Sara and the sheriff

For punching a sheriff in the face in the middle of a chaotic demolition of squatter shanties in her city, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte faces legal sanctions. She may be reprimanded, suspended, or even dismissed from office for disorderly conduct and for obstructing the enforcement of a court order. Be that as it may, from hereon, it will be difficult to defeat her in any election for any public position in Davao.  She has become her own person, no longer just the stand-in for a famous father. The incident, epically captured by television, has been replayed countless times on the national news. Her feistiness and readiness to stake her personal authority on behalf of the poor will become part of political legend. This is how folk heroes in a pre-modern society are made.

Before this happened, Davao City’s devastation by the past week’s killer floods had gripped the whole nation. Particularly affected were the poor communities living along river banks. The young lady mayor, who switched positions in the last elections with her father, ex-Mayor and now Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, had been busy bringing relief to flood victims. A demolition of shanties at this time, even if ordered weeks before, seemed inappropriate if not callous. She tried to delay the demolition, even if only for a few hours, so she could assure the agitated informal settlers that they would be taken care of and not just thrown into the streets if they agreed to peacefully dismantle their homes.

I have watched this stunning knockout performance at least 10 times. I’m sure it has already been uploaded on YouTube. The clip shows a grim Inday Sara walking into a neighborhood that, just a few minutes before, was the scene of a violent clash between irate residents and the sheriff’s demolition team.  Caught in the center of this skirmish, unable to maintain order, is a pathetic platoon of policemen armed with truncheons and shields. One of them is led away from the battle with an improvised arrow stuck on one leg.

The camera catches Sara striding into this charged and contested space. Clad in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, the city’s lady boss takes command without hesitation, projecting an authority that is entirely personal. She orders the police and the demolition team to stand down. Then she faces the angry mob of protesting residents and gives them a dressing down. Almost instinctively, at her order, they drop their improvised weapons and squat before her in a familiar sign of feudal submission.  Alternately, she turns to the contending parties and berates them in a language punctuated by invectives. Everyone falls silent.

She then summons the sheriff who appears to have slunk into a corner, perhaps hoping to distance himself from the operation he had miserably bungled. As soon as he appears before her, she lectures him about his refusal to wait and, without warning, punches him in the face. Caught by surprise, her bodyguards restrain her and lead away the wretched target of her ire.

It is a long time since this country has witnessed a spectacle such as this. People will be talking about it for a long time. Public opinion will almost certainly be divided between those who would condemn the mayor, herself a lawyer, for placing herself above the law, and those who would praise her for not hesitating to take responsibility in a messy situation in order to restore the peace and avoid further injustice. The debate will pit people who understand the need for a strong godfather-like leadership in a society where the legitimacy of legal institutions is not secure, against those who would insist on the unconditional professionalization of governance.

From a strictly sociological standpoint, one can only stand in awe of the contradictions that are highlighted by this incident. Where you have a highly unequal society, the rule of law cannot be impartial. Its blind implementation will always appear harsh. Thus, instead of serving the ends of justice, law is perceived as one more tool of oppression. This uneven landscape creates ample room for the intervention of heroic equalizers. Instead of fading away in the transition, feudal leaders who can play this role extend their life span.

You cannot force modernity merely by adopting its institutional forms. The conditions that enable these institutions to work have to be there: universal education, economic sufficiency, access to all occupations, etc.  These are evolutionary achievements that may be hastened but never conjured from nothing.

In this difficult transition, there is an interesting role for scions of the old power elite who inherit the mantle of leadership from their ancestors. Brought up in the traditional ways of feudal authority, but no less exposed to the norms of modern professional leadership, they can either be the rearguard of a dying feudal system or the harbingers of a new less personal form of rule. Young leaders like Sara Duterte are precisely at this crossroad.

To become agents of the modern, they need to think of their feudal birthright as no more than a ladder they need to climb to the top, which they must gradually discard as their constituencies become empowered to fight for their own rights. This is not an easy thing to do. In a society where institutions are weak, such leaders often need to repeatedly validate their personal authority in the traditional way before they can begin to use it to give birth to the new. I want to think that Sara Duterte is this kind of leader, and not just another goon.