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UPLB student leaders recount student militancy leading to victory of #OccupySU campaign

Former USC Chairpersons Bongon and Severino revisit the history of how students asserted their rights amid narrowing democratic spaces.

With the gradual return to limited face-to-face activities, UPLB students sustained the tradition of the #OccupySU campaign after students stayed in the Student Union (SU) Building from June 6 to June 17.

This was after the Learning Resource Center (LRC) approved the request of the University Student Council (USC) to open the learning hub at the SU Building 24 hours a day during the finals week of the second semester of A.Y. 2021-2022, marking the end of the second fully-online academic year in UPLB.

The SU Building, which was built as a student center in the 1960s, has always been recognized as a place for student activities. With this, the #OccupySU campaign aims to unite the students in the call for a genuine student center and continue to fight for their democratic rights. 

Specifically, the campaign calls for a student center that can cater to and prioritize the needs of the students who need Internet access and study areas. 

The pandemic worsened the already existing challenges of learning, resulting in students who resort to going out of their homes just to find a suitable study area. Such challenges include Internet connectivity issues, unfavorability of the learning environment at home, and limited financial capability for utility bills, among others (READ: UPLB students, faculty confront persisting challenges 2 years into remote learning).

In an interview with the Perspective, BS Agriculture student Mj Flores said that the opening of the learning hub is helpful for students residing near the campus who are trying to reduce their electric consumption, or may not find their apartments conducive for learning and are then forced to go to cafés (READ: Nagkakaisang daing sa lumalalang sitwasyon ng online learning).

Former USC Chairperson Siegfred Severino added that being forced to go outside puts the students at risk: “Given na dis-oras na rin ng gabi, medyo threatening sa safety ng students kasi, halimbawa ‘yung mga GEs [General Education courses] at ‘yung mga practice ng mga performances, sa halip na secured sila [students] sa loob ng SU, napipilitan silang [students] lumabas sa campus.” 

[“Given that it is already late at night, it threatens the safety of the students because, for example, the GEs and practice for performances, instead of being secured at the SU, the students are now left with no choice but to go outside the campus.”]

Both former USC Chairpersons Severino and Jainno Bongon stated that the administration under former Chancellor Fernando Sanchez Jr. was strict in implementing the 10 PM curfew. This led to numerous attacks against the campaign with closing of lights and countless dialogues with university police over curfew.

Struggle for a genuine student center

The #OccupySU campaign started in 2014, only that it was different from how the campaign is being conducted at present. Bongon said that it was a time when the student institutions, USC and the Perspective, faced removal of their offices from the Student Union Building.

“The issue at that time was pinapaalis ‘yung offices ng student instis [institutions]. So, ang ginawa ng USC ay nag-stay tayo sa SU kasi kailangan i-defend na ‘yung mga opisina ng mga estudyante ay manatili sa Student Union Building, because ang proposal ng [UPLB] admin at that time ay i-move ‘yung  student offices to a more remote location,” he recalled.

[“The issue at that time was that the offices of the student institutions were being removed. So, the USC stayed at the SU because it is necessary that we defend that the student offices should remain in the Student Union Building, because the UPLB admin’s proposal at that time was to move the offices to a more remote location.”]

Back then, students successfully asserted that the institutions remain at the SU Building. Two years later in 2016, the campaign was relaunched with Rise for Education Alliance – UPLB (R4E UPLB) spearheading #OccupySU, giving students a venue to hold academic and extracurricular activities.

On May 19 and September 7, 2017, a guard on duty at the SU Building turned the lights off and pressured students to leave as soon as possible despite assertions of the UPLB USC, while another guard unplugged the extension cords of students from its socket located near the entrance of the building.

R4E UPLB reported that after being confronted, the guard said that a certain “Orly” from the Business Administrations Office (BAO), now Business Affairs Office, ordered the unplugging. The said extension cords were used by students who were at the SU for charging laptops while working on academic requirements.

In 2018, the UPLB administration filed Student Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) cases against members of the USC at that time for trumped-up charges of harassment, disrespect, and even “unauthorized use” of the Student Union building during the #OccupySU campaign.

Political organization Samahan ng Kabataan para sa Bayan (SAKBAYAN) wrote in a Facebook post that in several dialogues, the former UPLB administration maintained its position that curfew hours need to be observed, citing the safety and security of students.

On November 15, 2019, the University Police Force (UPF) turned the lights off despite the presence of students doing their academics, organization works, and practice at the building. 

SAKBAYAN added that the former UPLB administration ”pit its constituents against each other”, as guards were reprimanded for being unable to keep students out of the SU, while “stern warnings were given to student leaders who militantly assert for the students’ center”.

Bongon said that although dialogues were held between students and Chancellor Sanchez, the chancellor had no definitive disagreement towards the campaign. 

However, the UPLB administration’s contentions manifested in the attempts to keep students out of the building: “Makikita mo talaga ‘yung contention ng administration sa kampanyang yon [dahil] pinapatayan kami ng ilaw, tinatanggalan ng kuryente ‘yung buong SU.”

[“You can really see the contention of the administration to the campaign because the lights were turned off, the electricity at SU was being cut.”]

As a response, the students persisted in occupying the student center with or without the administration’s approval.

Solidarity amid narrowing democratic spaces

During the #OccupySU campaign, UPLB is no stranger to food pantries and communal initiatives. Despite the attacks, Severino said that students feel a sense of community.

Nakikita ‘yung community ng UPLB, na ‘yung Acad Union natin [at] mga orgs, nagbibigay sila ng food [for students], as in may pantry talaga,” Severino said.

[“We see the UPLB community, where the Acad Union and the orgs provide food for students, as in there really is a pantry.”]

For the duration of the campaign from June 6 to June 17, various student and faculty organizations, individual faculty members and administrative staff, and unions donated food, money, and supplies among others to sustain the days and nights when students stayed at the SU Building. 

The incumbent and former USC chairpersons and R4E UPLB acknowledged that the recent campaign victories and developments were due to years of student militancy and assertion, as well as close coordination with the UPLB administration under Chancellor Jose Camacho Jr.

R4E UPLB also recognizes institutions like the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA) who “remain steadfast in genuinely representing the students, and the Academic Union of UPLB who continuously fight for our democratic rights”.

Bongon asserted, “Commendable na ‘yung administration ngayon ay pinapayagan ‘yung pag-stay lagpas ng curfew sa SU, pero lagi nating ibalik na ang tagumpay na iyon ay sa mga estudyante na mula pa noon ay ipinaglalaban na magkaroon ng student spaces.”

[“It is commendable that the current administration allows students to stay at the SU past curfew, but we should always credit that victory to the students who have fought for space ever since then.”]

He also stressed the need for the SU Building to remain open for students to convene and mobilize as the incoming Marcos-Duterte tandem seeks to narrow democratic spaces.

“We’re expecting [that] under a Marcos-Duterte administration, mas paghihigpitan pa ‘yung mga estudyante. We’ve seen recent red-tagging spree ng both camps against students and faculty of the university. Kailangan mapangatawanan ng Student Union Building ‘yung purpose kung bakit siya andiyan: maging tahanan ng mga inaapi. Especially na may history siya, diyan nag-convene ang mga former student leaders para pangunahan ‘yung kampanya kontra Ferdinand Marcos Sr,” Bongon said.

[“We’re expecting that under a Marcos-Duterte administration, students will receive more attacks. We’ve seen recent red-tagging spree of both camps against students and faculty of the university. It is vital that the Student Union Building uphold the purpose of its existence – to be a home for the oppressed – especially because its history tells us that it is where former student leaders convened to lead campaigns against Ferdinand Marcos Sr.”] [P]

6 comments on “UPLB student leaders recount student militancy leading to victory of #OccupySU campaign

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