On The Ground

Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN - Miro Capili Pol­icy re­searcher and jour­nal keeper

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.

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