Politics is a trash fire and history is heartbreaking, but when your country disappoints you, most people can look across a border, across an ocean, and find some hope in a different place.
This year wasn’t like that for me. This year, both of my homelands let me down.
I’m talking about the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and the extrajudicial killings in the United States, although Americans don’t call them that.
I am half Filipina and half white resident of Texas, but to me the Philippines represents all my earliest memories: the foods that mean home, the language that means family, the relatives who give me their love. I often pass for white and cannot speak for those who experience the world differently because of the way they look.
This isn’t a story of personal dread. As one of those people whose heart belongs to more than one place, my story, and my horror, is its own.
Last May, Filipinos elected a president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has become the subject of international jawdropping at his apparent indifference to death.
With his explicit encouragement, thousands of alleged drug users and drug dealers have been shot dead by police and vigilantes and vigilantes who turn out to be police, usually masked and riding motorcycles in pairs. Pinoys fear for their lives. Those who are impoverished and whose crimes are low-level are the most vulnerable to the shootings. Bystanders die too. Some of them children: Danica Mae Garcia , Althea Fhem Barbon, and Francis Mañosca.
Any Filipinos involved with drugs, even those with a history of drug use who have since quit, have been asked to surrender to officials and have their names added to a list. But doing so can be a death sentence. Many of them are still shot. Sometimes their bodies are marked with a sign: “Pusher.” Or “Addict.”
Sometimes the caskets are laid with plates of the favorite foods of the departed: Fried fish and rice; foods that mean home.
Human rights groups and Western leaders including President Obama, along with Filipino leaders such as Leila de Lima, have condemned the killings. The United States stopped an aid package in response to the killings. But–this was the hardest to comprehend–Duterte’s approval ratings at home remain high, even as his rhetoric edges into threats against the lives of his detractors, too.
People who believe he is doing the right thing are part of my life. Among his supporters at least at one point: A woman who taught me to dance, my uncle, a family friend who used to be my teacher, and my mother.
When I began to hear about the killings, at first I thought maybe the absence of outrage represented a gap between the Philippine culture where I passed a childhood and the culture I inhabit as an American.
However, when I talked to my mom about Duterte, she brought up without prompting the killings of black people by police in the United States. Her stance, sympathetic to law enforcement, was the same no matter the setting. I realized that she saw the Black Lives Matter movement and the Philippine extrajudicial killings as part of one larger conversation. And I wondered why I hadn’t.
Duterte himself justifies murder via comparisons with the West. “When you bomb a village you intend to kill the militants but you kill the children there,” he complained of the United States. “Why do you say it is collateral damage to the West and to us it is murder?” He spoke similarly about the devaluing of black lives on American turf. Out of his contradictions emerged this piece of truth.
While they happen in a distinct political and cultural landscape, the killings in the Philippines are not entirely separate from the killings of people of color in the United States, driven by criminalizing blackness, which in turn has been aided by the War on Drugs.
In both countries, drug users have been scapegoated as the root of the nation’s worst problems, to be purged to save the rest of us. In both countries, children are shot down and their killers forgiven because the public cannot shake from their imagination the shadowy menace such acts are supposed to tackle.
Observers of the Duterte era must continue to speak against all human rights abuses, but in America we must do so knowing that we are not more humane just because we are the more “developed” nation.
If Western-dominated voices so easily reject extrajudicial killings when they happen across the Pacific, then Americans should reject the same scapegoating rationale in our own attitudes toward extrajudicial killings on our own soil. But we don’t because some lives don’t matter to us, either.
The election of Donald Trump starkly confirmed how many Americans—far too many—will double down in support of a vision truly dangerous to people of color. Should I be surprised that Trump reportedly endorsed Duterte’s drug war?
I don’t understand the ease with which death is waved off no matter which way I turn.