[OPINION] Black lives should matter to us too

Joel Rocamora

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[OPINION] Black lives should matter to us too
'There are 3 million Filipinos in the US for whom racism is a daily experience. I personally experienced this racism.'

“America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers…. America is in the hearts of men (and women) that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men (and women) that are building a new world…. America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from a tree…. We are that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant, and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native-born or alien, educated or illiterate — we are America!” 

– Carlos Bulosan,  America is in the Heart 

I am happy with our celebration of Independence Day. Duterte thought he could sneak a nasty anti-terror bill past us during COVID lockdown. We braved COVID infection and PNP threats of arrest to come out in the thousands in UP, hundreds at the Commission on Human Rights, smaller groups in other universities and cities. But I am disappointed that we did not make a connection with what is happening in the US. (READ: [OPINION] Witnessing #JunkTerrorBill alongside #BlackLivesMatter)

For more than two weeks now, hundreds of thousands have marched in the streets of more than 2,000 (!) cities and towns in all 50 states of the US. Sympathy demonstrations have been launched in 18 other countries where thousands linked Black Lives rallies with their own issues. It is, by any measure, the most important political development of this pandemic period and beyond. What started as a protest against the police murder of George Floyd has become a full-scale insurrection. 

COVID-19 lockdowns have built up pent-up energy waiting to be released. Lockdowns have made the global mood more combustible. It is the same energy Trump tried to ride on when he called for lifting lockdowns. Ironically, these sentiments have been supplanted by Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Unlike explosions in the past, these rallies have brought out whites in equal number to blacks and other colored people. Most impressive of all, a large majority of the people on the streets are young people. 

It is not just a history of oppression that is fueling the anger. Rallies against police violence are like a red cape in front of a raging police bull. In altogether too many of these rallies, gratuitous police violence have reemphasized the need for the rallies. Trump has continuously poured fuel to the fire with macho words and actions, egging on the police. If even only half of this energy is sustained until November, there is no way Trump is going to get reelected.  

Black and Filipino lives

At the heart of this movement is deep, searing sadness. A whole people feel their lives don’t matter. They exist but to the country where they live, they don’t exist because they do not matter. What is stunning is they are right. Most of the people in the US who live in ghettoes are black. Most of the people who are in jail are black. Most of those killed by police are black. Racism in the US denies black people. They might as well deny Satchmo and Beyonce. What would American music be without black musicians? The National Basketball Association? American baseball, football? Blacks are not just athletes and musicians, they have a whole long list of achievement in all aspects of American life. (READ: Basagan ng Trip with Leloy Claudio: The relevance of #BlackLivesMatter to Filipinos)

All this energy and pent-up anger in black ghettoes have exploded into a movement that in a couple of weeks is already transforming the US. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said about earlier explosions, they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theater where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance.

“I think there is always a breaking point for oppression,” said Libero Della Piana. “We have reached the breaking point. Black people have learned to live with the outrage, with constant harassment, jail, and death. Oftentimes the police killings are localized and isolated. They don’t make it to the national consciousness…. Then suddenly it was on camera… I believe this uprising has spread because the killing of Floyd is so familiar to millions in every community. And the widespread access to digital communication has hastened the pace of the revolt.” 

Why should this matter to us?  

Because racism is an experience we share with blacks. Because there are 3 million Filipinos in the US for whom racism is a daily experience. I personally experienced this racism. I lived in the US for almost 20 years, as a high school exchange student, a graduate student at Cornell University, and later an exile during the Marcos martial law years.  

I would have preferred to live in the US, close to my two sons and 3 grandchildren. One of the reasons I returned home was that in the US, I felt I was a second class citizen, even with an Ivy League PhD. My son, as a teenager visiting his grandparents in an upper class Chicago suburb, was accosted by police when it was reported by a neighbor that a “Chicano” was loitering in front of the house. 

Filipinos recruited as farm workers in the 1920-30s were not only paid slave wages under sub-human working conditions, they were prohibited from socializing/marrying white women in some states until 1967. They were periodically attacked by racist white vigilantes. While conditions improved in later years, together with other Asians, Filipino Americans tended to be slotted into a social category supportive of anti-black racism. 

“Asians have been called America’s model minority,” wrote Boying Pimentel. “They get the top grades in school. They work hard. They don’t cause trouble. They don’t complain…. It started with this bizarre model minority thing…this image of the white man holding an Asian American up and patting us on the head in this condescending manner and telling other minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, ‘If you minorities just work as hard as the Asians, then you too will be able to succeed.’” 

“Fresh off the boat” Filipinos often ended up being anti-black. Desperate to fit in, seeing that the society they wanted to be part of was racist – of course, they became racist. They tried their best to disregard the racism directed at them, taking comfort in being one of the “model minority.” Second and third generation Filipino Americans were not so desperate; they began to understand. Many joined anti-racist movements cutting across Asian lines. The problem was how to relate to racist grandparents without disavowing them. 

For those of us here in the Philippines, for whom the experience of raw, in-your-face racism is distant, there are political reasons for solidarity. Racism in the Philippines hides behind whitening creams, behind mestiza beauty queens and actresses. But it should be easy for us to understand police violence, in many ways worst here than in the US. Police violence in the US is retail, ours is wholesale. Its source in neoliberal capitalism, however, is the same. 

Trump is central to what is happening in the US today. Thankfully, his attempts to impose authoritarian methods are being resisted by the institutions of federal democracy, even by parts of the military. We are not so lucky; our political institutions are more malleable, more subject to the whims of a powerful president. We should be able to understand Trump because we have an equally incompetent, intemperate loudmouth president. If the American mass movement succeeds in removing Trump, we should be thankful because it will weaken his friend Duterte. 

The rallying cry of the US movement are George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe.”

For us, Tony La Viña said it best: “People are literally dying on our hospital beds at this moment; gasping for air with no one by their sides; latching to prayers for a better tomorrow; hoping to return to society. Now, the authorities want to suppress even more lives, and fundamental freedoms and rights – the very “air” and lifeline that democracies need to survive…. Today, we are breathless, but we cannot be breathless for too long, for we may not have anything left to fight for and anything left to fight with.” – Rappler.com

Joel Rocamora is a political analyst and a seasoned civil society leader. An activist-scholar, he finished his PhD in Politics, Asian Studies, and International Relations in Cornell University, and had been the head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, the Transnational Institute, and the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party. He worked in government under former president Benigo Aquino III as the Lead Convenor of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.

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