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(en) US, Agitator Index, The Significance of 15 March 2005: On the Bagong Diwa Prison Massacre*

Date Thu, 30 Jun 2005 09:40:34 +0300

Introduction: the global presence of the U.S. prison regime
The torture of imprisoned people at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
has, in concert with the mind-numbing fatalities and casualties
produced by the so-called War on Terror, eloquently depicted
the brazen sense of impunity with which the United States is
waging its agenda over the rest of the planet. Abu Ghraib’s
scenes of subjection have provoked an international outcry,
while facilitating a crucial (and perhaps overdue) reassessment
of the US prison apparatus as an increasingly global, rather
than narrowly domestic or national, regime of repression and
bodily punishment. Inescapable images of US military prison
personnel gleefully engaged in the (apparently scripted)
performance of war crimes spurred a moral and political
outrage that focused on the conduct of this extra-domestic
American prison system, and in some quarters has enlivened
hope that the same intensity of international attention will
eventually be directed at the organized social violence of the
United States’ endemic prison industrial complex. The
current historical period suggests the need for new forms of
activism that directly confront the problem of US empire
through a confrontation with the global reach, institutional
form, and layered brutality of the US prison regime.

Somewhat obscured in this still unfolding political discourse,
however, has been a central dimension of the contemporary
American prison: that is, its evolution into a prototype for
normalized domestic warfare. The US prison regime has
grown, from the 1970s to the present, into a crucible of
domestic warfare that overwhelmingly targets poor and racially
pathologized “civilian” populations through direct
political repression (e.g. the notorious Counterintelligence
Program conceived and masterfully executed by FBI Director
J. Edgar Hoover) and broadly fabricated crises of moral order
and national security (e.g. Nixon’s “law and
order,” Reagan’s “War on Drugs,”
Clinton’s “welfare reform,” and Bush’s
“Homeland Security”). While other governments,
including those of Great Britain and (apartheid and
post-apartheid) South Africa, have literally imported US
imprisonment techniques as a matter of national policy, it is
the Philippines that offers the most recent harbinger of how
the contemporary American prison regime may specifically
influence—and blueprint—the waging of domestic
warfare by national governments across the world.

I offer this short essay as an analytical reflection on and
commemoration of the recent atrocity at Bagong Diwa Prison,
in the outskirts of Manila. My shock at the spectacle of the
event itself has only now been overcome by a sense of despair
at the relative silence that the global, Philippine, and diasporic
Filipino/a Left has emitted over what is surely a landmark
moment in the post-martial law history of this onetime US
colony. What follows is a response to this silence that occurs in
three interrelated parts: first, I contextualize the Bagong Diwa
rebellion and massacre by briefly outlining the recent history of
the Philippine National Police and the conditions of the
Philippine prison/jail system. The second portion of this essay
considers the links between Bagong Diwa and the larger global
emergence of the US prison regime. Here, I discuss the
American prison apparatus as a prototype for mass-based
human immobilization and punishment, capable of
modification and deployment across historical scenes and
geographic (national) sites. Finally, I speculate on the
possibilities for an activism that is anchored to the legacy of the
Bagong Diwa massacre, and which speaks to the peculiar
political positioning of diasporic Filipinos/as, particularly those
based in the United States.
I. Context of the Bagong Diwa massacre

On 15 March 2005, a day that may soon be remembered as the
moment of genesis for a new Pacific era of prison expansion
and industrialized, mass-based human punishment, the
Philippine National Police (PNP) murdered 22 Muslim
captives of Bagong Diwa Prison. Aided by US-trained
Philippine paramilitary and SWAT-style units, the PNP
responded quickly and fatally to a day-old prison rebellion with
a flourish of tear gas and machine gun fire, snuffing out an
uprising of over 100 imprisoned people. According to
Philippine officials, Alhamzer Manatad Limbong and Kair
Abdul Gapar (both well-known political prisoners and leaders
of the Abu Sayyaf insurgency) disarmed and killed three prison
guards on 14 March, sparking the larger Bagong Diwa
rebellion by taking control of the prison’s second floor.
They forwarded two initial demands: 1) the quick and fair
disposition of their trials and 2) the immediate suspension of
Philippine government military operations against Muslim
independence/sovereignty fighters and civilians in the southern
Sulu region.

It must be emphasized that, despite the rush of government
and media propaganda enmeshing the prison’s Abu Sayyaf
affiliates with the impenetrable label of being “Al
Qaeda-linked” (and as such, sharing a recent political
heritage with the US government itself), this particular
rebellion mounted and multiplied into something that
significantly exceeded any insular “terrorist” or
sectarian agenda. Rather, the Bagong Diwa uprising spilled
forth a profound—and arguably unprecedented—political
opposition to the institutionalized dehumanization of the
Philippine prison regime in the “post-martial law”

Resonating a recent and global lineage of anti-authoritarian
and counter-state prison insurrections from Attica, New York,
to Robben Island, South Africa, the Bagong Diwa uprising
quickly swelled beyond the immediate proclamations of
Limbong and Gapar, and became a proto-liberationist struggle
focused at the site of the Philippine prison. The 100+ prison
rebels revised Limbong and Gapar’s original platform, and
reissued four demands: 1) freedom from bodily harm in the
resolution of the standoff (a crucial public demand in the face
of a PNP that was painstakingly prepping its domestic warfare
weaponry in anticipation of a propagandistic media spectacle),
2) timely and fair hearings of their collective cases, 3) respect
for human rights (an evident call for recognition from the
Philippine and global Left), and 4) access to media in order to
air long-standing grievances with the prison administration.

Recent historical context gives credence to these demands: in
2004, as in recent years, the Philippine Commission on
Human Rights (an independent office established by the 1987
Constitution) named the PNP as the nation’s most
consistent and flagrant abuser of human and civil rights. The
November 2004 slaughter of a dozen striking sugar plantation
workers in the Tarlac province (central Luzon, north of
Manila) capped a touchstone year of state-conducted and
state-sanctioned political killings, including the open
assassination of numerous progressive and radical activists,
human rights workers, and journalists (see the recent
statement by the Critical Filipina and Filipino Studies
Collective, available online at cffsc.focusnow.org).

Moreover, the Philippine government’s intensified
campaign against poor drug users has resulted in a dramatic
increase in the jail and prison population, as only 3.5% of the
detained can afford to post bail, and most are forced to wait
extremely long periods for their day in court. The PNP is
notorious for kidnapping, torturing, and periodically killing
ordinary civilians who have been arrested and/or detained
under the auspices of this “war on drugs” as well as
other, more arbitrary circumstances.

Recent assessments by a number of state and
non-governmental organizations have resoundingly revealed
that Philippine prisons and jails lack basic infrastructure, and
are extremely overcrowded: Manila jails are operating at more
than 300% capacity, while the nation’s primary prison in
Muntinlupa is humming along at 500% of operating capacity.
These institutions consistently fail to provide imprisoned
people with basic nutritional sustenance: most facilities lack
drinkable water, and poor ventilation helps spread sickness and
has caused an unknown number of preventable deaths.
According to a 2005 report issued by the US Department of
State, people imprisoned in the Philippines are most often
forced to depend on their families for food because of “the
insufficient subsistence allowance and the need to bribe guards
to receive food rations.” Finally, as alluded to in the
demands issued by the Bagong Diwa rebels, the Philippine
judicial process is inordinately slow and inefficient, and
contributes greatly to the endemic possibility of prison and jail
insurrections as well as individual escape attempts.

In light of such a veritable state of emergency, the four-point
Bagong Diwa platform is rather sober and tame. The
insurrection itself, which refrained from a large-scale killing of
prison guards in exchange for a short-lived negotiation with
the state, is most appropriately understood as a collective and
politically principled response to the daily atrocities that have
been normalized in such profoundly dehumanizing fashion by
the Philippine prison system. Further, the substance of the
Bagong Diwa demands shatters the state’s facile,
propagandistic claim that this rebellion was a dastardly
alchemy concocted by Bin Laden-affiliated terrorists in cahoots
with simple (and apparently, incorrigibly Muslim) criminals. In
fact, for those of us in the US informed by the recent domestic
historical record, the Bagong Diwa demands echo the seminal
communiqués penned and voiced by imprisoned
liberationists (overwhelmingly of African, Mexican, Native
American, and Puerto Rican descent) in the Folsom Manifesto
(1970) and Attica Rebellion (1971), as well as the current
generation of political discourse emerging from such places as
the Lexington (KY) Women’s High Security Unit
(1988-1989), Central California Women’s Facility (1997),
Pelican Bay (CA) Security Housing Unit (2001), and the
Guantanamo Bay detention facility (2002-present), among
other sites of human captivity.

We must recognize, in other words, that the Bagong Diwa
rebels are part of a contemporary, living history of rebellions by
imprisoned women, men, and children against prison
regimes—including that of the Philippines—that have
been formed, inspired, and otherwise influenced by the
expansive institutionalized violence of the US state.
II. Human expendability and Philippine prison expansion

The Philippine national government, under the leadership of
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and with the eager
cooperation of both the PNP and the Armed Forces of the
Philippines (AFP), has apparently learned valuable lessons
from the contemporary emergence and astronomical
expansion of the US prison industrial complex. Most
important among these lessons is that the fatal violence that
most indelibly marks the spectacle of the prison rebellion is not
the furtive and illicit violence of the “prisoners,” but
rather the self-justifying deadliness of a militarized domestic
force acting under full state sanction. The strong advisory and
supervisory roles exerted by US military and government
officials, along with the increasingly international presence of
American prison administrators and “correctional
officers” (prison guards) in and beyond the Philippines
suggests a particular historical accounting of 15 March 2005.
This massacre implicates far more than the contained violence
of the Philippine National Police or even the Philippine
national government (although both must be indicted as
co-conspirators in this atrocity).

I am suggesting that the emergence, expansion, and everyday
functioning of the US prison apparatus, in other words, offers
both a historical and institutional framework through which
other national governments—in particular those in
(neocolonial) political alliance with American global
hegemony—may conceive, modify, and deploy new modes
of political repression, social control, and domestic warfare.
There are thus several, tightly entwined common threads that
link Bagong Diwa to the emergence of the US prison regime as
the preeminent global matrix for large-scale human
immobilization and punishment. First, Bagong Diwa entailed a
coordinated and public slaughter of imprisoned human beings
by a domestic police force under the open sanction of a
national government: President Arroyo minced no words when
she averred in the hours after the killings that the dead
Muslims (“terrorists”) deserved their fate, and that the
massacre “exemplified the best of the criminal justice
system.” While the scenario of the prison massacre is
neither new nor unique in the Philippines, Bagong Diwa
introduces an additional element: here, the state-proctored
slaughter of prisoners is neither cause for scandal nor is it
concealed from public view. In fact, 15 March 2005 introduced
the collaboration and corroboration of the mass media as well
as the mobilization of a popular (and global) consensus that
draws from the sturdy ideological toolboxes of “law and
order,” “national/Homeland security,” and
“anti-terrorism.” Such is the common language of the
US prison regime writ global.

Second, Bagong Diwa demonstrates how the state’s
organized killing of its own captives—whether by siege,
individual assassination, medical neglect, or other
means—can pronounce and perform a logic of human
expendability, often defined through the overlapping categories
of “race,” region, and religion. In the case of Philippine
prison and criminal justice system, poor, indigenous, and
Muslim Filipinos are clearly primed for social liquidation, while
in the US, poor people of African, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and
Native American descent are most frequently targeted for
group-based punishment and periodic elimination.

A third, interesting convergence between these seemingly
distant sites of incarceration: in US and Philippine prisons,
jails, and youth facilities, Muslims—many of whom, in the
US, are Black “prison converts”—consistently
constitute a captive political bloc, often taking the lead in
challenging prison guards and administrators in moments of
crisis or insurrection. In the Philippines, a complex and
mass-based struggle for religious freedom, national
democracy, and sovereignty has been thriving among Muslims
in the southern islands for at least several decades. Thus, there
is all the more reason for imprisoned Muslims (including and
beyond members and affiliates of the Abu Sayyaf) to embody
the leading edge of insurgency against proliferating state terror
and institutionalized dehumanization.

The aftermath of 15 March 2005 entwines the fourth thread
connecting Bagong Diwa to the global expansion of the
American prison regime: it is wholly possible that the legacy of
this rebellion and state-conducted massacre will be a new era
of Philippine “prison reform” and prison expansion,
both of which will undoubtedly be informed, assisted, and
politically supported by the US government and military, as
well as its expansive prison establishment. There is a clear
historical precedent for this possibility: it was in the immediate
aftermath of the Folsom Manifesto, Attica rebellion, and a
number of other early 1970s insurrections by politicized
imprisoned people in the US that the foundation was laid for
the industrialization and astronomical multiplication of the
prison apparatus as a primary method of political repression
and social (dis)organization. Reformist calls for institutional
change resonated through the mid-to-late 1970s, as a fragile
alliance of imprisoned activists, “prisoner’s rights”
supporters, attorneys, liberal policymakers, criminologists,
judges, elected officials, and prison administrators enacted a
broad agenda that would ostensibly improve prison living
conditions (for example, alleviating the overcrowding and
undernourishment of “inmates”), stamp out the most
heinous forms of institutional corruption, and
“professionalize” (and multiply) prison staff. This
generally well-intentioned reformist agenda, however, was
quickly absorbed into the political impetus and economic drive
for more and “better” prisons. In concert with the racist
and anti-poor mobilization of the reactionary “War on
Drugs” in the 1980s, the United States increased its total
incarcerated population almost tenfold in less than a
generation: by 1990, more than a million people were held in
American jails and prisons and shortly thereafter the US
became the world’s per capita leader in human
warehousing. The rapid growth of women’s prisons
through the 1990s, and the more recent transformation of US
“immigrant detention” facilities (through the
militarization of the US-Mexico border and domestic War on
Terror) have further extended the scope of this apparatus.

The current yield of the putative 1970s prison reform
movement in the US has thus been the criminalization and
astronomical imprisonment of more than a million Black
people (who compose 12% of the “free” American
polity and more than 50% of its imprisoned population), and
the disproportionate incarceration of Latinos/as, Native
Americans, and other racially pathologized and poor
populations. Immigrants of color—both “legal” and
“illegal”—are increasingly and strategically
subsumed under rubrics of “criminality” (including
that of the “suspected terrorist”), and their very
presence in the US is frequently challenged as a fundamental
threat to Homeland Security (see the report “Resisting
Homeland Security,” published online by the Critical
Filipino and Filipina Studies Collective).

The Bagong Diwa massacre has now, at the beginning of the
21st century, brought fleeting attention to the extreme
overcrowding, institutionalized corruption, administrative and
staff incompetence, and insufficient facilities that permeate the
fledgling post-martial law Philippine national prison system.
As such, the Philippines is poised for a dramatic prison and jail
expansion, buttressed by a state and popular mandate to
“reform” the institutional methods and enhance the
bureaucratic scale of its capacities to mass-incarcerate. The
Arroyo administration, in concert with the PNP and AFP, will
likely justify a commitment to Philippine “law and
order” by pointing to the Bagong Diwa insurrection as the
unfortunate (and perhaps inevitable) outcome of prison
overcrowding, understaffing, and institutional
underdevelopment. These alleged insufficiencies of the prison
system will then be portrayed as an imminent threat to national
and local “security,” particularly in the long cast
shadow of the globalized “War on Terror” (which in
the Philippines, is little more than an elaboration of the
decades long civil war against Muslims). In the midst of the
US prison juggernaut, which now holds about 2.5 million
people captive (including children), we must anticipate and
prepare for the reform, transformation, and expansion of the
Philippine police and prison apparatuses.
III. Political possibilities and the Filipino/a diaspora

The final and most important strand linking the Bagong Diwa
massacre to the global presence of the US prison industrial
complex is the political onus it bears upon the global Left
generally—and diasporic Filipinos specifically—who are
committed to struggle for human liberation and freedom in the
face of such overwhelming state violence. A profound and
potentially revitalizing political possibility remains embedded in
this moment of mourning and commemoration. This
possibility opens with the recognition that the tragedy of 15
March 2005 is an allegory of the everyday for the increasing
numbers of ordinary people who must suffer and die at the
hands of the PNP, the Philippine jail and prison apparatus, and
the US prison regime writ large. There is, in other words, a
kinship of captivity that is shared by ever-increasing numbers
of people in localities across the world (“From Attica to
Abu Ghraib,” as an upcoming conference in Berkeley,
California has phrased it) that are somehow touched by the
virus of American-style imprisonment, an unholy matrimony
of mass-based human immobilization and acute bodily

A mounting movement for the fundamental transformation of
the American prison, policing, and criminal justice systems
has taken flight since the late-1990s, and has begun to
blossom as the resurgence of the nineteenth century US
abolitionist movement, whose most revolutionary
dreams—the decisive overthrow of slavery, white
supremacy, US apartheid, and normalized state
terror—remain to be fulfilled. As this movement grows in
relevance and political scope, it has become increasingly clear
that diasporic Filipinos—especially US-based activists,
teachers, writers, professional intellectuals, and ordinary
folks—must assume a truly epochal responsibility in
rendering themselves accountable to a living history. The
nightmare of the American prison is now bleeding into our
very pores, as its violence is literally becoming the way of the
world—even and especially in our ancestral
“homeland.” Bagong Diwa has abruptly called us forth
as protagonists in this state of emergency. As the soil hardens
on the mass graves of the 22 prisoners killed at Bagong Diwa,
the question remains as to whether and how we will muster a
Dylan Rodríguez works with the Critical Filipino and Filipina
Studies Collective (cffsc.focusnow.org) and Critical Resistance:
Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex (criticalresistance.org).
He is currently an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the
University of California, Riverside.
Copied from Bring the Ruckus** web site:
* By Dylan Rodríguez, in affiliation with the Critical Filipino
and Filipina Studies Collective (CFFSC)
** Bring The Rukus is an antiauthotitarian anticapitalist
direct action revolutionary initiative.

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