Most histories of the New Left end with the 1960s or early 1970s, often focusing on the White student opposition to the Vietnam War, and sometimes on the Black Panthers. But there was an upsurge in other ethnic communities that carried forward into the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most successful, at least in terms of its immediate goals, was the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), which is notably absent from most political histories of the period.
Domestically, the KDP organized a successful reform and civil rights movement in the Seattle-based Alaska Cannery Workers Union (ILWU 37) against murderous opposition. In San Francisco, it led a coalition against gentrification, centered on the fight to preserve the International Hotel. It fought for Filipino-American civil rights across the country. Internationally, it played a significant role in eroding United States and Filipino-American support for Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and supporting his eventual overthrow.
“A Time to Rise” is a collection of personal reminiscences of the KDP. It is less about political ideology and more about the excitement, difficulties, disappointments and personal and political lives of the activists in the organization. They tell their stories with humor and a good deal of candor about the rough edges of working in a disciplined political group with revolutionary goals.
The KDP was linked to the Maoist CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines), which was carrying out a guerrilla war against the dictatorship. The KDP was also organized along Leninist principles. As such, it was one of many Maoist groups in the early ’70s in the United States. However, unlike most of the others, the KDP seems to have steered clear of the sectarianism and revolutionary purism that plagued much of the socialist Left in that period. The group made a decision early on not to get involved in doctrinal struggles with other groups, which undoubtedly helped it focus on its main political goals.
It also helped that the group operated within the tightly-knit Filipino community. Since one of the main goals was to secure that community’s support for resistance to the Marcos dictatorship, the KDP couldn’t afford to unnecessarily alienate people. Also, as part of that community, KDP members tended to have personal links and allies across ideological lines. Moreover, they recognized from the start that eroding U.S. government support for Marcos was going to require forming working relationships with liberal members of Congress, however much they regarded the U.S. government as a tool of imperialism.
Given its willingness to work with a broad range of allies, the group’s dedication to improving the lives of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans made it one of the most influential groups in that community; with its encouragement, the bulk of the community moved from neutrality to opposition to the Marcos dictatorship.
The group’s disciplined structure gave it the ability to focus members on particular organizing efforts, even if that meant having some relocate from one part of the United States to another. That was crucial in a number of its campaigns and was undoubtedly one reason the Seattle chapter was able to bounce back from the political assassination of leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in Seattle in 1981. Made to look like a simple gang-motivated slaying (and originally framed in the media as such), persistent work by the KDP and its allies uncovered the fact that these cannery union activists were actually killed because of their role in successfully organizing U.S. labor opposition to Marcos.
The investigation was validated when the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes successfully won a civil suit against the late dictator’s estate in 1989, proving to the satisfaction of the judge that Marcos had paid $15,000 to the corrupt cannery union president, who had passed the money on to the assassins.
The reminiscences of Domingo and Viernes’ deaths give a vivid sense of the courage it took to keep organizing in the face of the killings. One activist tells what it felt like to go shopping for bullet-proof vests for the other cannery organizers. Another writes of ongoing harassment by the gang whose members had been paid to do the killings.
Marcos was finally overthrown by a nonviolent people’s movement in 1986. The question of whether to support that movement led to disagreement between the KDP, which supported the movement, and the CPP, which did not. After Marcos was deposed, the KDP, still being at odds with the CPP, decided it couldn’t continue to do effective Philippines solidarity work, and eventually dissolved.
About much more than politics, this collection opens a window on the lives people lead when they set out to change the world. The difficulties of being a full-time worker, an activist and a parent; the problems of maintaining intimate relationships; and the difficulties of being gay while interacting with a conservative community all come up in these memoirs. Dedication, humor and simple good writing make this collection a worthwhile exposure of a piece of recent history.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full January 10th issue.