People Power in DC: The National Summit for Human Rights & Democracy

There are so many ways to engage in social justice and activism. Some are splashy and fast and will get lots of attention for your cause. Others require meticulous organizing and long-term commitments. All of them are important. At the end of the day, all that hard work and hope also bring joy. The joy that I’m talking about isn’t the same thing as fun though. I’m talking about the joy that you feel in being part of a movement, joy in the sense of belonging to a caring community, joy in living your life with purpose, and joy in the knowledge that the world will be a better place because of your efforts and passion.

Last weekend, I attended the National Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in the Philippines in Washington, D.C. More than 350 people from various organizations came from different cities across the United States to participate in one of the largest political summits gathering Filipinos to unite against the fascist Duterte administration and U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. I was also a speaker on the Defending Press Freedom panel.

“This was the largest gathering of Filipinos in the U.S. against a fascist dictatorship of a President of the Philippines since the Marcos Martial Law era, this time against the rising dictatorship of President Rodrigo Duterte.” said Roger Rigor, a Malaya National Convener and Marcos era anti-martial law activist. “There are too many similarities, too many deaths in such a short amount of time. The people are scared and angry and want to take action. We saw this great opportunity to unite with people from across political differences against our one common enemy.”

President Duterte’s death toll from the infamous drug war has swiftly risen to reach 30,000 deaths in nearly three years.

“In fact, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism and insurgency have converged upon the poor, lumad, and peasant communities. In Compostela Valley they have killed peasant and Lumad leaders in the name of the War on Drugs. Independent sources put the figure at 30,000 including killings from vigilantes. Today the government admits failure of the drug war and so the killing shall continue, almost every day in Cebu there is a killing,” stated Father Ben Alforque the Keynote Speaker for the Summit and a leading convener of the church-based Filipino group, Rise Up for Life and for Rights, a network of advocates and families of victims of drug-related killings in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, Rappler CEO and Time Person of the Year Maria Ressa was unable to deliver her keynote speech in person due to Duterte’s attacks on press freedom arresting her upon returning to the Philippines from the U.S. on March 29th, 2019, making that her eighth charge as well as a conflict in her schedule. She was able to send a video statement on how the Duterte government has attacked press freedom and her own experience at Rappler:

“The Philippines is a country where we can win this battle for truth, we can continue to strengthen our democracy, but we cannot do this alone. It begins first with news groups coming together to protect the facts, it’s important that we stand for the principles of a free press that we defend press freedom that not only should we be able to speak and to write what we see but that that should be done without repercussion.”

The Summit provided 10 different panel workshops on topics such as: the human rights crisis in the Philippines, the impacts of Duterte’s economic policies on Filipino migrants and workers, defending press freedom, the rights of Indigenous and Moro people under martial law in Mindanao, Philippine Sovereignty and the West Philippine Sea, the #BabaeAko movement in resisting Duterte’s attacks on women, the youth-led Rise 4 Rights campaign, faith in action against dictatorship, and films bridging stories for social change, and the people’s resistance.

“Planning this summit, we knew we wanted to gather people from across the country against the fascist Duterte government, and we knew we wanted people to move together even beyond attending, so that it’s both educational, engaging, participatory and action oriented.” commented Malaya Arevalo, Malaya Movement National Secretariat member.  

Following the panel workshops there was a plenary titled, “What can we do? What is the alternative?” featuring Dr. Dante Simbulan, Dr. Alma Trinidad (National Convenor of the MALAYA Movement), Eric Lachica (Washington DC Coordinator of US Filipinos for Good Governance), and Father Ben Alforque (Convenor of Rise Up for Life and for Rights), Bernadette Ellorin (National Spokesperson of BAYAN USA, an overseas chapter of BAYAN Philippines, and an alliance of 29 progressive and anti-imperialist Filipino organizations).

The closing of the Summit culminated in discussing and uniting on a Declaration of Unity amongst the organizations and participants to first and foremost “Oust President Duterte!” to “End all U.S. Aid to the Philippines” to “Stop the Killings in the Philippines” to “End Contractualization” to “Uphold the Freedom of Press” to “Defend Philippine Sovereignty Against all Foreign Powers,” among other resolutions on demands and actions moving forward beyond the Summit.

At the end of the first day of the Summit, they then mobilized in full force to the Philippine Embassy and Consulate to join the BAYAN USA-led action against the murder of 14 farmers in Negros Philippines this week and called for the ousting of President Duterte.

On Monday, the final day of the Summit, attendees stormed the Hart U.S. Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. to protest and lobby U.S. lawmakers to cut U.S. aid to the Philippines that funds President Duterte's military and police forces. The Hart Senate Office Atrium is a historic place of protests including the anti-Kavanaugh protests, #MeToo movement protests, immigration protests, etc.

*Source: Malaya Movement website

**Photos courtesy of Anakbayan USA and Bayan USA.

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