Plot twist: From community pantries to police-run ‘Barangayanihan’

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 10:47 p.m.) — The government narrative on community pantries has shifted in the space of a week — from initially warning that they are linked to communist rebels to voicing support and, this week, putting up their own versions.

Recent police-led pantries acknowledge that the volunteer-run initiative not only serves the public but could also help them win the community over. 

It’s also a development that scholars warned in a paper published by the Philippine Sociological Society earlier this month could ‘hijack’ the narrative.

“The Maginhawa community pantry captured the imagination of the public because of the simplicity of its objectives, but at the same time, it was also rooted in community/social network volunteerism and tried to empower the people through the element of reciprocity,” University of the Philippines Tacloban professor Dakila Yee, who was among those who penned the PSS paper, told in an email. 

Community relations and ‘beneficiary civilians’ 

When the community pantries started popping up, government officials initially tripped over whether or not local government permits would be required to put them up. Government agencies have since adopted the idea in what police call “Barangayanihan” initiatives. 

According to a project brief from the PNP Directorate for Police-Community Relations acquired by on Monday, police community precincts were instructed to “cite the Maginhawa community pantry as an inspiration” for their own “Barangayanihan Lugawan.”

“This special simultaneous ‘Barangayanihan’ on May 1 must clearly manifest in respective PCPs that there’s a clear partnership between the police and the community…respective beneficiaries will take pictures of the activity and post in their respective FB accounts. These netizens can be planted beneficiary civilians so as to manifest community appreciations,” the brief reads.

RELATED: Permit or not? Mixed messages as gov’t unsure how to address community pantries

PCPs are outposts that are administratively under a police station. Phase 2 of the project brief instructs officers to “ask or plant civilian beneficiaries to take pics/selfies and posting in respective FBs.”

“For other efforts not involving serving breakfast lugaw, don’t use #LugawIsEssential,” the project brief also read, in reference to a hashtag that went viral after an incident at a barangay checkpoint where a delivery rider was accosted for trying to deliver lugaw during a curfew.

The incident—as well as comments from a Department of the Interior and Local Government official who tried to use the issue to criticize Vice President Leni Robredo, with whom the rice porridge has come to be associated—led to the hashtag going viral.

Police also linked the Barangayanihan initiatives to fighting the communist insurgency, attaching in its official document a reference to the “PNP’s guidance and compliance to Executive Order No. 70,” or the order that created the red-tagging National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict. 

READ: How the poor are active contributors in sustaining community pantries

Cops required to set up pantries?

Police Lt. Col. Joel Nacua, spokesperson for the Cagayan de Oro City Police Office confirmed to in a phone call that police in the area were required to set up community pantries of their own.

He was careful to point out that police were not referring to the initiative as community pantries, instead pointing to the agency-wide program. “Barangayanihan started today but is until May. We’re making it a requirement for all the stations and units here in COCPO starting today,” he said in Filipino. 

Asked how the Barangayanihan pantries would be funded, Nacua said that the resources would be voluntarily given by police personnel. 

The police spokesperson was also quick to rebuff claims that pantry organizers were being harassed and profiled. “It’s probably just a misunderstanding. Police are just there to ensure orderly distribution. If there are a lot of people there, they should be observing health protocols and physical distancing, and we will deploy police visibility to do that,” he said. 

“It’s prohibited for us to ask for personal data. Our questions are just to verify what they’re doing.”

Imitation after ‘intimidation’

Although police first profiled and tried to get the personal information organizers of community pantries, similar efforts were soon across police units around the country and given different names.

READ: Harassment of community pantries leads to clamped operations

“Team [Quezon City Police District] held a KYUSIna ng Bayan where they distributed hot meals such as porridge and soup, food packs, and health kits, water to 33 barangays in the city. Up to 6,365 QCitizens benefited from QCPD’s feeding and food pack distribution,” the Quezon City local government wrote in a Facebook post. 

“It is part of the PNP Barangayanihan launched today.”

This, despite the QCPD’s social media account previously sharing a post that attempted to link the community pantries to communists. The Maginhawa community pantry that started the phenomenon is in Quezon City.

READ: QCPD yet to respond to city notice to explain red-tagging of community pantries

“What [happened] in Maginhawa St. serves as an inspiration like a match that has made an explosion and the buck doesn’t stop there,” the Manila Police District said in its own post. 

“Project po yan ng PNP Barangayanihan. Wala pa man po yan tumutulong na PNP sa pamimigay (Even without [Barangayanihan], the PNP was already helping distribute aid),” Police Lt. Col. Roberto Mupas, MPD spokesperson, told in a text message. 

This also comes after criticism online prompted the police district to release a statement saying: “There is no truth that an individual is being profiled or red-tagged.”

In the same statement sent to reporters, Police Brig. Gen. Leo Francisco, district director, said that “there is nothing to worry about police presence” since they were only there to ensure health protocols are observed.

Like other ranking police chiefs, he did not address the documented instances of police approaching organizers and asking for their personal details and affiliations. 

“These initiatives of government-led/government-driven pantries can be interpreted as a way for them to gain control of the terrain of the Community Pantries discourse…if we look at it from the government’s side, they are interested on intervening, and steering the conversation on what a CP should look like, should sound like and how it should work,” Yee said. 

“Renaming could be a way for the PNP to claim an initiative as their own, and to frame the activity according to their set of rules.”

READ: Another community pantry shuts down after profiling of Pandacan organizers

‘Community pantries set up for mutual aid’

While government using its resources to help the community is commendable, scholars write in a paper for the Philippine Sociological Society that the concept behind the pantries is mutual aid in the face of a lack of government action.   

“For the precariat, these community pantries enable translocal mutual aid between and among them, and for the increasingly disenchanted segments of the middle class, these community pantries have become outlets of their pent up exasperation over the absence of official action,” the paper, first cited by Media Commoner, reads. 

Written by students Josephine Dionisio, Arnold Alamon, Dakila Yee, Kidd Alonzo Juwan Palanca, Ferdinand Sanchez II, Seiko Miho Mizushima, and Joel Jan Alvarez, the paper pointed to “the public who, seeing the absence of the State, have created their own networks of mutual aid to get by as manifested by the community pantries.”

“It cannot be said that all who emulated the original pantry in Maginhawa share the same political views considering that only a few posts on-site and in social media displayed overt political messages. But that it became ‘viral’ indicates that these community pantries and what they stand for resonated with the public – temperance against greed, compassion over indifference, and mutual care in the face of institutional neglect.”

They warned of the “very real danger” of “efforts this early by certain sectors to hijack the narrative and to rob this movement of its optimism and radical content.” 

“What should not be lost in the discursive field is that the establishment of community pantries is a transgressive act that lets us see what may lie beyond the limits imposed by the ‘natural order of things’ and that these emergent agencies point us to the possibility of new political horizons,” it reads. 

‘A clear attempt to hijack the stories’

In response to e-mailed questions, Noreen Sapalo, a Philippine Studies lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman, told that the pantries were “manifestations or evidence of state neglect and a failed pandemic response,” which left the state “scrambling to hijack the stories and narratives that surround community pantries.”

“Thus, the PNP’s directive to put up their own community pantries, complete with their own branding and PR strategy, is clearly an attempt to hijack the narrative of mutual help and state neglect that the Maginhawa community pantry stands for,” she said. 

“If they really wanted to help, they could have fed hundreds or thousands of Filipinos even before the community pantry projects started —  apparently, they have the money for this!”

READ: NCR mayors urge community pantry organizers to coordinate with LGUs first

“This plan stresses branding to make explicit the identification with state entities…PNP’s denial that the Barangayanihan initiative is not a version of the community pantry movement doesn’t hold water, given that this state-run effort appeared after community pantries gained ground in different localities,” cultural studies scholar Laurence Castillo also told in an e-mail exchange. 

Castillo, a PhD candidate at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne and a literary and cultural studies professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, called the effort part of a “massive effort to salvage the image of the state, particularly the police.”

“Note how this initiative seems to be an effort to distance from the red-tagging of community pantries by NTF-ELCAC personalities, which backfired terribly…The timing of this state-run initiative thus only reveals how this seems to be more about riding the community pantry wave to score political points rather than genuinely fulfilling the mandate to serve.”

Palace: Not condemnation, just bayanihan

Aside from the security sector, the national government was quick to play down the collective action seen in community pantries, with presidential spokesperson Harry Roque rejecting the idea that it was a response to lacking government response.

“I don’t see that as condemnation of government. It simply shows the best in us during the worst of times,” he said.

But, the scholars said, this framing reduces the original intent of community pantries and minimizes the spaces opened up by the communal supply lines. 

“Such an interpretation effectively de-politicizes the community initiatives and coopts these as mere acts of civic duty,” the PSS paper reads. “If they are not coopting, the same interests dismiss these initiatives as staged and organized by the usual suspects — political enemies of the administration from the so-called yellowtards, or dilawans (Liberals) to the radical left represented by the [Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front].”

Sapalo adds in a mix of Filipino and English: “That PNP officers were prohibited from using the hashtag #LugawIsEssential is proof that this is a publicity stunt since embedded in this ECQ-related hashtag is an anti-state sentiment.” 

“Another example is the emphasis that the PNP memo has on building a partnership with the community and the ‘planting’ (worst choice of word) of civilians to ‘cover’ and post their initiatives on social media — since they do not really have a good reputation among community members.”

READ: DILG asks community pantries: Let barangays reach seniors in their homes sought Police Brig. Gen. Ronaldo Olay, PNP spokesperson, for comment, though he has not responded as of this post. 

“In an atmosphere of counterinsurgency, expressions of solidarity, especially in organized forms, are held suspect by state forces. This has precedent of course in the previous year, when during the first lockdown, activists who were trying to deliver aid to some communities were arrested for allegedly violating quarantine protocol,” Castillo said.

For the scholars, the campaign is just as much a PR move as it is a hijacking of the narrative. 

“We have to note the difference — BARANGAYanihan is not mutual aid initiative because this will come from the state’s coffers…Not only is the state and the PNP threatened by the people’s solidarity, [but] they also fear the growing anti-state or anti-government sentiment embedded in community pantries,” Sapalo said when sought for comment. 

Sapalo also pointed to the “renaming” of the community pantry to the ‘Barangayanihan’, saying: “They may give it a different name, but it obviously is a reaction to the Maginhawa Community Pantry and what it stands for…It’s counter-propaganda, counter-insurgency and a publicity stunt rolled into one initiative — all to cover state failure.”

Pilipino Star Ngayon: Fact check: Mga pahayag ng Malacañang sa ‘community pantries’

PBGEN ROLANDO B ANDUYAN, Regional Director together PCOL BENEDICTO T PINTOR, DRDO, Regional Staffs, CD, COCPO, PNP Maritime Group and RCADD/COCPO personnel led the the BARANGAYanihan Rolling Stall with the assistant of PRO10 Security Alliance/ Support Group from ACCERT-CDO, KUSGAN VOLUNTEER INC, KKDAT Officers and Task Force Quatro at Punta, Brgy Bonbon, Cagayan de Oro City on April 26, 2021 at 2:00 PM.

Release/Police Regional Office 10

“One possible scenario that we are starting to notice, although it needs to be documented further, is the possible ‘bureaucratization’ of the community pantry initiative…It raises the question, what makes a CP different from the typical food relief system if there now bureaucratization?” Yee also said. 

“While the initiative is still ongoing, some of the initiatives for keeping momentum is to scale up, in ways that capture the imagination of the public as well. By this, I mean, for example, tying up to community-based farmer groups and associations to replenish products which in turn, may spark interests in community farming, and other solidaristic arrangements. Another possible way to capture the imagination is for CPs to link up with other groups that try to reimagine how city life and city spaces are arranged.”

‘A different kind of contagion’

With the government’s sudden embrace of community pantries, scholars expressed worry that the messaging could change what the first pantries were about. 

“The community pantries in the Philippines are representations of a different kind of contagion, the good kind representing the best of our fellow Filipinos who engage in collective acts of mutual aid. They are manifestations of new solidarities that are forged out of the collective trauma faced during this pandemic,” PSS said. 

“The irony is that the state is supposed to have the mandate and resources to deliver aid, even without the initiatives set out by community pantry organizers,” Castillo added. 

In a statement Monday night, progressive labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno slammed the PNP’s directive, calling the Barangayanihan project brief a “publicity stunt to hijack pantries.”

KMU said that instead of these publicity stunts, a chunk of the PNP’s hefty budget must be rechanneled to cash aid to the people.

“The PNP and the Duterte government accuse the community pantries of having a hidden agenda, but they are the ones with dirty intentions! It is very typical of a sloppy government to take such desperate steps using the people’s tax just to save their president from accountability,” KMU secretary general Jerome Adonis said in Filipino.

“Papogi at epal ang mga ‘to, idiretso nyo ang pera sa mamamayan sa pamamagitan ng P100 daily wage subsidy at P10k ayuda!”

(These are all for show; just give the money directly with a P100 daily wage subsidy and P10k aid!)

“Now that the people have congregated in these emancipating ‘viral’ spaces, these should be defended against the cynicism of those who fear their yet unawakened political potential. The community pantries are not rally or demonstration sites as of yet, but the material conditions of want and frustration could turn them into overt sites of resistance in the very near future,” the PSS paper said. 

“At this point, the forging and strengthening of solidarity across various groups and sectors remain to be the most potent ways to respond to such issues. But as even the community pantry organizers themselves have said, these efforts could only go too far, and are no replacement for actual political mobilization to demand accountability from the state,” Castillo added.