The Oaxacan People’s Insurrection for Dignity

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On the dawn of Friday, October 27,
2006, news about the assassination of the
New York Independent Media reporter
Brad Will by paramilitary forces in the
southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico reverberated
throughout the world. This day
marked the beginning of the direct state-sponsored offensive
towards the Oaxacan people who had tired of the
repression and corruption of the governor Ulises Ruíz. For
nearly 8 months they have peacefully organized to remove
him from office. Ruíz has been the subject of an escalating
conflict. He was elected in August 2004 through fraudulent
means and since then has persistently used brute
force against social and political organizations.
On that dark Friday, six barricades across the city of Oaxaca
were under attack at the same time by paramilitary forces
including the barricade where Brad Will lost his life reporting.
The results of these premeditated attacks were three dead
and 23 members of the popular movement injured. But even
worse, the death of Brad Will would serve as the perfect
excuse for the federal government to enter Oaxaca with all its
repressive might despite almost six months of neglect amidst
the plea of civil organizations and the people of Oaxaca for
the federal government to intervene.
The brutal sacking of Oaxaca by the federal police forces
and their allies has lead to even more violence and a virtual
state of martial law. Today the social cost of dissent stands at
23 deaths, more than 250 imprisoned, 100 disappeared,
and women and minors raped. President-elect Felipe
Calderon has stated his unwillingness to negotiate with the
movement. Likewise, his right wing cabinet has declared
the regimes intention to squash social movements.
The conflict between the state and the Oaxacan people
began May 22 as 70,000 teachers belonging to section 22
of the teachers union initiated a strike pleading for a raise
of their wretched salaries, as well as a monthly bonus for
teachers living in the tourist areas where the cost of living
is disproportionately high. There are 15 more demands
related to funding for school materials, children’s uniforms
and free school breakfasts.
Every year, the teachers strike for such demands and
until 2006 negotiations would occur. This time around,
Ulises Ruiz’s government first threatened the teachers and
later brutally evicted them from the town plaza where the
governor’s headquarters is located. Haunted by the nightmares
of recent state violence in Atenco, Mexico, where
peasants sympathetic to the Zapatistas stopped the development
of an airport, 300,000 outraged inhabitants of Oaxaca
poured into the streets. They protested the state violence
and marched through Oaxaca demanding the governor’s
immediate resignation in what was perhaps one of the
biggest civil protests in Oaxacan history. During the march
the previously evicted teachers would once again reclaim
the central plaza. This event would unite dispersed and
divergent organizations and groups into one organization,
the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca. Their goal:
the immediate resignation of the state governor Ulises Ruiz.
On June 17, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca
(APPO by its Spanish acronym) was born. It would challenge
the state government through pacifist means, with words,
ideas, and most importantly, dignity. Local unions, peasants,
students, women’s and environmental organizations, indigenous
communities, teachers and whole families from across
the state united to form this radical organization. Their collective
process of decision-making and political action has a long
tradition among Oaxacan indigenous towns. After the Zapatista
armed uprising it has been further revitalized.
On July 5, as the Mexican people contested the election
where rightist Felipe Calderon was declared victorious, the
APPO occupied the government headquarters situated in
the central plaza of the city and declared itself a parallel
government of the state of Oaxaca. Oaxacans were infuriated
watching the governor cynically respond to the interests
of foreign investors and tourists. During July and
August, the APPO also reclaimed the Guelaguetza—a yearly
celebration where the 7 regions of Oaxaca are represented
through performances their culture—that had was one
of the main tourist attractions. It had become a corporate
enterprise guided by the leading businessmen of Mexico.
APPO would also reclaim the local media, 12 radio stations
and for small periods of time the local TV station.
The radio stations would become the heartbeat of the
APPO, through which they would organize across Oaxaca,
calling people to regional and general meetings, and
informing the people of local agreements, mobilizations,
road blockades, food and first aid needs. In August, that
is how they organized the takeover of the city of Oaxaca.
The radio would also serve to inform human rights organizations
if violations were committed. Many of us following
the movement from afar could access the Oaxacan
radio broadcast through the web, and international supporters
could mobilize almost instantly.
Although the struggle of the APPO is rooted in the local
politics of Oaxaca, they have clearly bridged it with anti-globalization
and social justice movements across the nation and
the world. The past experience of fraudulent electoral politics
in Oaxaca fueled a rather sentiment against the presidential
elections. The people would chant vociferously: “He fell, he
fell, Ulises fell and if there is no solution so will Calderon”.
The effects of the conflict on the lives of the Oaxacan people
are very complex: the salaries of the approximately thirty
thousand teachers in the struggle have been cut off, many
small businesses in the region have no customers, vendors of
local produce have not sold of corn or squash, many members
are jobless due to the conflict. Yet, they are able to resist
because the people draw upon years of experience of
autonomous collective organizing visible in the forms of
everyday resistance. The indigenous communities, the peasant
communities, the popular neighborhoods and other supporters
of the APPO deliver daily to the barricades and
encampments tortillas, stews, water, hot coffee and chocolate.
At the same time, representatives of organizations come and
go in groups from all over the state of Oaxaca. Some people
travel up to 12 or so hours to get to the city. They come with
their hand-made banners in support of the struggle and with
musical instruments from their towns. They take turns guarding
the barricades, the radio stations, the government headquarters,
and the main roads to the city.
Members of the APPO speak many different languages,
that come from the 16 indigenous groups that make up the
state of Oaxaca. They all come from different experiences of
struggle, from different social positions, and therefore, from
different experiences of oppression. As a woman said on people’s
assembly Radio Universidad, “we are not teachers, we
are the people, look at us, we are the people that are struggling
for our rights… until Ulises steps down we are not
going to stop”.
On October 30, the federal government ordered the federal
police to enter the city of Oaxaca. With full armor, thousands
of federal police forces entered the city accompanied by tanks
and bulldozers to crush the barricades. Simultaneously, police helicopters flew throughout the city. Oaxacans were expecting them. Days before, rumors of the
police takeover had spread throughout the highlands, cities and coast of Oaxaca. Groups of people
from every corner of Oaxaca had come to the city to defend it from the government forces.
The barricades were reinforced. School buses were placed in the middle of streets. Tires, chairs,
pieces of wood, doors, anything and everything were used to stop the federal government’s
repressive forces to enter. At the same time, however, the radio announcers coordinated the resistance
and desperately called for a national peaceful insurrection to stop the government offensive.
The Oaxacan people had agreed to resist peacefully, so as the tanks entered they would gather
at each entrance by the hundreds trying to intimidate the police activity. Some would burn
tires in order to prevent the visibility of the helicopters. Some would fearlessly jump on the tanks
and spray paint on the windows to disable them. Many times they were successful, many times
they were not. At the end of the day, dozens were imprisoned and taken to the army headquarters,
dozens disappeared, many were injured and at least four were found dead. The police forces
secured the center plaza displacing all the resistance to the Autonomous University of Oaxaca
where legally the state could not enter.
A few days later, on November 2, in an attempt to demolish the university radio station, the
organ of resistance organization, the police forces once again confronted the Oaxacan people. On
the radio, nationally and internationally we followed the resistance. We heard the Oaxacans battling,
calling for reinforcement, for vinegar and coke to wipe the tear gas from their faces, for solidarity
across the globe. This time however, after hours of confrontation, the police forces withdrew.
Elated, thousands of Oaxacans celebrated what seemed impossible: the unarmed resistance
for a government of the people and for the people. We heard through the radio a shrill scream of
a woman saying, “Comrades today we are filled with glory. There are present a million people.
We defeated them. We defeated them. We want Ulises Ruiz to leave Oaxaca right now and never
to return because we will kick him out like we did today with the police forces.”
The Day of the Dead battle, however, would be the last massive organized act of resistance.
Thereafter, the Mexican government secured the Oaxacan capital by promoting a politics of
terror organized by the federal police who would ensure “social order” by silencing and
repressing any act of organized defiance by the Oaxacans popular assembly. Furthermore,
the virtual police state is reinforced through paramilitary forces, referred to as “death
squads”, who police the streets of the city intimidating and threatening any participant in
the popular assembly or any sympathetic civilians.
On November 25, as the popular assembly marched towards the downtown Zocalo
to once again demand the resignation of Ulises, the federal police confronted them with
full force, gunfire and the naked violence of the state. Hundreds were jailed and hundreds
wounded. This day marked the inauguration of the federal government witchhunt
throughout the state. In several regions of Oaxaca, illegal searches and detentions
were reported. The federal police went as far as to enter forcefully into elementary
schools to detain teachers that had participated in the strike. At this moment the government
has forced the popular assembly into clandestinity, closing avenues for peaceful
public protest.
Today, the APPO’s demands are not only
for the governor to resign, but also for dignity.
They will not stop until the illegitimate
government of Ulises Ruiz steps down from
office. Additionally, APPO’s initiative of
nationalizing the movement has already been
taken up by many organizations through out
the country, including the Zapatista Rebel
Arm (EZLN). Likewise, in a solidarity move
throughout Mexico and the United States,
popular assemblies are emerging and
protesting against the repressive politics of
the Mexican government. This past October in Los Angeles, California, various indigenous
groups, members of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), together
with the Mexican and Mexican-American organizations like Unión del Barrio and UCLA’s
Raza Graduate Students formed a transnational APPO.
Today this movement is the largest grassroots movement in Mexico since the 1968 student
movement and promises to grow. We look once again to the South, where dignity
infuses the global struggle for justice.

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