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Eye witness report of of APPO tactics and "non-violence"

Commentator from the OSAG | 04.12.2006 20:01 | Oaxaca Uprising | Repression | Social Struggles | Zapatista | World

Article of personal eye witness report from Oaxaca on APPO tactics and non-violence.

I am going to weigh in on this discussion about what happened on Nov.
25th, who threw the first stone, whether or not the APPO "qualifies"
as non-violent, etc.

I wasn't going to chime in, cause there are enough troubling things
happening in Oaxaca right now, that the more important thing seems to
be to get the information out as much as possible. But I saw one too
many emails commenting on what the APPO "should or shouldn't do."

1) I personally have seen, with my own eyes, on at least three
occasions (Seattle '99, Washington DC '2000, and Mar del Plata,
Argentina, 2005), young kids who were throwing rocks and molotovs,
enter and emerge from police vehicles in a fresh change of clothes.
And I've seen it in video footage from other places (Genoa, Prague).
Infiltration and the presence of provocadores are a GIVEN in any large

I'm not saying that people who associate themselves with the movement
in Oaxaca didn't also throw rocks and launch cohetes on Nov. 25th. I
don't doubt that some of the kids from the barricades came ready to
fight with the PFP. I'm saying that even had they not been there, the
state would have made sure that "someone" on the side of the
protestors threw the first stone. It's an age-old strategy for
justifying repression that, in the case of Oaxaca, had been in the
works for sometime...all they needed was a justification.

2) One of the remarkable things about the movement in Oaxaca is how it
somehow created a space for anyone and everyone. It has been a huge
strength and a huge weakness. The fact that Stalinists and anarchists
and perredistas and housewives and indigenous authorities and
schoolteachers and taxi drivers all found an expression in the same
movement is, to me, remarkable. Not everyone who has participated in
this movement has considered themselves part of the APPO. I can't
count the number of times I've had conversations with people in Oaxaca
who have said, "I'm not APPO, but I support the people, and that's why
I'm out in the streets." I've gotten the sense that a lot of people
think that "being APPO" means going to the assemblies or belonging to
an organization. Lots of folks haven't participated at that level, but
they have guarded barricades, fed plantonistas, participated in
marches, etc.

And more recently, the APPO became a space where street kids found an
expression as well. Street kids who don't see themselves as having
much of a future. Some of them are probably not too worried about
dying. And for sure they ALL hate the police, after years of being
kicked around by them. I'm guessing most of them haven't spent a alot
of time studying academic texts about social movement history or the
different definitions of non-violence, etc. But those kids were the
only ones with the guts to guard the last barricade between Radio
Universidad and several thousand federal police and plain-clothed
paramilitaries. So they found a space in the movement. And the "APPO
couldn't control them." The APPO has never "controlled" anyone.

3) Anyone who was in the streets on Nov 25th knows that what went
down, at least in the first moments of the confrontation, couldn't
really be defined as auto-defensa (self-defense). But in six months of
conflict, it was one of the only times where that was the case. The
use of rocks, bottle rockets, molotov cocktails, etc. has almost
always been in the context of self-defense. Now, a lot of folks who
subscribe to a Ghandian idea of non-violence don't really get the idea
of self-defense in the context of social movements. I suppose the idea
is that, when paramilitaries start shooting at your barricade, you
should lie down in the street and sing kumbaya.

I believe that non-violent movements, like the civil-rights movement
in the US and India's independence movement, had the impact they did,
in part, because of the role the media played. In those moments, the
whole world saw thousands of dignified, non-violent people being
attacked. And the world empathized with them and rejected the violence
being used against them. When was the last time you saw a non-violent
social movement depicted on the evening news? For those of you who
watched the news coverage of Seattle rejecting the presence of the
World Trade Organization, in 1999, how many of you saw 80,000 people
put their bodies on the line, non-violently, before a brutal police
attack? And how many of you saw the same image played over and over of
some kids breaking windows? The media has changed the way it depicts
social movements. Period.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is listening, does it make a
sound? If the police break the skull of a campesino and no one is
watching, does it make a difference that the campesino praticed
non-violence? Communities in Mexico, especially rural communities, get
that. They understand that if the federal police or army enter their
community at dawn to beat the shit out of people, rape women, raid
homes, etc. they are screwed whether they lay down in the streets and
sing kumbaya or pick up a rock and fight back. And they also know
that, regardless of how they respond to the police violence, if the
media is there, they will paint the community members as violent
criminals and the police / army as protectors of the peace. (any
doubts about that, pick up a copy of the video Romper el Cerco about
last May's police attack in San Salvador Atenco).

Mexican communities, in general, also have a real clear understanding
of the difference between self-defense and armed uprising. They are
not the same thing AT ALL. Armed groups have been threatening to join
the fray in Oaxaca for months, and the APPO has been real clear about
it's position on that, telling the armed groups to keep a lid on it
and not screw things up.

So in the context of Oaxaca, for the movement to claim it is
non-violent makes sense in the context of self-defense. Images of
people guarding barricades with sticks and bottle rockets appear
violent, until you put them in the context of who is on the other side
of the barricade and the kinds of weapons THEY have; until you put
them in the context of who has died in the last six months of conflict
in Oaxaca.

So, while Nov 25th might not be an example of self-defense, for those
of you who have been saying that the APPO has practiced violence all
along and never should have called itself a non-violent movement, you
are making those statements outside of a local context, and it doesn't

4) So back to the confrontation on Nov 25th. This wasn't really a case
of self-defense. Some folks arrived with the tools of self-defense,
but with the intention of using them to start a fight. Does that make
the social movement in Oaxaca a violent one? Maybe the question people
should be asking themselves is not - is the APPO violent, but instead
- what went wrong on Nov 25th.

A few days after the PFP arrived in town, several marches converged in
the center of town to establish a planton in Santo Domingo. There was
no confrontation between police and marchers. A few days later, quite
a large number of people (estimates ranging between 30,000 and
500,000) walked straight into the center of town and there was no
confrontation. In both of those marches there were people who were mad
enough about the presence of the PFP that they wanted to go straight
to the zocalo and have it out right there and then. But it didn't
happen. It didn't happen because, from what I saw, the marches were
damn well organized. Big teacher-types, with arms linked, placed
themselves between marchers and police. People who acted aggressively
were immediately removed from the march. In my opinion, leading that
many people to within two blocks of several thousand federal police,
without any confrontation, is a remarkable act of organization

So why didn't it happen that way on Nov 25th? Knowing that the state
was itching for an excuse to smackdown on the movement, was it
tactically a good idea to try and create a human chain around the PFP?
Having seen what happened on Nov 20th (a smaller, "lite" version of
what happened on Nov 25th), was it a good idea to go ahead with the
plans for Nov 25th? I don't know the answer to that, and furthermore,
I think our role as foreigners isn't really to judge the tactical
decisions of a social movement operating in a context that's real
different from that in which most of us live.

I do know that saturday's march and human chain action lacked
organization. Once the human chain was established there was a notable
absence of people at each entrance to the zocalo who could monitor
aggressive behavior. When young fellas rolled their grocery cart full
of rocks and molotovs up to the police lines, there was no one there
to pull them back, or to put themselves betweewn the rock throwers and
the police.

Maybe the march lacked organization because of the absence of a large
number of teachers. Despite all the contradictions and weaknesses of
the teachers' movement in Oaxaca, one thing they know how to do is
push their luck with the police without entering into an actual
confrontation. They've learned over 26 years that powerful actions
have to be carried out very carefully in order to have an impact
without bringing down the wrath of the state on everyone involved.

Maybe the march lacked organization or tactical foresight because the
state's plan was working: wear people out with a constant presence of
federal police and paramilitary action; divide teachers from the rest
of the movement so as to paint everyone else as "ultras" or
"radicals;" push people to a point of desperation by carrying out
daily disappearances of friends and family members; get the PFP worked
into a real frenzy with four weeks of standing in the sun being
insulted by passersby.

Whatever the reason for Saturday's apparent lack of organization
and/or tactics, I think it has a lot more to do with that, and very
little to do with the question of whether or not the movement in
Oaxaca fits into some historic notion of non-violence. And the
conversations I have heard, amongst movement participants, since
Saturday, have had to do with that question (where did we go wrong
organizationally) and not with the question of who threw the first
stone, nor how to define non-violence. It was a big topic of
conversation at the two-day indigenous forum this past week.

5) Finally, the truth is... if the PFP had really only wanted to
control a few hot-headed kids with rocks and molotovs, they could have
done it easily, without carrying out a massive repression against the
people of Oaxaca. They have the tanks, shields, gas, guns, etc. What
the PFP wanted to do (in collaboration with local PRI elements and
local police, cause they were there, with guns, shooting at people
too, saw it with my own eyes) was carry out a wide-scale repression
that would send the movement into the mode it's in now...waiting to
see what Calderon and Acuña do, and in the meantime, hiding out.

And counting on their friends in the mainstream media, just as they
did in Atenco, the feds and state know that, even if Ulises´departure
has already been negotiated, he can now leave without creating the
appearance that the APPO and the teachers won. As far as mainstream
public opinion is concerned, the APPO has been defeated.

So let´s get back to focusing on what´s happening right now. Massive
human rights violations, both in Oaxaca, and in the prisons of Nayarit
and Tamaulipas, and no amount of rock-throwing or tactical error
justifies that. I believe this current situation would have unfolded
as it has whether or not a few kids from the barricades threw the
first stone; whether or not the APPO fits your text-book definition of
non-violence. The state had a plan for Oaxaca and didn't just
spontaneously decide to smackdown on a massive scale cause a few
youngsters got out of hand. Maybe rather than placing judgement on the
movement from afar, one should be asking what can be learned from
Oaxaca, whether you argree with it or not.

Posted at:

Commentator from the OSAG