A Timeline of the First Quarter Storm: Three Months That Shook the Nation
It has been said that there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. For the Philippines, January to March 1970, the First Quarter Storm, was the latter.
Those who were there when it happened can attest to how the events unfolded. Pete Lacaba probably described it best: They were “days of disquiet, nights of rage.” The first three months of 1970 were a time of intense unrest and upheaval that shook the country to its very core and changed its destiny for better or worse.
Storm clouds are gathering
What was the First Quarter Storm? More than an event in history, it was a convergence of local and international currents.
The previous decade was one of radical change for the Philippines. Decolonization arrived in our nation and the question of our status as an American “ally” was put into question. What 15 years ago would be considered to be a relationship between friends was now considered to be that of a master and slave or, more accurately, an imperialist nation and its semi-colony.
Nationalism was on the rise. The intellectual class began to reject Americanized culture, from English in the academe to formalist literature. Students began clamoring for national democracy, an end to foreign dependence and a dismantling of the fossilized landlord class. Groups like Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines led the way by holding educational discussions and taking a critical look at Philippine society at large.
As the decade rolled on, more and more people became acutely aware of the status of the country. Worldwide, the world was on fire. Vietnam had become the latest ideological battleground, turning an anti-colonial struggle into a battle between “godless communism” and “liberating capitalism.” France erupted in civil unrest. Africa was being engulfed in civil war as imperialist powers left one after the other. Latin America was turning red as socialism took hold. Mao Zedong Thought gained worldwide prominence as communist parties worldwide, including our own, adopted its tactics in their revolutions.
In 1970, Ferdinand Marcos secured a second term as President and things were dicey. The economy was less than stellar after decades of import-dependent-export-oriented economics. Filipino soldiers were in Vietnam dying in a war they had no stake in. The New People’s Army was in the countryside rapidly gaining power. Workers and farmers agitated for substantial change and were ready to fight for it.
January 1970: Shots fired at the Battle of Mendiola
On January 27, 1970, Marcos gave his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to open the Seventh Congress. The National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) organized a mobilization to protest and call for a non-partisan Constitutional Convention. Other groups joined in to lend support, including KM, the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan, labor groups, and peasant organizations.
When Marcos finished delivering his SONA speech, at around 5 p.m., the protestors saw their chance. A group took its cardboard coffin and hurled it at the future dictator. An effigy of Marcos was burned and the crowd began to chant. The police regrouped and forcibly scattered the protestors, who countered by linking arms and marching forward.
The battle was on. Senator Emmanuel Pelaez intervened and requested the police to withdraw. The police responded by throwing rocks at him. The battle continued well into 10 p.m., with students injured and arrested by overzealous police.
Four days later, the students would seek justice. Protestors marched to Congress (then at the Legislative Building, now the National Museum of Fine Arts) to denounce state fascism and police brutality. By 5 pm, as the speakers wound down, the crowd was shouting with a singular voice: “Malacañang!”
And so the protest began to march toward San Miguel. During this time, NUSP president Edgar Jopson was in a meeting with Marcos to demand his commitment to not seek a third term, among others. The negotiations failed after Marcos insulted Jopson as being the “son of a grocer.”
But the battle outside was more heated. Protestors scaled the gates of Malacañang as guards opened fire. Some protestors managed to get a firetruck and rammed it toward gate four of the Palace, allowing them to storm the place. The Presidential Guard Battalion fired back, forcing the protestors to fall back, but not before setting the firetruck on fire.
The protestors were steadily pushed back by police and military, from Malacañang down to Arguelles, and back to Mendiola, where they built a barricade. Soldiers and protestors went back and forth trying to control the bridge until eventually, the military won and the protestors had to disperse. At least five people were killed.
February 1970: Chaos erupts in the streets
By then there was no stopping the tide of civil unrest. Demonstrations became more frequent and inevitably ended with police brutality, which only fanned the fires for more demonstrations.
February 12 saw the largest rally in Plaza Miranda, with anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 people joining and filling the streets of Quiapo. Protestors would march toward the U.S. embassy to condemn U.S. involvement in Philippine affairs, labeling Marcos as a U.S. puppet and his presidency the U.S.-Marcos regime.
Violence became the norm. The police would throw rocks and raise their rattan shields as they forcibly dispersed the protestors. The protestors would throw rocks of their own, pillboxes, and even fire. On February 18, a march toward the U.S. embassy saw the lobby destroyed as the mobilization demanded an end to U.S. imperialism.
The protests weren’t just events created by a few organizations and their members. KM struck up a sort of alliance with Manila’s lumpenproletariat—the petty thieves and gang members from the city’s poorest. KM would bring the fury while the lumpen would bring the fire, oftentimes literally. Labor groups, peasants, and the transport sector joined in the protests to raise their issues—low wages, union busting, militarization of the countryside, oil price hikes.
Ideologically, there was cohesion between the ranks. Even more moderate groups like SDK or NUSP saw eye-to-eye with the militant groups like KM. It was all too clear that Marcos was only a symptom of a problem; the real issue was U.S. imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism.
February ended with another explosive protest in the U.S. embassy, which was once again dispersed by the police. The protestors regrouped in Mendiola to re-enact the Battle of Mendiola the month before. The police responded by raiding the Philippine College of Commerce (now University of the East) in Recto Avenue, ransacking classrooms and offices.
March 1970: Thousands join the People’s March
The February 26 raid at the Philippine College of Commerce only stirred up more agitation and anger. The Movement for a Democratic Philippines, the organization behind some of last month’s large protests, organized a People’s March on March 3 attended by thousands of students, workers, peasants, drivers, urban poor, and people from other sectors. Manila was totally paralyzed. The day before, the transport sector went on strike to protest against corrupt cops.
The march was punctuated by one-sided violent outbursts between police armed with guns and protestors with rocks, but not even that was enough to reduce the ranks of the protestors, which swelled with every step. They passed by Plaza Lawton and the U.S. Embassy, which saw the fiercest fighting.
Police forcibly dispersed the People’s March once again, in a scene more reminiscent of a skirmish than a peaceful demonstration. A student, Enrique Sta. Maria, was captured by the police and tortured to death.
A few weeks later, on March 17, another people’s march was held, this time going through Plaza Moriones toward the U.S. Embassy. At Plaza Moriones, a quick program was held with protestors creating a mock tribunal sentencing the enemies of the people—U.S. imperialism, Marcos, and all the tools they used to oppress the urban poor.
The delegation then marched toward the U.S. Embassy, where the cops were waiting for them. Seeing the police ready to kill, the delegation instead turned back toward Mendiola to camp for the night. The Manila police regrouped, followed them, and released tear gas to forcibly disperse the crowd.
March 17 is generally held to be the last event in the First Quarter Storm.
Of course, the First Quarter Storm was just the beginning. Marcos referred to the January 30 incident as an “attack on democracy” and use it as one of the justifications for martial law. His propaganda machine made sure to paint the nation as being gripped by a “communist insurgency” headed by a shadowy, all-powerful Communist Party.
The First Quarter Storm gave way to other events. The year 1971 saw the Plaza Miranda bombing, the rise and fall of the Diliman commune, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Protests, strikes, and demonstrations would continue until September 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos did the unthinkable.
He declared martial law.
Lacaba, Jose. Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage: The First Quarter Storm and Related Events
Rodis, Rodel. Remembering the First Quarter Storm.
Agoncillio, Teodoro. History of the Filipino People.