Looking Back at the Philippines 1986

When you recall something that changed the lives of millions of people, it seems silly to say: "Look at me, see how this really affected me. Here's a picture of me..."

But that's what I'm doing anyway. Covering the 1986 People Power Revolution and Corazon Aquino in the Philippines was indeed one of the most exhilarating assignments of my journalistic career. If nothing else this week, I wanted to share my memories with friends, colleagues and my family. So, yeah, look at me...on Feb. 23, 1986 outside the Filipino White House - Malacañang Palace - where crowds had gathered to protest President Ferdinand Marcos. Chicago Tribune photographer Bill Hogan took the photo.

The street was wall-to-wall people, and I had just waded into the middle and taken off my viewfinder prism (you can see it missing on the camera in my right hand) and was on my tiptoes with my arms extended above my head, looking up into the upside down viewfinder, trying to get some elevation to show crowd, barbed wire barricade and palace guards when they started shooting - into the air - to break up the crowd. I was immediately knocked to the ground as everyone took off running. After crouching behind a cardboard box (?) for a few seconds, I got up and made a dash to the sidewalk.

That was in the middle of the most intense four days of the revolution.

As the 25th anniversary was approaching, I had started going through all the original 8x10 inch black and white (poorly washed) prints I'd made in my hotel bathroom in Manila. You can see an image gallery of those - complete with original Sharpie hand-written captions - by clicking here, or on any of the pictures on this post.

The "L" gesture above was fashioned from barricade barbed wire outside the same Malacañang, the day after Marcos left. It stands for "Laban" or "Fight," not "loser."

Then as I watched the news out of Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Libya I started looking online at stories and coverage of anniversary plans in the Filipino press, and on Filipino television. I read stories on the recollections of the principals and ordinary people. I found the website “Revolution Revisited,” by photographer Kim Komenich, who back then was shooting the San Francisco Examiner (and won a Pulitzer for his Philippine photos). He is back in the Philippines now, with a photo exhibit.

And I recalled the advice of my good friend Stephen Crowley, who has been suggesting for years that I do a "director's cut" re-editing of my 1985 homeless project. So I got out the negatives - still in a three ring binder with a Manila Hotel sticker on the front (and from all appearances fixed and washed better than my prints were).

It was educational going through the negatives for the first time in over twenty years (Been a decade since I've even looked at ANY negative through a lupe).

Amazingly, I felt I could still recall almost every frame. What I didn't expect was discovering all the things I  "remembered" shooting, but couldn't find. I know it wasn't because I'd lost or misplaced them, as I impressed myself seeing dates, names and notes written legibly on the negative sleeves.

No, what surprised me was kind of like the opposite of childhood memories - do you really recall that party with the pony when you were six, or have you memorized the 8mm movies? There were a few situations I thought I remembered shooting, but when I looked at the negatives I had to wonder if I'd just seen it on television, or even worse, was recalling another photographer's picture because I'd missed the photo!

Take the photo above. This is the first time it was never been printed (scanned). When I saw first saw the negative, because I had seen Filipino television coverage of ceremonies this week designating the desk and room a mini-museum, I thought it was a photo of the historic press conference where the mutinying military leaders called out longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos on Saturday Feb. 22nd.

But then I remembered. I wasn't there...and it WAS a movie I was watching. Pale Rider, with Clint Eastwood to be exact.

No, my photo of Juan Ponce Enrile (Defense Minister and chief of the Philippine Constabulary) is NOT the historic press conference when he announced, with Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos (the acting armed forces chief of staff), that they were withdrawing their support from Marcos, setting into motion events that in three days time would lead to the dictator's ouster. That press conference happened around 6:30 pm, while I was in the movie theater.

I'll get to what MY photo WAS in a second. But first:

The Philippine snap election was on Feb. 7th. I, like a lot of journalists, had been in the country weeks before that, covering the campaign. Marcos won, Aquino and her supporters were upset, but then not much happened.

Two weeks went by, reporters based in Asia went back home to Japan or Hong Kong for the weekend for probably first time since Christmas, and some of the bang-bang photographers got bored and left, or went looking for insurgents in the jungles.

I had been doing "light" stories on the Philippines - residents of the "Smoky" Mountain"  burning garbage dump; the Americanization of the Philippines - the Filipinozation of the American military bases. So on Saturday, Feb. 22nd, I had gone out shopping for shampoo, shaving cream and other stuff I'd brought from home and had run out of.

Then I went to see a western. Walking out of the theater around 8 pm, there was a palpable  change on the usually teeming street. There were no venders. Just small groups of people sharing a radio (I didn't make a picture. Honestly not even sure if I had my camera with me). I asked, and was told there was a coup d'etat - the army had taken over - Marcos was out. Maybe. The neighborhood was mostly Aquino territory, but they weren't celebrating. So I started walking back my hotel (this was pre-cell phones).

There were more radio listeners in the lobby, and a note from Inquirer writer Tim Weiner taped to the outside of my door.

Inside the room I turned on my television, just in time to see Marcos giving a speech. He had a couple uniformed officers behind him and was saying there had been a conspiracy and attempted assassination against him and his wife, but that the plot was discovered early, and that armed forces units loyal to him had surrounded the two military camps where the traitors were holed up. One of the officers then started reading a confession, and I called Tim.

He was busy writing the news story on deadline, so he couldn't leave. I was totally juiced on the worst kind of adrenaline - fear/dread/panic. I had been in the country for two months, shooting campaign pictures and feature photos just like I did during the '84 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. One photo in the newspaper each day. Then when BIG NEWS happens, where am I? At the movies.

So I decided to go make some pictures as fast as I could, and get back to the hotel to send them. It was still before noon back in Philadelphia. I grabbed a taxi and we headed toward Quezon City.

That's where I'd heard Marcos say his army had the two bases surrounded. "We are guarding the entrance to prevent any movement of any troops, whether out or in." Camp Aguinaldo - headquarters of the Armed Forces, and Camp Crame - home of the national Constabulary. Between them is Epifanio De los Santos Avenue - known as the EDSA - the boulevard that would later give the revolution its name.

That's where I ened up on a Saturday night exactly twenty five years ago.

In the cab, we listened to Radio Veritas, a Catholic station that had used its broadcasts to mobilize and direct poll watchers to trouble spots during the election. This night they were telling Filipinos to go to the camps to support and protect the "brave rebels...they are our friends." But as we arrived at Aguinaldo's main gate there was nothing - nobody there. No army check point, no tanks, no troops, no curious civilians, not even a security guard at the gate.

The driver thought he'd been there before, so as weird as it seemed, we drove onto the darkened military post, eventually finding the Department of National Defense (DNC) building. There were only a handful of cars parked in front. Inside, the soldiers told me about the press conference five hours earlier. Most of the journalists had left, the leaders were upstairs, but I was told I couldn't go.

The rebels were surprised by "the intelligence" I provided about the front gate. I realized I probably wasn't going to get any worthwhile pictures, not quickly anyway, and let the taxi driver leave.

Not believing me, some soldiers and the few remaining journalists decided to go see for themselves, so we got into their cars and drove to the front gate (turns out the taxi driver brought me in through a side gate). The high iron gate was closed, and outside there were indeed crowds of people gathered, as instructed by the radio.

But no Marcos troops, no tanks. On our side of the gate were a few MP's, who were not at all alarmed by the arrival of rebel soldiers. It was almost a party atmosphere. People were climbing on the gate, lighting flares. Seminarians were praying. One thing was clear though, Marcos had no idea what he was talking about when he was on television earlier.

It was now too late to go back to my hotel, send photos, sleep, and come back, so I decided to stay with the rebels inside the DNC. Surprisingly, not only was the electricity still working, but the phones were still live as well. I checked in with Tim, my editors, then called my wife. She was working as a reporter at United Press International in Philadelphia then, and had been reading all the wire reports. I told her exactly which building I was in so she wouldn't be worried - just in case something happened at some other building. I didn't tell her Marcos had threatened "annihilate them" with heavy artillery and cannon fire against the occupied buildings.

But Marcos also said he would not attack before morning. I recalled all the tornado damaged structures I'd seen back in Kansas and Oklahoma, and decided a stairwell on a corner of the building would be the best place to try to sleep.

In the coming days I often wondered how things would have turned out for the cournty if Marcos' army had acted that first night, instead of waiting until hundreds of citizens were already in the streets.

So...the contact printed photo I started this story with.

Marcos obviously didn't attack. Overnight, at one point Lt. Col. Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan made an appearance downstairs. By the time I figured out who he was - the leader of the younger rebel officers - he left before I could photograph him. He was originally set to lead a suicide attack against Malacañang Palace, before the plot was discovered.

At sunrise on Sunday morning, the 23rd, I made photos of rebels at watch on the roof and went back out to the front gate. The number of people there had grown exponentially. But still no tanks or army.

Back at the DNC, the rebels were reading the Sunday newspapers, some priests had arrived and began serving mass. Minister Enrile and the other rebels took communion and prayed. Then he held a final press conference. So, that's what was going on in my photo of the historic desk in the conference room.

Then I left the DNC, walked some more through the EDSA and photographed the now hundreds of thousands of people gathering there, before heading back to my hotel to finally send my photos back to Philadelphia.

But in the taxi ride back to my hotel, I heard about crowds also gathering outside Malacañang, so as my adrenal fear/dread/panic kicked back in, we diverted toward the palace.

There was indeed a crowd there - though not as great as at the EDSA - gathered in the street in front of barbed wire baracades. That was where the photo of me at the very top was made.

Once again - still more fear/dread/panic - after talking to more fellow journalists at the palace, I rushed back to the EDSA, arriving back at Aguinaldo around two o'clock in the afternoon. I was lucky to get there just as Enrile (below, center), accompanied by Col. "Gringo" Honasan (right) began walking in formation across the EDSA to Camp Crame, to consolidate their forces with Gen. Ramos (with cigar in center of lower photo).

Having made what I knew even then was an historic photo - and because I still had not transmitted any of my photos from overnight and the early morning on Day 1 & 2 of the revolution - I took off again my hotel (athough it was only 2 a.m. back in Philadelphia).

But the day - or week - wasn't over yet. More on the rest of the revolution - with more real people, less military - in my next post....

Postscript to Part 1: Enrile is now president of the Philippine Senate. Honasan, also currently a Philippine Senator, would have a more colorful history in the years to come. In the adminstration of President Corazon Aquino, he was involved in various coup attempts against her and imprisoned on a navy ship. Always a charismatic officer, he escaped by enlisting the help of his guards, was recaptured, and later granted amnesty when Ramos became president. Ramos served as president of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998, and was later involved in the so-called EDSA 2 Revolution in 2001 that deposed impeached Philippine president Joseph Estrada. All three were involved in observances of the 25th Anniversary. Marcos died in Hawaii in 1999, while Corazon Aquino passed away ten years later, after a one-year battle with cancer.