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 for people like you. ARMAN, We met two years ago when I was a reporter doing stories on economics. It was 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Through the side mirror I watched your shadow emerge from the street leading into a labyrinth of shanties. You worked 13 hours at the factory that day. Your eyes were bloodshot and wouldn’t meet mine. You kept them on your hands the entire time, rubbing them together. The story: find a face for informal workers to “humanize” a study that found 80 percent of Filipino workers had no formal contracts. That face was yours, Arman, who’d never seen or held a contract and worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, for 222 pesos a day. Overtime was paid at your employer’s whim. My body went cold. “Pero hindi man lang ‘yun abot sa minimum wage.” You shrugged and continued to stare at your hands. To the larger state registry that safeguards employment and income and provides the bare minimum of social safety nets, you had no name, no face, no body to protect, only two hands that could be bought for 222 pesos a day.
I was a freshman in college when the Ampatuans gunned down fiftyseven innocents, at least five of whom were raped before being shot in their genitals. When we speak of violence, a mise-en-scène promptly sketches itself: a puddle of blood seeping from a broken skull, faces smashed in, stray toes with nails pulled off, eyeballs popped from their sockets. In other words, desaparecidos under the Marcos dictatorship, the “war on drugs,” the Maguindanao massacre.
Yet what unnerved me most about photos from the mass graves in Ampatuan town was not the blood but its marginalia: behind dead bodies strewn across the field, an index of plain things. The same backhoe that broke earth for malls buried 57 people, some still in their cars. Banana leaves were wrapped around bodies, barely; arms and ankles stuck out. A field like so many others around it. Reminders that the crime—the idea to carry it out—was of this world, on the same perceptual plane as this backhoe, these leaves. To say: violence is here where you are, enabled by the commonplace.
After nine months of telling myself I could make a life in journalism, I moved to the United Nations. I met some officemates in the pantry