“I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone to conquer, not to redeem… And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the American eagle put its talons on any other land.”
— Mark Twain October 15, 1900, The New York Herald
On October 11, 2014, the body of Jennifer Laude was discovered in a hotel room in the Philippine port city of Olongapo. She had been viciously beaten, strangled, and drowned in a toilet. Laude was beloved by all who knew her, but her unfortunate fate was sealed when she met her killer, US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, at a dance club that evening. After months of the US military stalling the hearing process, Pemberton was finally put on trial. Jennifer’s family endured a trial full of smears, dehumanization and cruelty before eventually hearing the verdict and punishment for her killer. Pemberton was sentenced to jail for homicide, a lesser charge than murder, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Because of the Defense Pact between the Philippines and the US, he was allowed to serve his term at a US military base instead of a Philippine prison. But earlier this month, after serving just a little over half of his term, Pemberton was given an “absolute pardon” by the authoritarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
Jennifer, who was affectionately called Ganda by her mother, which means “beautiful” in Tagalog, was a 26 year old woman who was deeply loved by her family and friends. But she was born into a reality beyond her control. She was Filipino in a nation where the US military is dominant and transgender at a time when this community is facing more and more violence around the world. This could be just another tragic story of assault, transphobia and murder, which is bad enough. But this heinous act has become emblematic of the long, blood drenched history of American imperialism.
First colonized by the Spanish, then by the Americans, with Imperial Japan making a short but brutal appearance, Filipinos who had fought long and hard for independence from Spanish colonialism found themselves to be yet another chess piece in the geopolitical game of the empires. The US struck a deal with Spain, ending its rule there, only to introduce a new era of subjugation on the indigenous population. Armed struggle against US forces were valiant and had many successes, but they ultimately proved futile for the Filipino people. The Americans had far more lethal weaponry. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, were massacred, or died of starvation or disease in the imperial war of the early 20th century. Waterboarding, commonly thought to be a relatively new torture technique for American forces, was used liberally on Filipinos. The cruelty inflicted upon them was breathtaking in its depravity. The book “In Our Image,” by journalist Stanley Karnow, detailed many of these atrocities including rapes, village burnings, indiscriminate killings and concentration camps. This was a race war, as identified by the murderous American president Theodore Roosevelt in a speech he gave at Arlington Cemetery in 1902. He characterized the imperial war as “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”
As was the case with most people who inhabit the Global South, the dehumanization of Filipinos became embedded in American policy and practice. Anthropologist W. J. McGee said they were “monkey-like” and exhibited whole families at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 much to the amusement of curious white Americans. Prominent periodicals like National Geographic referred to Filipinos as “uncivilized.” And these attitudes had a direct impact on their rights. Under American occupation, they were segregated from whites, prevented from voting, owning property, or working in many careers all in the land of their birth.
Following WWII, and the Japanese occupation, the United States picked up where it had left off. And racism became the class designating factor, where those with more European features were favored and bestowed with greater access to resources and benefits than those with browner skin. With the force of the military, American imperialism morphed into the “defense of national security interests.” In a short span of time American businesses sliced up the country for their own profit and employed a loyal class of well paid locals to enforce American interests within the government. Vast swaths of land were handed over to US corporations, leaving most indigenous Filipinos impoverished and disenfranchised in their own nation. Slums and shantytowns exploded outside major cities like Manila, and public services were privatized for the profit of the wealthy. Labor movements were ruthlessly crushed.
The independence the Philippines eventually obtained was largely an illusion. Sovereignty was supplanted by the neoliberal “free market” with the result being gross income inequality, destruction of ecosystems by multi-national corporations, and pollution left behind by the US military. Subic Bay, where Jennifer’s murderer was stationed with the Marines, was also where the US Navy had one of its largest bases. Before withdrawing in 1993, it had dumped raw sewage, pesticides and chemicals like PCBs, lead, and asbestos for decades. This bay is also where tens of thousands of Filipinos live, and the pollution continues to cause disease, premature deaths and birth defects in the local population. But in addition to causing enormous economic, health and ecological devastation, US military personnel, as in Japan, Germany, South Korea and Iraq, have near total impunity for any crime they commit against locals. Joseph Scott Pemberton was not the first US military member to be let off the hook for murdering someone. He joins Edward Gallagher, Nicholas Slatten, and a whole host of others who walk free after serving little to no time for their heinous crimes and atrocities.
Over the last few decades, the Philippines has become fertile ground for the ruthless economic predation of multi-national corporations. And, as is the case in the entire Global South, they demand militarized protection for their “economic assets and geopolitical interests.” In the decades following WWII the Philippines has hosted a long list of presidents and politicians who may pay lip service to anti-imperialism, but whom eventually bow to Washington and Wall Street. Despite his hyper-masculine bravado, or his speeches decrying American imperialism, or his demands for the US military to leave or stay out of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is no different than his predecessors in this regard. He may come from the south of the country, from a place that knows the barbarism of American occupation intimately, but he also comes from an elite political class. A class which has benefited greatly from American capitalist exploitation of the land and the working class of the Philippines. And his brutal policies of state violence against the poor and the marginalized, under the deceptive logo of the “war on drugs,” has taken tens of thousands of lives. Duterte aligns neatly with the politics of Donald Trump, and echoes other far right “strongmen,” like Modi, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, and Orban. His anti-American rhetoric is steeped in opportunist game playing in order to obtain the favor of any of the imperial forces in the region, whether it be the US, China or Russia. And his “absolute pardon” of Pemberton serves as a stark example of this obsequious political nature.
Jennifer Laude’s murderer is now free to go on to live his life like so many other soldiers, or agents, or mercenaries, or contractors of the US government who have enjoyed pardons or near total impunity for their crimes. That Laude was transgender made her nearly sub-human in Duterte’s eyes, but also to the American military and the Trump regime in Washington. Her killer used the tired excuse that Jennifer lied to him about her identity as a trans woman. Even if this was so, it is no excuse for this brutal attack. But this defense has been used time and time again against LGBTQ people, and it has often let murderers off the hook. But militarism, itself, begets violence and atrocity. And women and children, LGBTQ and working poor, Indigenous, Black and people of color, as well as sex workers, are the most common victims of its barbarism.
Jennifer deserved better. She deserved a life free from violence, poverty and exploitation. A homeland free of despotic leaders and foreign occupation. And after her murder, she and her family deserved justice. But her life, like countless others, was deemed disposable by the Duterte regime and the American military establishment. Sadly, her story can be repeated over and over and over again throughout the Global South. And as long as this barbaric cycle born from a legacy of colonial imperialism is allowed to continue, she will not be the last to suffer this fate.