On The Ground
Photos of the conflict in Marawi tell the brutal truth.
on one of the rare occasions I didn’t spend lunch alone tagging friends in dog memes. One of them asked a cis-male colleague if he had life insurance, who answered that he tried and almost got a plan. “Almost?” “They denied me after I passed all their medical tests, pati HIV. They found out I was gay.”
If I’ve told my friends one thing about the UN, it’s that the restrooms have free condoms to support an aggressive anti-HIV campaign. Above the dispensers are posters that tell employees how to practice safe, consensual, responsible sex, and monogamy wherever possible. The organization provides access to a 24/7 HIV support line and an immediate response kit. Which is not to say the organization is HIV-free—but if that level of access to information can’t alter someone’s risk equation, what could other gay people without the same endowments count on? The company could have made a lifestyle check, perhaps adjusted his plan, put a cap on coverage if needed. Never mind that he passed all medical tests. An algorithm still decided he wasn’t worth protecting.
So is it still the risk model, or a subtle takeover of homosexual bodies by homophobic social institutions? I spaced out for the rest of the meal. What if I’d identified as gay? What if everywhere I went, people expected me to work doubly hard so I could be respected? (Women and other marginalized groups, do not answer this.) What if people felt enough moral ascendancy to tell me whom I could love? What if I was told my ass wasn’t worth covering? To work in development is to bear witness to violence in spaces built to protect us. Often it’s a kind of exclusion that’s visible where we’ve stopped looking, embraced quietly by institutions, internalized so deeply it no longer inspires knee-jerk mutiny. It hurts without drawing blood.
Some time after the Maguindanao massacre, the College of Mass Communication put up a board that declared: The days of injustice are numbered. Below the letters, a moving count of the number of days since the carnage. When I left UP in 2013, the sign had been put away. As I write this, it has been 2,742 days. In that span of time, we’ve elected two presidents, one of whom has sanctioned the death of thousands of (mostly poor) alleged drug users and pushers. Eight thousand who will never have their day in court. Meanwhile the older Andal Ampatuan, alleged mastermind of the Maguindanao massacre, has died and taken his criminal liability with him. Violence is the slow burn of a bureaucracy that chokes the living slowly, long after the victims have died. Over the years I would think back to that day counter; wondered where it went. Perhaps violence is most threatening when it no longer feels dangerous. Perhaps we are dead, dying, or complicit. Once we stop counting the days and the bodies, we are complicit.
We met more than two years ago, Arman. I was a researcher at the World Bank and it was part of my job to check employment figures for a big report. You were on my screen, a data point in a graph on the informal sector. From the warmly lit office where I sat, my concern for the informal sector went as far as finding an exact blue for the graphs that my boss would like.
Privilege is being able to look away. Looking away was drowning in the minutiae of the task, the day-to-day claustrophobia of desk research, the little wins of reading my name in footnotes of publications, all while escaping what the numbers in those reports meant. I was safe from your reality, exempt from the middle-class guilt I’d been born into because my day job felt like making a real difference. For two years I stared signifiers in the eye and missed the lives they signified.
But in that backseat somewhere in Valenzuela where we didn’t even have space to stretch our legs, there was nowhere to hide from the fact of you. I had to look at your eyes as they watched your hands rub together, listen to the tired responses that always came a few seconds late. I kept a small journal with me in those days. An entry from the night we met in person: None of what I just heard is news. But please let it always feel as urgent as it does now.
Around the same time the day counter was put up, I read Hannah Arendt’s account of Nazi officials on trial after the Holocaust. One testimonial was that of Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the trains that ferried Jews to their death in Nazi camps. He denied responsibility, claiming he had simply been doing his job.
I returned to Valenzuela the morning after my conversation with Arman. In another part of the city, 74 factory workers had been burned alive inside the Kentex Manufacturing plant, trapped in the workplace that couldn’t protect them from its own combustible products. A bad, easy metaphor. Later reports showed some of the laborers had no formal contracts. That morning, the families of the victims were to face Kentex management for the first time. I was tasked to bear witness. A widow was shrieking so hard into a microphone it sounded like she was speaking in tongues. She held an infant close to her chest. The management’s lawyer watched silently from a corner, arms crossed over his chest. There were many tears, from the eyes of new widows and new orphans and not long after, from those of cameramen and my own. The lawyer walked over to where I was standing. “Bakit ka umiiyak?” he asked. “Masanay ka na sa ganito, trabaho mo ’yan.”
Violence is needing a male colleague to go down four bus stops from his usual because 1) you have a vagina and 2) it’s late and 3) the man in the next row has been following you and staring in a way that makes you regret having a vagina and working late. Violence is legislating a populist policy even when the data says not that one. Violence is letting your tito call transsexuals in a movie amusing and cheap. Violence is firing an official for releasing numbers that don’t add up to your ill-planned, fatal agenda. Violence is calling the poor lazy or mendicant while ignoring the long and barely changing narrative of exclusion, the cycle of landlessness and job insecurity that they are born into, and their children after that, on whose backs we attain what we call progress. Violence is the pakyawan system that thousands of laborers in this country are forced into: think of how fast your hands can make trinkets for twelve hours a day, six days a week. Do that for ten straight years on the minimum wage (if you’re lucky) without ever touching a contract. Think of going ten years without healthcare, social insurance, protection from dismissal, IDs.
A friend who left Manila to work for the ARMM Regional Government texted me the morning after the Maute group seized Marawi: “Gusto ko ng Jollibee pero pati ‘yun nakaka-guilty.” Violence is wiping peach mango pie filling from your chin when a diabetic humanitarian worker went thirteen hours without food to sneak people out of Marawi. Violence is the shame in being around to tell the tale. Violence is bearing witness and not going above the nerve. Violence is getting used to violence in slums, fields, factories, warmly lit offices. We send a train to Auschwitz each time we look away.
I would think of you often in the years to come, Arman. And I would tell people your story again and again, with pointed melancholia, to build a case for my world view. I did this when I spoke at a recent event encouraging people to join government. During the open forum, a woman from the Wage Board raised her hand. “What did you do?” she asked. “About Arman.” I’d expected the usual questions: why government, what keeps you going. This was not part of the script. “I did my job. I listened.” She continued: “But aside from that, did you tell the authorities? Or was he just a story to you?”
I didn’t stop your train. I did what I was paid to do. I watched your story air in the war room, an aptly named place where editors shared and killed each other’s pitches. A news manager walked past and stopped to watch the report. A light pat on my shoulder. “Good story.” I didn’t hear from the labor department. I didn’t think to knock on their door. I bought Jollibee on the way home to celebrate.