Saturday, November 04, 2006

Autumn in Oaxaca

A surreal experience on Thursday afternoon. Stony Brook University was gorgeously autumnal, trees flaming into bright reds or yellows, with fallen leaves crackling underfoot. The day was sunny, and the campus unusually peaceful. All Souls Day. A time for reflection and meditation. I sat in my office, sipping coffee and trying to work as I listened to a live radio broadcast (via the internet) of all-out war in Oaxaca, as Federal forces attacked the State University with tear gas, small tanks and high-powered water cannons laced with pepper gas. The protesters responded with Molotov cocktails, firework rockets, and large stones. It sounded like Paris in May 1968. I learned that Coca-Cola not only functions as a cold, carbonated beverage but also as a remedy for tear-gassed eyes. Students were throwing bags of shit, oil and other material onto the windshields of the tanks so the drivers couldn’t see. Vehicles were burning. People were getting injured. I went downstairs to the quiet Reference Room and worked at the desk for a while, reading English transcriptions of the radio broadcasts now and then to keep up with the action. I stared at the Stony Brook students working so diligently on their papers, as other students were fighting in the streets. One more bizarre juxtaposition in the new global village.

After six or seven hours of battle, the students, aided by professors and residents of Oaxaca, succeeded in driving back the Federal police. But what were the Federales doing there to begin with? It is against the law in Mexico for police or Federal troops to enter a "Universidad Autonoma" without explicit permission from the Rector. The next day, the government claimed that the troops were only trying to clear the barricades from the street outside the university. (The barricades went back up that same evening.) But an unidentified source within the administration said that the troops had been trying to get the University administration to let them in. Instead, the Rector stood on the front lines with the students so the troops could not advance through the gates, making him a hero to the students, at least for the moment. The government went on to say that there were no winners or losers in the battle, which I took as idiot-politician-speak for “We just got our asses kicked.”

The reason the Federal Police Force attacked the university was because many students and protesters had taken refuge on campus after being driven out of the main plaza in Oaxaca the previous weekend, when President Fox finally sent in troops to "bring peace" to Oaxaca. Also, students were doing the unthinkable - actually broadcasting from Radio Universidad in favor of the protest movement. They let people know where to go, what equipment to bring, how to deal with tear gas, etc. And they broadcast to the entire world. The Federal police wanted to shut them down. It’s the only media left to the protesters. But the attack was an enormous mistake, if you ask me. It made the government look as violent and stupid as everyone suspected. It has emboldened the students and the protesters. Now the conflict has started to spread. Thanks to instant communication in the internet age, at the same time that the students were fighting the troops in the streets of Oaxaca, their compañeros in Mexcio City immediately marched to the administration building of the Federal Police and blocked off major traffic arteries in the area. The Zapatistas sent out an emergency call to their supporters, who responded by blocking roadways in Chiapas and in the north of Mexico. And today I read: Leftists from across Mexico flood Oaxaca, as people in “rickety buses and cars” (a nice, neocolonial observation about the restless natives) head to Oaxaca to march with the students tomorrow. I can only imagine that university students in other parts of Mexico and in the U.S. may begin to respond on their own campuses as well. There were 21 cities in the U.S. last weekend that held protests against the Mexican government over Oaxaca, and that was before the bright idea of attacking the university.

Google Video has an 8-minute video summary of the "Battle of Radio Universidad."

Federal Troops. Water cannons. Anarchist with molotov cocktail. Tank on fire. Man on bicycle watching it all. What's he doing there? And with his pant leg clipped up so neatly.

It’s been almost impossible for me to figure out what’s really going on in Oaxaca the last few weeks. The teachers and protesters reached an agreement with the government, only they didn’t, then they did, then the teacher’s union and the APPO were fighting each other, then classes were going to re-open, only they didn’t very much, and the paramilitary kept killing protesters until they slipped up and shot down a New Yorker covering the situation for IndyMedia, along with two other people. Obviously, since it was the paramilitary who killed an American citizen, it made perfect sense – at least in that unique way of corrupt governments everywhere – to attack the people getting killed by the paramilitary. Let’s take it out on the victims, since they’re obviously causing the poor paramilitary to kill them. So President Fox finally sent in the troops, who drove the protesters out of the main plaza in Oaxaca. The corrupt Governor, whose resignation had been demanded by the protesters and even encouraged by many in the government, now felt justified and refused to quit. Only the protesters didn’t give up, if you can imagine such nerve on the part of the troublemakers. I don’t know where things are going to go from here, but it continues to get interesting.

In related news, Subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatistas, was at the U.S. border on Wednesday as part of the Otra Campaña Tour of Mexico. He spoke to thousands of supporters on the bridge connecting Juarez to El Paso, Texas. The El Paso Times has a video clip and article. The Zapatistas have issued a Call to Action in support of the protesters in Oaxaca. Meanwhile, bad blood continues between the Otra Campaña Left and the Not-So-Left Still-Operating-in-the-Absolutely-Corrupt-Mexican-Political-System PRD. One of the PRD politicians from Chihuahua said that Marcos coming to his city was like Bin Laden being invited to a city in the U.S. No wonder so many leftists in Mexico refused to support Lopez Obrador.

Subcomandante Marcos speaking to supporters on the bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

The U.S. media continues to be a mixed bag in terms of coverage of what’s happening in Oaxaca. Since Bradley Will, the Indy Media reporter from NY, was killed, coverage has increased. Most stories, however, give little or no context to the situation. And many stories really do slant the coverage against the protesters. A good example of this: Many reports in the U.S. said that Will was killed in “crossfire” between protesters and others, implying that the protesters were armed and exchanging gunfire. That’s not true. The video Will was making when he was killed [Warning: it's pretty intense at the end] is now on YouTube, and it clearly shows that only one side was doing all of the shooting. The protesters are armed with rocks. (I've never actually heard of the protesters using armed weapons. Molotov cocktails and fireworks, yes, but never firearms.) Two local officials and two policemen - i.e. typical members of the paramilitary thugs in Mexico - have been arrested for the murder of Bradley Will. In general, the Mexican press focused on the paramilitary involvement from the beginning. U.S. coverage, however, continued to repeat the “crossfire” story for days and days, until it became increasingly clear that they were wrong. Also, stories tend to either downplay the number of people killed – several articles this week have said 5 or 7, when it’s well over a dozen now. Or, they state the number of dead in such a way that it sounds like they may have been killed BY the protesters. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a U.S. news story say clearly: Over a dozen protesters have been killed by paramilitary. No, they usually say the “unrest” is responsible for the death of at least 5 people, or something like that. The “unrest” doesn’t pull the triggers. People pull the triggers. The people who pull the triggers are paramilitary. The people killed are protesters. It’s not that difficult to explain. I’ve only read of one death that was being attributed to the APPO, and even that was never confirmed.

I find it interesting, too, that there’s very little national coverage of the protests now taking place here in the U.S. This is a relatively new development, however, and it IS the week before important mid-term elections. But I think the numbers are only going to increase after the attack on the university, so it will be interesting to see how the coverage goes. There are ongoing protest “camps” in front of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego and in Houston. Twelve people were arrested in the Manhattan protests and five in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Saint Paul! (Been listening too much to that notorious radical who does Prairie Home Companion, I guess.) The few references to the protests I’ve seen say there have been “perhaps” a dozen across the U.S., but I found local news stories for 21 protests. (Do reporters not take the time to do a few Google and Yahoo News searches and count the articles?) Many have been in California, where there are large numbers of Oaxacans. According to one article, there are close to 25,000 living in San Diego. Protests have taken place in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Bernadino, San Deigo, San Jose, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Tucson, Phoenix, Austin, Houston, Lawrence (Kansas!!!), St. Paul, Chicago, Raleigh (North Carolina!!!), Philadelphia, Boston, Cambridge, and New York.

Ironically, one of my least favorite newspapers, the reactionary New York Daily News, actually had a good story by Juan Gonzalez about Bradley Will and the situation in Oaxaca: Camera his weapon vs. injustice. That’s where I found out about his video being on YouTube. Gonzalez says the Oaxaca story: "is one our own national media somehow managed to ignore for five long months. . . . Not since China's Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 had a Third World nation witnessed such a massive and intractable public protest. But you couldn't tell that by watching network news reports in this country or reading the national press. Here was Mexico, our next-door neighbor and one of the world's most populous nations, in the throes of a huge crisis, and the big American media paid no attention."

Don't know about the Tiananmen Square analogy, but it's the first time I've read a U.S. journalist who mentions the lack of coverage.

The New York Times, after playing the “crossfire” game themselves for several days, did come out with a decent article on Will on Wednesday.

If Fox and Calderon were hoping this would all go away, I’m afraid they’re sorely mistaken.


Jeff said...

Very disturbing article and video (Bradley Will). Watching these interviews, you can sense the fear and desperation in these people from Oaxaca, but also their determination and their defiance.

The death of Brad Will was hard to watch. Thanks for putting this up, though, because even when I heard about the clearing of the plaza a while back, I got the impression even from listening to NPR (the only place I heard about it at all) that he was a victim of rebel violence. I hadn't realized that he had been shot by PRI paramilitaries.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for your comments. I wondered about putting his video up, because it is pretty disturbing at the end. Maybe I'll add a note in the text. But I thought it was important.

Watching the interviews was interesting, I thought. It would be interesting to see more.

I'm not surprised about the NPR report. I've found much of the U.S. coverage of Oaxaca AND the Mexican election controversy to be very Neo-colonial in its point of view, especially from the NY Times and the Washington Post. Elitist. White. Liberal self-righteous. Pro-globalization. "The natives are restless" kind of discussion. There are very legitimate criticisms of the protesters. It's a complex situation, with many sides - not just two. But instead of actually digging into the situation and bringing up real criticisms or questions, they simply blur things even more by making it sound like the people protesting are uncivilized barbarians who are probably responsible for killing people, especially an American. The little brown people getting uppity.

I also find it interesting that Bradley Will is getting the kind of coverage he is in his death. Normally, no corporate newspaper would give an Indy Media person the time of day. But get killed in Mexico and suddenly he's "an American journalist." I bet they never would have called him that when he was alive.

cowboyangel said...

I'm sounding bitter and cynical. Sometimes these things get to me.