October 2, 2006 – Under multicolored tarps, thousands of teachers are asleep on the streets of Oaxaca City, Mexico. Their bodies lie within inches of one another in a sea of blankets, the sleeping figures separated from the pavement with only pieces of cardboard. The sounds of guard shift changes occur every two hours throughout the night. Small hand-held radios hum “Friends, compañeros, its exactly 17 past 1 in the morning on this Friday the 21st of September 2006. Another day of struggle, another day of advancement. At a winners pace.” The radio has become the life blood of this teachers strike turned popular movement in Oaxaca. Not only giving voice to the traditionally voiceless, the radio also serves as an organizing and coordination tool. It is the main communication between the tens of thousands of teachers who began in one encampment on the main square and who are now blockading over 20 government buildings, have exiled the state government from Oaxaca and are creating a democratic alternative.
The state of Oaxaca is 70 percent indigenous and over half the population lives in poverty. The people are not poor in culture or in biodiversity but both of these are being eroded at the hands of corrupt governments. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has ruled the state for eighty years. Comprised of wealthy elites, the current and past governors of Oaxaca have lined their party’s pockets by collaborating with multinational corporations and promoting neoliberal economic policies. This has resulted in the theft of indigenous land, mass migration and the exploitation of resources and labor. Any resistance through social organizing has been met with severe governmental repression. In spite of this, Oaxaca has a strong and courageous history of resistance.
For the past 26 years, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers has been a powerful force working for social justice state-wide. The Mexican constitution demands that all children have the same access to education, and yet today in Oaxaca the average person spends only 5.6 years in school, two years less than the national average. The conditions in the rural schools are extremely poor, with a lack of basic infrastructure. Children often come to school hungry, barefoot and are without desks, books and pencils.
Each year Section 22 has held a statewide strike during which teachers from all over the state descend on Oaxaca City to make their demands for the following school year. They remain camped out in the center square, or Zócalo, until a suitable compromise is reached with the government. Recognizing the role of the media in discrediting the union and spreading disinformation, Section 22 decided to create their own means of communication during the encampment in 2005. A low frequency radio station, Radio Plantón, was created with community support. The station was so popular that after the encampment ended, it continued its diverse community-based programming.
This year, after the demands of Section 22 were not met, 40,000 teachers came to Oaxaca City and began the encampment on May 22nd. At 4:30 a.m. on June 14th while the teachers and their families were sleeping, over 1000 state police raided the encampment, burned the teacher’s belongings, injured 100 people and fired teargas into the crowd from police helicopters. During the attack the teachers resisted with sticks and rocks, reclaiming the square later the same day.
During the attack Radio Plantón was destroyed. In response, within two hours, students at the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez took over the university station, claiming it for the movement. Outraged at the repression, two days later 400,000 people participated in a mega march to show support for the teachers and to call for the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz. A new entity was formed of the 350 organizations that mobilized alongside the teacher strike called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). According to Florentino, a member of the press committee, “APPO does not set out to impose any decisions, what we want is to integrate all the people so that together we can organize and govern the state.” Relying on radio for communication, without leaders and using collective decision making, APPO has advanced daily with announcements of new actions and strategies to force out the current governor. The indigenous people of the region have a long familiarity with this type of organizational structure; many municipalities are still run by the general assemblies under the traditional native customs of usos y costumbres.
On August 1st, a 3000-strong women’s march was held to continue the call for the resignation of the governor. After the march ended in the Zócalo, a contingent of 500 women went to CORTV, a statewide television station with two affiliated radio stations, to ask for some time on the air. “We asked for a space, they said no. Peacefully we demanded time to speak. We have a right to the time, the station had been involved in lying about us. They didn’t want to give us time, they cut off the signal, so we decided to take it over” explained Leila, a founder of the women’s coordination committee of APPO. After taking over the station the woman got the station back on the air. Then they immediately ran footage of the June 14th repression, which had been ignored by the mass media in Mexico and elsewhere. Their station became even more important on August 7th when the Radio Universidad transmitter was destroyed by infiltrators. Channel 9 and the affiliated radio stations became the means employed by APPO to hold discussions, to announce upcoming marches, to provide alerts and to draw support to particular locations.
Numerous acts of repression occurred in August. Arrest warrants were issued for at least 80 movement “leaders,” including members of the teachers union. Four were abducted from the street by unmarked vans, photos in the local news of one, a biologist, indicated he had been severely beaten. In response 20,000 people attended a march against repression with only one days notice. The march was cut short when, half way through the march, plain-clothed government forces began shooting into the crowd, killing José Jimenez Colmenares, a mechanic and the husband of a teacher. In spite of these actions, the movement remains dedicated to non-violent protest and refuses to take up arms.
On August 21st police and government hired guns attacked the transmitter control room for Channel 9 successfully taking it and its two affiliates off the air. A previously created contingency put the movement members in control of 11 radio stations within hours, many of them women from Channel 9. The movement members currently retain control of 4 of the radio, including a new Radio Plantón. Encampments and street blockades have been set up to protect the new stations from attack. One movement member was killed while guarding a radio station bringing the total deaths now to eight.
These acts of repression have not led to the apparent goal of disabling the movement with fear and intimidation. To the contrary, the determination of the people seems stronger and stronger. APPO has attempted to negotiate with the federal government without success but this has not effected their determination either. On September 3rd APPO declared the governor banned from the state. And on September 21st, 5000 teachers began a 13-day march all the way to Mexico City to spread the word about their movement on the way and to start an indefinite encampment in front of the state Senate.
Just as the radio has played such a central role in the creation and maintenance of the popular struggle, we in the international community must use alternative media and the internet to stay informed and act, if we choose to do so, against the repression faced in Oaxaca. APPO has recently called for “international solidarity” and actions at Mexican consulates throughout the world. Former Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruíz García, a long time advocate for the poor and indigenous communities, attended a recent APPO forum and stated in the closing ceremonies, “…it might be that we are standing in two time dimensions, the past and the future. In these days we are living something that we are leaving, and cement is being placed beneath something that doesn’t come automatically but is the result of working together, of our construction.”
(As of today, October 2nd, it is unclear whether the movement of government forces to surround Oaxaca is simply a fear tactic or if it will result in a large scale government attack. Check out the news feed on October 1st, Oaxaca Facing Imminent Attack, for contact information so you can take action and let the government of Mexico know that the world is in fact watching Oaxaca!)
For more photos on the situation check out: www.flickr.com/photos/72025498@N00/
I can be reached at: rochelle (at) riseup.net.
By rochelle gause
October 2, 2006