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The Sherrod Affair and Etta Rosales

Benjamin PIMENTEL | 27.07.2010 03:47 | Anti-militarism | Repression | Social Struggles | World

CALIFORNIA, United States—By now, Shirley Sherrod’s fascinating story is well known.

She’s the African American federal official in Georgia who was vilified as a racist for a video clip in which she appeared to talk about discriminating against a white farmer.

But she turned out to be the exact opposite of how she was portrayed.

For the full video of her speech showed her to be not just a courageous and committed activist, but also someone with enough humility to see the limitations of some of her beliefs—which helped her become an even more compassionate advocate for those in need.

A teenager when her father was murdered by a white man, she vowed to fight for the rights of African Americans. But as a community activist years later, she found herself in an awkward situation: A poor white farmer on the verge of losing his land wanted her help. At first, she was reluctant to devote her time and energy for a white man.

But the 62-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement did. And, in the process, that gave her a broader perspective of what her activism should be about.

“Working with him made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know, and they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic,” Sherrod said.

“And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people, those who don’t have access the way others have.”

It was a beautiful, heart-warming story of commitment and compassion that some tried to distort for cheap political gain.

And it quickly reminded me of the case of another woman who also has been vilified publicly by those who sought to portray her as a person without proper respect for human rights.

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - A recent political brouhaha in the Philippines involves P-Noy’s recent appointment.

To hear some from his critics describe it, one would think Noynoy had named Imelda Marcos to head the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

That he had chosen to lead this important body with a crass, insensitive, grossly unqualified, delusional, rabidly pro-military politician, with zero sympathy for community advocates, who would spend all her time waging a witch-hunt against social activists.

One blogger even proclaimed the appointment as President Noynoy Aquino's (P-Noy) “single worst act of political madness.” A columnist imagined “the torturers, hit-teams and other human rights violators” in the military and police being “mighty pleased to have Ms. Rosales chair the CHR.”

Former AKBAYAN (Citizens' Action Party) Representative Etta Rosales, who like Sherrod is a woman who has devoted herself to a life of activism, but who also had the courage to change her perspective when needed, would hardly qualify as a disastrous choice.

But that didn’t stop a faction of the progressive movement from painting a portrait of the 71-year-old veteran social activist and respected legislator as Valentina, Darna’s evil nemesis, or the Pinoy version of Madame Defarge.

Their opposition is based on the fact that Rosales was once aligned with a more extreme faction of the left before embracing a more independent path, to the point of publicly speaking out against the bloody purges and extortion carried out by the underground movement.

Such views are not acceptable for this faction which has long espoused one core belief: That only the military is capable of, and should be accused of, committing human rights abuses, while the armed, underground left cannot possibly be accused of such offenses. For when guerrillas and cadres kill and extort, these acts must naturally be for righteous reasons. Anyone who dares challenge that view must be in cahoots with the worst fascists in the armed forces.

The irony in this controversy is this: Etta has spent virtually all her life fighting for those who are weak and powerless.

And she paid a heavy price for her commitment.

After martial law was declared in 1972, Etta was arrested in the mass sweep of activists and opponents of the regime. She was arrested again a few years later.

The second time around she came to know first-hand the brutality of the Marcos dictatorship.

Etta was subjected to water cure. Her torturers let electricity pass through her nipples and toes. She was sexually assaulted.

After her release, she bravely told her family about what happened. Her daughter Rina Rosales was around 12 years old then.

“It took me a few days to finally realize the pain she went through,” she told me. “Mahinahon niyang kinuwento sa amin. Calmly shed told us what happened…I remember she was not crying. She was not shouting. Para lang siyang nagkukuwento ng ordinaryo. She was just telling us a story.

“But what I can remember was her resolve not to be emotionally affected too much. Para bang kahit ganun ang dinaanan niya, in spite of what happened, she remained steadfast to the cause.”

In fact, by the mid 1980s, Etta was a major public figure in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship. Eventually, she broke with the national democratic left, but remained active in progressive politics.

What has astounded many is that Etta’s nomination is being opposed by people with whom she marched in the streets in the struggle against dictatorship—that she is being portrayed as someone who would deliberately hunt down people who, like her, are committed to genuine social change, while defending the likes of those who tortured and humiliated her in prison.

If at all, it is perhaps the military that should be worried given what some from their ranks did to her.

But Rina Rosales says her mother knows what her job would entail.

“Her attitude toward the military has always been one with optimism,” she said.

Optimism that, while the armed forces has many problems, including the presence of corrupt elements who may also be prone to violence and torture, it’s possible to instill human rights within that organization, especially among the younger officers and rank and file.

“If you’re asking me if she has become cynical, because of what she went through, I can honestly say na hindi. She has not become cynical.”

And she said her mother believes in a basic tenet of conflict resolution: “To always keep an open mind, to suspend judgment, when you’re dealing with opposing forces. But if there’s a clear violation of human rights, e kahit sino ka pa, whoever you are, she will speak out…Universality of human rights—that’s her motto.”