Enclosing the enclosers

‘They might have the strength to impose their will, but we will never give them our consent…’ Gustavo Esteva looks back at the Oaxaca uprising of 2006 and explains how the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca posits an alternative solution for governance

From June to October, 2006, no police were seen in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico (600,000 inhabitants), not even traffic police. The governor and all of his officials were reduced to meeting secretly in hotels and private homes; none dared come to work. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had continued sit-ins around the clock in front of Oaxaca City’s public buildings, as well as in the private and public radio and television stations it had in its hands. One night, a convoy of 35 SUVs, with undercover agents and mercenaries, drove by the sit-ins and began shooting. They were not aiming at the people, but trying to intimidate them. APPO reported the situation instantaneously on its radio stations, and within minutes people organised barricades to stop the convoy. After that experience, every night at 11pm more than a thousand barricades closed the streets around the sit-ins and at critical crossroads, to be opened again at 6am to facilitate circulation. In spite of the guerrilla attacks by the police, a human rights organisation reported that in those months there was less violence in Oaxaca than in any other similar period in the last 10 years. Many services, like garbage collection, were operated by their corresponding unions, all also participants of APPO.

Were we winning? Some analysts started to talk about the Oaxaca Commune. Smiling, some Oaxacans commented: ‘Yes, but the Paris Commune lasted only 50 days; we have been here for more than 100 days.’ No matter how pertinent, this historical analogy is an exaggeration except for the logical reaction both initiatives provoked in the power structure. In the same style in which the European armies crushed the communards, Mexican Federal Police, with the support of the Army and the Navy, were finally sent to deal with the uprising.

When the Federal Police arrived, on October 28, APPO decided to resist non-violently, avoiding confrontation. In the face of the police, with all their aggressive equipment, the people of Oaxaca exhibited enormous restraint. Unarmed citizens stopped the tanks by laying their own bodies on the pavement. Adults held back young people trying to express their anger. When the police reached the main plaza, APPO abandoned it and regrouped on the campus of the university. The police began selectively capturing APPO members at the barricades or in their homes. By the end of the day, there were three dead, many injured, and many more disappeared. Those picked up by the police were sequestered in military barracks.

For months, the government and the media condemned APPO in the name of law, order, public security, human rights, and stable institutions. All these elements were employed to justify the use of police force. But without realising it, the authorities gave us a lesson in revolutionary civics. The Federal Police became the vehicle for a massive violation of human rights: searches and arrests were carried out without warrants while the number of dead, wounded and disappeared increased. Only vigilantes of the dominant party and the government’s own hired guns were allowed to travel freely.

Many were afraid that we would not be able to stop the bloodbath the governor and federal government seemed determined to provoke. In spite of APPO’s continual appeal to non-violence, the people of Oaxaca felt deeply offended and angry. Moreover they didn’t want to be cowards… What could we do confronted by this barbaric, irrational violence of the state against its own people? How do we deal with the mounting anger of the youngsters, after months of constant vigilance on the barricades?

On November 2 the people resisted an attack on the University by the Federal Police. The clash was the largest between civilians and police in Mexico’s history, and perhaps the only one that resulted in an unquestionable popular triumph. The fight was certainly unequal enough: although the police were outnumbered five or six to one if we count children, they had shields and other weapons, not to mention tanks and helicopters, while the people had only sticks, stones, rockets (fireworks), a few slingshots, and some uninvited molotov cocktails.

Following this victory, the largest march in the history of Oaxaca took place on November 5: almost a quarter of the 3.5 million Oaxacans came to it. Among the participants were scores of indigenous authorities from communities throughout the state who came to the capital carrying their staffs of office to publicly declare their allegiance to the movement. (Oaxaca is the only state in Mexico where two thirds of the population are indigenous).

In order to strengthen our coordinating bodies we had a ‘constitutive congress’. The last session of the exhausting meeting ended at 5am on Monday, November 13. Some 1,500 state delegates attended this peculiar assembly. A Council of 260 delegates was created, in order to coordinate the collective effort. They were to ‘represent’ everyone; indigenous peoples, of course, but also every sector of society. Some barricades also sent delegates to the Congress and they now have a representation in the Council. The Congress approved a charter for APPO, an action plan, and a code of conduct. Most of the agreements were reached through consensus. Some of them were very difficult. It was not easy to agree on gender equity, for example, but we reached a good agreement: everyone recognised that women had been at the forefront, in all aspects of the struggle, and had given to it its meaning and soul. One of the easiest agreements was the decision to give the struggle a clearly anti-capitalist orientation.

During the Congress the city was still occupied by the police. Eight more people disappeared that night. But ‘they cannot occupy our soul’, said one member of the Council. ‘We have more freedom than ever.’

Are we thus winning?

On January 20, 2007, the International Civil Commission for Observation of Human Rights presented its preliminary report – after collecting hundreds of testimonies and documents, most of them focused on the massive, violent repression of November 25. The Commission reported 23 documented and identified dead and others disappeared but unidentified for lack of formal report. People are afraid. ‘They disappeared one of my sons. If I report it, they will disappear the other,’ said an old woman. Hundreds were injured and arbitrarily detained, and all kinds of abuses and violations of human rights – including torture and sexual abuses – were committed against them. For the Commission,

What happened in Oaxaca was the linking of a juridical and military strategy with psychosocial and community components. Its final purpose is to achieve the control and intimidation of the civil population especially in areas in which processes of citizen organisation and non party social movements are developing.

Are we winning? Is it enough to win to learn as much as we learned, about ourselves, our strengths and autonomy, and about the system oppressing us?

Some background

For almost two years, the people of Oaxaca were in increasing turmoil. The immediate cause was the corrupt and authoritarian administration of Governor Ulises Ruiz, who took office after a fraudulent election in December 2004. But as the Oaxaqueños resisted Ruiz, deeper struggles came to the surface and began to find expression in a process of awakening, organisation, and radicalisation.

On May 22, 2006 the teachers union, with 70,000 members throughout the state, began a sit-in in Oaxaca City’s main plaza in order to dramatise their economic plight. They did not get much attention or solidarity from the public. But on June 14 the governor ordered a violent repression of the sit-in. This episode changed the nature of the mobilisation, unifying large numbers of Oaxacans with their own reasons for opposing Ruiz’s misrule. Overnight ¡Fuera Ulises! (‘Out with Ulises!’) became the popular slogan in Oaxaca’s neighborhoods and streets. On June 20 hundreds of social and grassroots organisations invented APPO.

All this has happened within a profound political transition in which Mexico is currently engaged. Our ancient régime is dead. Economic and political elites are attempting to substitute it with a ‘neoliberal republic’, while the social majorities are trying to reorganise society from the bottom up to create a new regime.

Over the last 25 years corrupt leaders who control public institutions have almost succeeded in completely dismantling them. Some were driven by market fundamentalism, others by greed or ambition. While their acts often shock us, enrage us, and even lead some of us to experience a kind of paralysis, sometimes they serve to awaken autonomous action among the people.

As Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge, ‘what we have to do is undertake a critique of everything that is established, and to criticise without mercy, fearing neither the conclusions we reach nor our clash with the existing powers.’ This is all the more pertinent when those powers opt for violence in an attempt to solve conflicts they are incapable of resolving peacefully and democratically, as in the current impasse in Oaxaca. Their use of force can cause great harm, but it can’t restore their power. They have bloodied their hands in vain, for the people of Oaxaca will not back down under this threat. It is said that Napoleon once observed that ‘bayonets can be used for many purposes, but not to sit on’. This warning for amateur politicians has not been heard by Mexican political classes – not even after seeing the spectacular example of Iraq. With the army or the police you can destroy a country or a people but you cannot govern them.

August 1: The Revolution Will Be Televised

Confronted with the government’s use of the media against the movement, several thousand women from APPO peacefully occupied the studios of the state radio and television network – after it refused to give them 15 minutes on the air. Through its outlets in Oaxaca, the media has continually been used by the governor to distribute propaganda against the movement. Now instead the occupiers of TV and radio stations disseminated the ideas, proposals, and initiatives of APPO. They also opened both radio and television for members of the public to express their own opinions 24 hours a day. Despite every imaginable technical difficulty (the women occupying the network had no previous training for this), thousands who called the stations made it onto the air. Eventually, a group of undercover police and mercenaries invaded the facilities, shooting up and destroying the equipment and injuring some of the APPO ‘broadcasters’. In reaction, a few hours later APPO occupied all private radio and TV outlets in the city. Instead of one, APPO suddenly had 12 options to both disseminate information about the movement, and to give voice to the people. A few days later they gave the stations back to their owners, keeping only one powerful enough to cover the whole state. It broadcasted information about the movement 24 hours a day until it was jammed at the end of October.

Radical democracy

APPO is the product of a slow accumulation of forces and many lessons gathered during previous struggles. In particular, three different democratic struggles have converged in the single one being waged by APPO. The first joins together all those who wish to strengthen formal democracy. People are tired of fraud and manipulation. The second gathers those who want a more participatory democracy. Besides transparency and honesty they want more civil involvement in the workings of government through the use of popular initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, the right to recall elected leaders, participatory budgeting, and other such tools. The third looks to extend and deepen autonomous or radical democracy. Eighty per cent of all municipalities in Oaxaca are indigenous and have their own particular, autonomous forms of government, following ancient traditions. Although this autonomy was legally recognised by Oaxaca’s state law in 1995, it continues to be the subject of pressure and harassment. The advocates of radical democracy attempt now to invert this situation: to put the state and federal governments under pressure and harassment. The ultimate goal is to move from community and municipal autonomy to an autonomous coordination of groups of municipalities, from there to regions, and eventually to an autonomous form of government for the entire state. While this is an appeal to both sociological and political imaginations, it is also firmly based on legal and practical historical experience with autonomous self-government. Nor are the people of Oaxaca waiting for the inevitable departure of the governor to put these ideas into action; there are already many APPOs operating around the state on community, neighborhood, municipal, and regional levels. A group of lawyers is nourishing our dialogues and reflections with specific proposals for the new norms we will enact, transforming all public officers into public servants. The only authority will be the people themselves.

Oaxaca has already abolished its old, badly constituted state government. But there has never before been a ‘crisis of governability’. In mid-September a violent brawl erupted during a private party in a neighborhood of Oaxaca. A half-drunk couple stumbled out onto the street. ‘We should call the police,’ he said. ‘Don’t be an ass,’ she said, ‘there are no police.’ ‘True,’ he answered, scratching his head. ‘Let’s call APPO.’

‘They’re trying to force us to govern, but it’s a provocation we’re not going to fall for.’ [‘Nos quieren obligar a gobernar. No caeremos en esa provocación.’] This subtle bit of graffiti on a wall in Oaxaca reveals the nature of the present movement. It doesn’t seek to take over the current power structure but to reorganise the whole of society from deep inside and establish new foundations for our social life together.

APPO cannot be reduced to a mere local disturbance or a rebellion. Rebellions are like volcanoes, mowing down everything before them. But they’re also ephemeral; they may leave lasting marks, like lava beds, but they die down as quickly as they catch fire. They go out. And this one hasn’t. In this case, the spirit of defiance has become too strong. Although Ulises Ruiz was the original focus of popular discontent he was just the detonator, the take-off point for a lasting movement of transformation to a peaceful, truly democratic society, for the harmonious coexistence of the different. As the Zapatista say, this is part of a struggle to create a world in which many worlds can be embraced. This is needed more than ever in a polarised society in which all forms of racism, sexism, individualism and violence are erupting.

The end of an era

Fifty years ago Paul Goodman said:

Suppose you had had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won’t let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical.

Thousands, millions of people assume now that the time has come to walk our own path. As the Zapatistas put it, to change the world is very difficult, if not impossible. A more pragmatic attitude demands the construction of a new world. That’s what we are now trying to do, as if we had already won.

Ulises Ruiz appeared as a great obstacle. He incarnated the old world we wanted to get rid of. We thus provoked the collapse of his government. When the whole political system coalesced to support him, preventing his removal from office, we looked for alternatives. As Goodman suggested, we are finding ways to get over or around or under his police and his maneuvers. He can no longer govern but he daily organises shows for the media to pretend that he is still in charge. He cannot go anywhere in the state without a hundred bodyguards, protecting him from people’s hostility. (The same is happening, by the way, with president Calderón. Even in Germany he needed to be protected by the police).

We cannot wait for world revolution to dissolve the new forms of corporate capital. But we can attempt to make them marginal to our lives and to create new kinds of social relations. After refusing to be reduced to commodities and forced into alienated labour, after losing all the jobs many of us had, we are celebrating the freedom to work and we are renovating our old traditions of direct, non-exploitative exchange. We are thus enclosing the enclosers. And yes, we are winning, in spite of their violent reactions. Myriad initiatives are being launched in every corner of the state, offering solid proof of the vitality of the movement and people’s ingenuity and courage.

We need, of course, all kinds of national and international solidarity. True, David can always win over Goliath if he fights him in his own territory, in his own way. But we cannot resist forever the daily aggression we are suffering, when every one of us is going to sleep, every night, not knowing if we will wake up in jail… or disappeared, or dead. But still, we are full of hope, smiling at the horror.

The time has come for the end of the economic era. Development, once a hope to give eternal life to economic societies, has instead dug their graves. Signs of the new era, though appearing everywhere, are still perceived as anomalies of the old. The old one, in turn, looks stronger than ever and the death it is carrying is still perceived as a symptom of vitality. If people are fooled by such images, disguised by slogans of the older period and remain blind to the evidence of the new era, the economy will continue to dismantle and destroy its own creations to the point of collapse.

There is an option. Now is the time for the option.

San Pablo Etla, January 2007

Gustavo Esteva is a prolific independent writer, a grassroots activist and a deprofessionalised intellectual based in Oaxaca, Mexico. He works both independently and in conjunction with a variety of Mexican NGOs and grassroots organisations and communities. In 1996, he was invited by the Zapatistas to be their advisor. Since then, he has been very active in what today is called Zapatismo, involving himself with the current struggle of the indigenous peoples, particularly with APPO. He can be contacted at gustavoesteva[at]gmail.com. For more on the Oaxaca uprising, check out www.oaxacalibre.org, www.oaxacarevolt.org, www.zmag.org and www.narconews. For more on the context of the movement and a connection with Zapatismo, see Esteva’s article in zmag.org (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11660). See also G. Esteva and M. Prakash, Grassroots Postmodernism (London: Zed Books, 1998).

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