiencing harassment? We need to make sure the culture of intimidation is addressed. They can't just share red-tagging posts and then tell us to trust them," she said. 

"It's been hard to talk to them the past few days because their treatment has been stiff...they didn't try to build a relationship with my community pantry." 

But unless the harassment is not acted on, other organizers like Marañon are preparing for an eventual shutdown, too. Fears for the safety of volunteers will continue until then. 

"We've been setting up security protocols for everyone's safety. Not just us, but the people dropping off supplies," she said. 

"We're preparing for the worst."




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