Fighting the Aswang: Seeing state terror and resistance in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s new documentary on Duterte’s extrajudicial killings

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It is the summer of the pandemic and protests for police abolition. It is the summer of horror and hope. In the streets of Toronto, Berlin, Auckland, Copenhagen and Antwerp, the young and the old march for racial justice while wearing masks for protection against the dreaded Covid-19 virus that has infected more than 11.6 million people around the world. In the U.S., the premature deaths of Black men and women in the hands of the police reignite the American protests against the horror of police killings. In New York City, thousands march in the warm evenings led by young Black and queer activists. They camp out in front of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s mansion holding signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and “Abolish I.C.E.” In the sweltering evenings, citizens curse under their breaths as firecrackers explode in the dead of the night, interrupting precious sleep. Rumors swirl that the NYPD is behind the sale of the firecrackers, a tactic to tire out and punish New Yorkers demanding the end of prisons and the police. In New York City, church-based immigrant rights groups and Filipino American journalists organized an online webinar against a different but similar kind of state violence. The event, State Terrorism: The Philippine Experience, was attended by close to a hundred participants and featured Manila-based writer Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch, veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona of the beleaguered ABS-CBN, and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares. The event marked the passage of a new law created by the Duterte government, the Anti-Terror Bill. The law appoints a council of Philippine government officials to arrest anyone suspected of being a “terrorist,” and the vagueness of who can be defined and charged as a terrorist makes the law frightening. The law permits the surveillance and wiretap of citizens by the police and the military for 90 days. The new law, says Neri Colmenares, abolishes the protections enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution by not requiring warrants for arrest, and those arrested for “terrorism” could be kept in jail for 24 days. Filipinos in the Philippines and around the globe condemn the new law as a weapon that targets Duterte’s critics, incarcerates his perceived “enemies,” muzzles free speech, and intensifies a climate of fear that began with Duterte’s “war” against drugs. Rather than propose a comprehensive plan for mass testing or national economic projects to aid the poor affected by the pandemic and the quarantine, the Duterte government rushed the passing of the Anti-Terror Bill. The new law continues the old ways of the Duterte state: kill law-breakers. Since May 2016, the Duterte government’s violent “drug war” has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Filipinos. Most are men, women and children from the slums of Philippine cities. The corpses of the dead bear the marks of torture — bleeding cuts, blue-black bruises from repeated beatings, wounded wrists from handcuffs. The police claim they were killed in shoot-outs, “Nanlaban (they fought back),” or they deserved death as “drug users” and criminals. Some of the dead are found with duct tape covering their heads, so that identifying them is impossible. These extrajudicial killings, described by scholars as a “genocide of the poor,” continue in the pandemic. Bodies and pools of blood appear on the city streets, and the human remains look like the victims of flesh-eating monsters we call aswang.