“Books lead people to think critically, be aware of systems of governance, and demand accountability from those elected to govern.”
Sometime late on Monday (March 21) or in the wee hours of Tuesday (March 22), Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila and Popular Bookstore in Quezon City were tagged with red paint by unknown vandals.
“Soli’s” sign was defaced with scrawls, while the sign and steel door of Popular bore the calumny “NPA terorista.”
Soli and Popular are frequented by the nation’s intelligentsia, avid readers, the curious, and booklovers of all kinds, for the reason that these stores carry books that are not available elsewhere, many of them written by Filipinos, and on a wide variety of topics, running the gamut from literature to textbooks. Both stores also host literary events such as book launches and lectures.
Literary and writers’ groups have written statements condemning the incident and asking authorities to investigate it, a request which, as of yesterday, seems to have been ignored by the said authorities.
The Philippine Center of the International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists) wrote, “Bookstores are channels of free expression and free opinion that are fundamental to the health and well-being of a democracy. With their liberal selection of titles, bookstores quietly but judiciously carry out debates and dialogues that keep democracy active and functioning.
“Ideological tagging and the violence of political partisanship achieve nothing but silence the bookstores, and even drive them out of business.”
The Manila Critics Circle, which gives out the annual National Book Awards, “denounces in the strongest possible terms the red-tagging and vandalism” of the two bookstores.
“Such malicious vandalism is an attack on the right to free speech, the right to think for oneself, and the right to choose what they wish to read. Such graffiti threatens the owners, employees, and customers of these bookstores.
“The MCC urges the authorities concerned to act immediately on these threatening acts of red-tagging. People should feel safe going to the bookstore, and they should not have their freedom to avail themselves of the literature of their choosing curtailed in any way. These businesses should not be threatened, nor should the people they employ.
As a member of both Philippine PEN and the MCC, I join my voices with that of my colleagues and with those from other groups and decry the red-tagging.
As a writer and columnist, I condemn this bullying perpetrated by cowardly dolts who hide under the cover of darkness to perform their dastardly acts anonymously.
Who did it? Was it a group of taggers who thought it a good idea to write graffiti on these shops? But no, the acts weren’t random nor for fun; they targeted these two independent bookstores in particular.
More sinisterly, could it have been a state-sponsored mission, as some whispers have suggested, meant to intimidate the store owners, staff, and their clientele?
Journalism, literature, and art have always been at the forefront of current events, criticizing injustice, oppression, and persecution in any country. Autocratic government officials and politicians, revisionists of history, ultra-conservatives, and those who hew to organization or party lines in blind, unquestioning loyalty are among those with the most to lose from the truth being revealed and their falsehoods and disinformation exposed.
Books lead people to think critically, be aware of systems of governance, and demand accountability from those elected to govern. This is why autocrats are so afraid of writers and artists brave enough to call out acts of suppression and impunity.
Cases in point: Russian writer and dissident Alexei Navalny, recently sentenced to nine years in prison for politically-motivated fraud charges after protesting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; and U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s government who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
As far as I know, this is the first instance ever of red-tagging of bookstores. How did Philippine society change so much that this was done, even contemplated, whereas before, bookstores were seen only as peaceful purveyors of printed material?
In a large part, this negative transformation can be regarded as a consequence of this administration’s policy of red-tagging of personalities, often without basis. What is permitted, encouraged, and mandated by the state can become normalized if practiced long enough.
Suppression can take many forms. This red-tagging of bookstores may send a signal that those purchasing from these shops will likewise be targeted; this may have a chilling effect on the freedoms of speech, expression, and reading.
It’s still a mystery who did it, especially because nothing has been heard from the authorities about this. But the pen will always stay mightier than the sword, or, in this case, the paint brush, because free and critical literature and journalism will always be upheld by the brave, principled, and steadfast.
And there will always be books for the lovers of knowledge and truth.
*** FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO