To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.
– James Baldwin
I was at the Green Apple Bookstore in San Francisco a few days when an older white man approached me. He said that he loved my hair; I said thanks and ran off to the poetry section upstairs. I’ve been on the hunt for Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry after reading Teju Cole’s latest book of essays, eager to turn to a new poet’s work for light.
The pursuit was successful. As I was heading downstairs to pay for my copy, the same man approached me and started asking some questions. He was past my hair, and went straight for it: Are you Filipino? What do you think of the new president? He’s dangerous, no?
These days, the spotlight from international media has been on Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s newly elected president. He came to power after winning a landslide victory, eluding all national scandals alluded to his “colorful” character. He won on the pretext of a hard-line crime fighter, after “cleaning up” Davao when he was a mayor of the province.
Three months into his presidency:
3,313 total number of persons killed in #WarOnDrugs
since July 1
1,185 drug personalities killed in police operations,
as of September 21
2,128 victims of extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings,
as of September 18
The numbers are alarming at a glance. In the name of fighting crime and cracking down on a vicious drug trade, human lives become mere statistics. Duterte was solemn in keeping his word, but we didn’t anticipate the toll it would take on the population’s number and psyche.
While criminals have long been the subject of salvagings by the police, the rate by which drug users and pushers are killed today, either in police operations or vigilante killings, are unprecedented in Philippine anti-crime history.
Nowadays we have that ubiquitous cardboard saying “Drug pusher, huwag tularan.” Like the activists during Arroyo’s time, suspected drug users and dealers are subject to public vilification through “Oplan Tokhang.” They are forced into surrendering and admitting guilt on the basis of a nebulous list drawn up by the police and barangay officials. In fact, many of those who surrendered have succumbed to vigilante killings. Police say the killings are part of the drug syndicates’ effort to cleanse its ranks.
– Teddy Casiño
On one end, citizens fed up with the corruption and crime rampant in the country have turned a blind eye to the extrajudicial killings that have reached over two thousand. My aunt, like many supporters (and non-supporters alike) of Duterte think of the killings as a necessary evil, as instant restitution to pain and fear.
On the other end, there are NGOs and human rights groups who are speaking out against the inhumanity of the culture Duterte has propagated, of the feckless violence he has allowed to run rampant.
Talk of these killings started while I was reading Teju’s Known and Strange Things. I came across an essay that seemed to me as if he was describing the situation in the Philippines. In “Perplexed… Perplexed,” he wrote:
Lynching is common in Nigeria. Extrajudicial killing is often the fate of those accused of kidnapping and armed robbery, but also of those suspected of minor crimes like pickpocketing.
– Teju Cole
He spoke of “jungle justice” — a term he used to describe mob violence-turned-justice because “the mob is a form of utopia. Justice arrives now, to right what has far too long been wrong with the world.”
I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the killings happening in my homeland. The killings have also been reported to be used as a means to get away with other crimes, and outrage among the population has been insignificant.
In a move deemed to challenge the President’s anti-crime and anti-drug agenda, the Secretary of the Department of Justice called for a committee hearing on the extrajudicial killings. The televised committee hearings have become the butt of everyone’s joke, with ratings higher than prime time soap operas. Worse, the secretary herself was ousted in the committee because members didn’t think that she was able to do her job effectively as the chair (not to mention that she’s also being implicated).
In a piece penned by Teddy Casiño, a former Congressman from a progressive alliance in the Philippines, he writes that:
What makes today’s EJKs particularly complicated is that the victims are considered undesirable members of society. Unlike activists or revolutionaries, drug addicts and pushers have no redeeming quality. These are not idealists being killed for exercising their constitutional rights or addressing legitimate social grievances. Druggies, for most people, are the scum of the earth that should be wiped out from existence.
– Teddy Casiño
He delivers a hard truth. What is also apparent is that the victims of these extrajudicial killings belong to the lowest economic class of the country. Beyond the hearings, the aggressive administration’s agenda and the proliferation of even more drug syndicate crimes, what is not being addressed are the root problems of Philippine society. For many poor Filipinos, resorting to drug peddling and petty crimes are the only means for their survival. While I do not condone committing crimes nor slinging drugs for food and other physiological needs, there is a vastly bigger and more complicated picture of the country’s social and economic reality.
I don’t think the fight is really the government going after criminals — ultimately, it’s a war of classes, waged by the ruling elite against the poor which it uses, manipulates and makes profit off of.
In human life, economics precedes politics or culture.
– Park Geun-hye
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.