Footprints

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Individual Freedom vs Collective Good

05 May 2020

On 19 April 2020 at 4:30 PM, members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) assigned to the City of Taguig entered the premises of the condominium building where I live, and forced themselves into the building grounds. They wanted to check on the compliance of the residents to the City’s ordinance in response to the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). The ordinance stated that residents in condominiums were not allowed to loiter in common areas, nor use any of the building’s common facilities such as the swimming pool or gym.

It seemed that someone in the building had called the police to report that between six and eight residents were congregating in the pool area, sunning themselves. Four armed policemen then entered the premises and harshly, unnecessarily vociferously, commanded them to return to their units. This was recorded on video and soon became viral in Manila’s social media.

The management of the condominium threatened to file a criminal case against the police for trespassing on private property, forcing themselves in without a warrant.

Everybody weighed in—from ordinary lawyers to one of President Duterte’s cabinet members, even a former supreme court justice. The city mayor gave several televised interviews to justify the action of the police.

The over-riding question remained: who were at fault? The debate involved both legal and moral issues. The following were the supposed details of the case, some immediately verifiable, others not.

According to the Police:

• “Sunning” themselves beside the pool is loitering and is explicitly forbidden under the ordinance. This is a criminal offense under the law and the police were therefore justified in entering the premises without a warrant: a crime was on-going.

• The police had allegedly issued similar warnings to several condominiums whose residents were likewise lingering in their common areas, but whereas other condominiums followed their directives, my condominium ignored them.

According to the Condominium Management:

• The police entered without a warrant. The premises are private spaces.

• The officers wore military uniforms carrying assault rifles, not justifiable under the circumstances

• The major in charge was abusive, threatening to arrest the security force of the building, shouting at the lingering residents, singling out a foreigner among them.

Issues:

• It was mentioned that one of the loitering residents was a member of the board of the condominium. Should the police have shown some courtesy, or did the board member in fact show a bad example by being one of the loiterers?

• By repeatedly giving press interviews over what seemed like a relatively minor incident, were the leading authorities amassing political capital? It was pointed out that the condominium was one of the most expensive buildings in the country, but rich or poor, all were equal under the law, further implying that the rich had a mistaken sense of entitlement. This was understood by some as a political gimmick to court an overwhelmingly poor constituency.

• Conversely, the condominium management pointed out that the mayor of the city was himself a resident of the condominium. Was he the resident who called the police? Why did he involve the police when a simple call to Administration could have done the job? No, contrary to his assertion that he only acted professionally, informing the police without alerting the Administration Office was NOT a professional thing to do.

*****

Several days later, a similar incident happened to an upscale subdivision in the City of Makati. A housemaid, apparently watering the plants, was out without a mask. The City ordinance also stated that everyone in public areas must wear a mask.

A policeman approached the housemaid, informing her that she would (could?) be fined Php1,000 for the transgression, whereupon she went inside the house and her employer came out to accost the policeman. He continued to berate the officer and in due course, a scuffle between them ensued. Again, this was recorded on video. Again, this went viral in Manila’s social media.

According to the Police:

• The police were invited by the Association management to help them implement COVID 19 Lockdown rules. It seemed the Association were having difficulty making residents follow regulations.

• A video showed the person in question stepping on the street by his house, unrelentingly castigating the officer who was showing some restraint.

According to the Resident:

• Without a warrant, the police had no right to enter the driveway leading to his house as this now forms part of his private property. (Even though the premises had no walls nor fence to separate the house from the street, the driveway was obviously inside the perimeter of his house)

• The police had physically assaulted the resident by tussling with the man as he refused to be handcuffed. This went on despite the repeated pleas of his wife.

Issues:

• The man was reputedly assaulted by the police because there was a physical struggle. But was the police not verbally attacked by him? The position of a prominent lawyer on a TV interview: this is not considered “direct assault” since no physical force was used by the person in question

• The fact that the person in question was a Western foreign national—did it mean anything? Did the foreigner have a sense of entitlement, or was he picked on because he was foreign?

*****

As these arguments went on through social media, I quietly weighed in on them, agreeing with some, disagreeing with others. A few of my own points:

The incidents were totally blown out of proportion, distracting the authorities from more important and immediate tasks. Still, they were indicative not only of our attitudes as a people, but also of the current stresses and frustrations that can overwhelm us—cashing in, so to speak, on otherwise minor controversies.

On another and a deeper level, they address the perennial paradox: where does freedom end and collective good begin? Who are to define these--the authorities who have our mandate? What if we consider these rules unreasonable? Can we defy them? My own quick answer: openly, no; but surreptitiously, in the hope that we don’t get caught, yes. Then comes the more important consideration: is it worth it—as a question of principle, yes. As a question of convenience, no.

Going to the specifics of the condominium incident. We know that eight people in a large outside space, observing social distance and wearing face masks, would in all probability not acquire nor spread the virus. On the other hand, they would be able to sun themselves. Whilst not directly harming anybody, this would be good for their mental health as well—everyone was on their 5th week of lockdown. But what if others would think the same way? There could be a couple of hundred like-minded souls loitering in the garden! Community repercussions and a sense of fairness are to be kept in mind.

The way forward, it seems to me, should have been to appeal to the authorities and propose a practical alternative: a sign-up sheet to limit the number of people outside, for example. The ECQ rule is a blunt instrument which may or may not address the particular circumstances of a heterogeneous population. On the other hand, we are in a crisis situation and should support our front-liners. I have heard of a saying, “you don’t change horses as you cross the middle of the river.”

Like everything else in life, it is a balancing act.