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Days after encounters with police, fear remains for those accosted

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Days after encounters with police, fear remains for those accosted
Barangay Nangka residents in Marikina City get free food items at a community store organized by individuals from a private company at a covered court on Tuesday, May 4 2021.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — "I need help. I don't feel safe," Lex, a community pantry organizer told Philstar.com the morning after his run-in with the police. 

Just the day before, he was attending to a community pantry his group had organized in Provident Village—a family initiative done in coordination with the barangay—when Marikina police showed up. 

They asked for his contact details, home address, and whether or not he was part of any organizations. When he politely declined, they asked: "Why are you scared? We're not going to red-tag you." They came back later that day to offer him a ride home. He didn't feel safe going back to his home after giving out his address, so he went to a relative's house.

"I panicked. The way they talked to me was calm, [but] their presence just made me really nervous. I was paranoid about what they might do with my personal information. They didn't explain why they needed it," Lex said.

Local police confirmed to Philstar.com that cops were indeed there Sunday, but only to "offer assistance." They denied that they took pictures or asked for details, but said that they were just documenting the operation for their report and looking for the organizer to offer assistance. 

That should have been the end of it, but the shock followed the pantry organizer. 

On Monday morning, Lex was picking up donations when he arrived home to see police cruisers parked by his relative's house. "I'm aware of the political climate in this country and what's happening to other community pantry organizers," he said earlier.  

Upon seeing the patrol cars, the organizer's first instinct was to find somewhere to hide. "I'm scared to stay here. With what's happening in the news, I couldn't help but think 'what if?'" he said. 

"It was mental torture, the trauma I got from the incident, and the stress on my family."

READ: Another community pantry closes after run-in with Marikina police

Photo shows the community pantry at Provident Village in Marikina where an organizer said that cops pressed him to divulge his address and contact details.
Supplied

Misinterpreting?

Despite official police statements expressing support for the private-led initiatives, community pantry organizers continue to report intimidation and profiling at the hands of police weeks since the phenomenon began. 

Speaking at his first press briefing as the new chief of the PNP, Police Gen. Guillermo Eleazar defended Monday the police's interactions with community pantries, saying that patrolling officers should naturally approach crowded pantries. 

"If the public will interpret everything as harassment, then we will always lose," Eleazar said partially in Filipino. 

Yet past cases of harassment have so far gone unaccounted for.

Earlier on in the quarantine, Ana Patricia Non, who set up the very first community pantry along Maginhawa Street, was also forced to suspend operations for a while after police accused her, without basis, of ties to armed rebels. Quezon City police got off with a "reminder." 

For Lex, it's this chilling effect that left him in fear after his encounter with those sworn to protect and serve. 

"I just want clarification and assurance that I'm safe and that nothing will happen to me. I wish they explained it better," he said. 

'Cops were just on patrol'

Police Col. Restituto Arcangel, chief of Marikina City Police Station, denied that the police visited the organizer or got his address, saying they were only on patrol in the village, which he said just happened to be along one of their routes.

Arcangel also echoed PNP chief Eleazar's sentiment, saying he wasn't sure where the fear came from on the part of the organizers. 

"They might have misinterpreted the situation as the police being threatening when that's not the case. In fact, we support the community pantries. Why do they think the police are against them?" Arcangel said in Filipino in a phone call with Philstar.com

"The way I see it, there was no harassment there. I don't understand the point. How can the police offer assistance without approaching them? When crowds gather, the police just come closer, and what is wrong with that?"

Asked why the car was parked outside the home of the organizer's relatives, he said: "Well, the car isn't always running when you're on patrol."

"It's sad that this is their impression of the police, because they were respectful. They even offered a ride to his address," he admitted, saying the local police have a "Libreng Sakay" program. 

It is still unclear why the police would have asked for the organizers' contact details and address.

'Something doesn't add up'

In a phone call with Philstar.com, Brgy. Tañong Captain Bob Pamisa confirmed that the organizers coordinated with the local government about their pantry but said that no reports of a police visit reached his office. 

"The police don't coordinate those activities with us. It might have been an order from above," Pamisa said in mixed Filipino and English. 

Though he said that it was normal for cops to accompany barangay watchmen, he said that it was "unusual" for police to offer assistance at this point, since the pantry had already been up for a while, and assistance had already been offered earlier on. 

"It's not clear to me why they did that...offering assistance is our normal process, so it's confusing why they even had to visit. We already gave them assistance prior. It's been weeks," he said. 

He also said that the police indeed took pictures of the pantry for official documentation, adding that he would verify which cops were there that day. "If they took photos after giving assistance, that's understandable. But if they did it after questioning them, that's foul."

"That's wrong that they got their details...we always ask for assistance with monitoring and assisting the lines, but that kind of questioning and visiting, there's something wrong there. We won't let that happen," he said. 

"The police normally help us implement health protocols. But for them to get details and addresses and then visit them at home, that's scary. The organizers are just showing empathy, and they're causing fear."

Whether the situation was misinterpreted or not, Lex said he felt the need to seek legal advice after his information was collected.

Since Monday evening, the organizer said, even his family has felt concerned about their safety. He added that they have also coordinated with Marikina Mayor Marcy Teodoro since then. 

"I needed legal advice because I felt like my rights were violated when I gave out my information. I hope they try to understand where I'm coming from. If I misunderstood it, I apologize," Lex said.

"They didn't tell me why they got my information, and that's the root cause of this fear. My intention with the pantry was just to help."

Photo shows the Provident Village community pantry, where an organizer said police pressed him for his contact details and address.
Supplied

'On edge the first few days after'

After her encounter with Quezon City police, Laura, not her real name, changed the delivery details on her packages out of fear that her drivers pass through the same police checkpoint that detained her months ago. She has hardly left home since.

To recall, the freelance writer and volunteer was detained at a checkpoint in March after being caught cycling without a helmet, despite no city ordinance providing for such a penalty.

In an earlier story, she recalled that the cops repeatedly threatened her with arrest after she decided to record the ordeal on her phone, claiming that only media was allowed to do so. PNP leadership later walked back the claim

After the incident, though, her workmates let her know that police stopped by the shelter she volunteered at looking for her.

READ: Back to 'disiplina'? On second day of ECQ, stories of power-tripping enforcers

"If they are working in the interest of public safety and public health, it is deeply disturbing that this is the only way they know how to do it. They are only successful at instilling a culture of fear," Laura said then.

This fear stayed with her, she said, when she didn't feel safe leaving her house in the weeks after the incident.

"It was bad enough being on edge for the first few days after, every time someone knocked on our door or rang our doorbell," she told Philstar.com in an online exchange. 

"I also am largely in charge of my household, so not being able to leave without fear of harassment or detention puts us all at risk. What if there's an emergency and we need to see a doctor or a vet?" she said then. 

The day after the incident, Police Lt. Elario Wanawanan, who was at the checkpoint that day, reached out to Philstar.com after initially rejecting requests for comment. 

He admitted that police visited her workplace immediately after the run-in, but only to "verify" the identity she gave them at the checkpoint. 

"We can't do anything if she thinks she was harassed," Wanawanan said in Filipino, describing Laura as having "attitude problems." 

Laura said in response: "I do not appreciate that misogynistic take na 'nagwawala' ako (that I threw a tantrum). Female hysteria is such a convenient excuse for harassment at the hands of uniformed men."

A week after the incident, Laura was notified that one officemate was interrogated by the officers at that same checkpoint when they found that they worked at the same establishment.

The officers were still looking for her, the message from her director said. 

For her, the most practical solution for both her and her family is to let the issue go away quietly. 

"If keeping the peace, or not getting killed and not being scared of repercussions, means keeping quiet, I'll just keep quiet," she said. 

Asked if the fear stayed months later, she said: "Now I feel more angry and unnecessarily inconvenienced than fearful."

"The presence of checkpoints is such a disruption to such simple everyday habits that we shouldn't have to think very hard about."

COMMUNITY PANTRY COMMUNITY QUARANTINE PHILIPPINE NATIONAL POLICE PNP
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