On Saturday morning, in a sunny conference hall to the side of Baclaran Church, among the slums of southern Metro Manila, several dozens of Filipino teenagers and adults held up sheets of paper on which they’d written their dreams. “To study.” “To be a chef.” “To find permanent work.”
They sat cross-legged and barefoot in groups of three or four, their flip-flops and sneakers, soles thinned from wear, waiting beside them. They smiled as they read out their answers. At the back of the room, a group of about 20 toddlers and children ran around and skidded, and sent fidget spinners whirring across the floor.
In some ways the scene felt like a cheerful community church gathering, complete with singing and prayers. But below the fellowship there was also much sorrow.
Normita Baccay, a 53-year-old housewife dressed in black, stood up to talk about her 23-year-old son, Djastin Lopez. He had suffered epileptic seizures since he was four years old, she said. Her voice was hoarse, and it broke when she explained that a police officer shot Djastin multiple times on May 18.
The police called him a drug suspect and a gang member; witnesses said officers fired on Djastin as he tried to run from them, fell and had a seizure. Ms. Baccay gripped the microphone with both hands, leaned her forehead against it and covered her face with a white towel to muffle wails.
The gathering was taking place a day after the muted anniversary of President Rodrigo Duterte’s first year in office. Instead of vast public festivities, on Friday it was mostly netizens who declared their support for him, proffering hashtags of salute online.
I was spending Saturday morning with participants in Rise Up for Life and for Rights, a church-based organization that supports the families of victims of the Duterte administration’s notorious antidrug policies. It was Ms. Baccay’s first visit, but the group has organized meetings of this kind all year.
Baclaran Church was a well-known site of refuge for Filipinos hiding from state repression in the 1970s, after dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, and it has become a sanctuary again under Mr. Duterte. There have been more than 110 drug-related killings in the neighborhood around the church since his election last May.
Around noon, the group broke up for lunch, crowding black folding tables loaded with metal trays of vinegary pork adobo and white rice. Their plates piled high, people chatted and laughed.
After the meal, I sat with Ms. Baccay. She showed me what she had been able to recover from the pockets of the shorts her son wore when he died: a tiny plastic bag of folded bills amounting to about five dollars.
“Sometimes my youngest boy tells me he had no lunch,” she said. “So he asks me if we can use the money from his older brother Djastin.”
“I say, no. I’ll keep it until I die.”
When I left the conference room, I looked through the open doors of Baclaran Church. It wasn’t time for mass, but the pews were nearly full. People crowded around a statue of St. Joseph, pressing bare hands or handkerchiefs against its base, hoping for blessings. I felt a familiar pang: How could a people so devout continue to support such a brutal campaign? Even as 69 percent of respondents in recent polls said that extrajudicial killings were either “a somewhat serious” or “a very serious” problem, 78 percent of them said they were satisfied with the government’s drug policies.
Several hours later, a few kilometers away, I passed through a metal detector at a high-end mall and submitted my bag for inspection to two armed guards. Walking the gleaming marble floors and shivering in the air conditioning, I felt the stark contrast in class that marks this country, where great suffering exists alongside great opulence. I was heading for a convention hall to attend #NextPH Social Media Day, a gathering of speakers and vendors optimistic about an internet-driven future for the Philippines.
Volunteers wearing blue badges and black T-shirts branded with the event’s hashtag handed me free tubs of Greek yogurt and milk tea. Booths hawked travel apps and information about the rights of call-center workers and animal welfare, and other products supposedly showing how social media will help the nation.
I entered a dark auditorium. On a stage lit by neon and misted by a fog machine, Judy Taguiwalo, the government’s secretary for welfare, was speaking about the importance of compassion. She did not mention the administration’s antidrug policies.
Nowhere at the #NextPH event were there booths or fliers or even talk about drug-related homicides or substance use. I asked a co-organizer, the digital strategist Tonyo Cruz, about the omission. He said it was deliberate. “It would be unfair to require organizations that may not have that focus to take a stand on such a political issue,” he said. The event was going for TED Talks positivity, not grim polemics.
Just as I was thinking, fair enough, I caught a glimpse of a slender man in a tight black T-shirt bearing two words in Cyrillic. I thought I recognized their first letters, “o” and “t,” and had an inkling I knew what the phrase meant.
I stopped the man to ask. He introduced himself as Mickey Garcia, a 33-year-old chef, and told me that his shirt said “Oplan Tokhang,” the name of the national police’s antidrug campaign.
“Why are you wearing that?” I asked.
Mr. Garcia shrugged and smiled: “It’s a way of disagreeing, or agreeing — depending on how you look at it.”
He said he objected to the government’s actions and that the shirt was his way of expressing dissent, carefully. “With this government,” he added, “you never know what might happen to you if you voice your opinion.”
Laurel Fantauzzo is the author of The First Impulse.