“a revolution with an absolute minimum of violence”

It’s not ‘news’ – but it should be

by G.S. george.salzman@umb.edu
8-13 October 2006

Today it’s Sunday (8 Oct 2006) in Oaxaca, beautiful clear air, sunny, a morning to enjoy a mole tamale and hot coffee for breakfast. So I walked down the street to the market, Mercado Sanchez Pasques, to get tamales for Nancy and me. The market was teeming, people and dogs moving uncertainly in all directions. I slowly worked my way through the crowd towards the tamale lady’s great aluminum vessel sitting on a glowing brazier. From the towel across the top of the giant pot steam escaped, condensing into the fresh morning air.

A section of the indoor part of the market. Leche & sus derivados, Milk and [products] derived from it. Photo, 2006-10-08, by G.S. No rights reserved.

I had just passed the newspaper stand in the outdoor part of the market. Big black headlines in Noticias [1] said the popular movement had already rejected the federal government’s Thursday ‘offer’. It was almost a foregone conclusion that APPO (the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca) could not accept that so-called offer. For now, hopefully, there will be only continuing threats (primarily by the state government) and continuing so-called negotiations, but with no large-scale violence. Talk is infinitely preferable to armed attack, though it’s not what the corporate media is lusting after.

Revolution without violence. An idea whose time is trying to come.

Soon after visiting Oaxaca for the first time, in 1996, I wrote, referring to the two major essays on my website,[2] “I have no doubt that the ideas expressed in these essays are absolutely crucial for the social revolution so many of us are striving to achieve (as the massive actions against the World Trade Organization in Seattle a few short weeks ago make clear). If these ideas prevail, it will be a revolution with an absolute minimum of violence.” (emphasis added)

      The real news of the current struggle in Oaxaca is precisely the news that the governments — Oaxaca State, Mexican Federal, U.S. and Canadian — and the overwhelming part of the corporate media — TV, radio, newspapers and news magazines — are doing their utmost to ignore, hide and distort. In addition, they simply tell outright lies about what is happening.

      The real news consists of two salient facts: 1) the popular movement, which developed immediately following the attack on the striking education workers on 14 June 2006 has become a vast coalition of many different groups within Oaxacan society; and 2), which may be even more significant, nearly all adherent groups are strongly committed to a non-violent struggle based on militant civil disobedience.[3] Of course, civil disobedience means ‘breaking the law’, as the perpetrators of the deadly ‘law ‘n order’ regime of the state governor and of the federal government are claiming while they prepare to crush the rebellion by military and para-military attacks.[4] They are itching to launch a ‘real clean-up operation’, a ‘clean sweep’ throughout the state of all ‘subversives’ who adhere to and support Section 22 of the Education Workers Union and/or APPO.

      The state’s thus far small scale clandestine ‘dirty war’ began as a regular modus operandi right after the destruction by state operatives of the APPO-occupied powerful state TV and FM transmission facilities atop Fortin Hill, and APPO’s immediate reaction later the same day in occupying and broadcasting from various commercial stations, both actions that occurred on 21 August 2006. In what was clearly an attempt to terrorize and intimidate APPO adherents who were providing security for the occupied radio stations, armed state agents carried out drive-by shootings, and some beatings and kidnappings. After a few weeks, during which the APPO participants became more and more outraged and determined to persist, and the bad press that the government got, including condemnations of human rights abuses leveled by international agencies such as Amnesty International, the State government eased off, apparently on instructions from the Federal government.

The current phase (IV) of the struggle

In a previous paper [3] I described the first three to three-and-a-half months of the struggle in terms of three somewhat arbitrary phases:
Phase I, from 15 May 2006, the start of the education workers’ strike,
Phase II, from 14 June, when the state attacked the strikers’ encampment, and
Phase III, from 1 Aug, when APPO women seized the state TV and radio stations.

      With the early morning destruction of the occupied state TV and FM transmission facilities on Fortin Hill by armed state agents on 21 Aug, a somewhat different situation emerged. For convenience, and again rather arbitrarily, I will call this period (which is still ongoing) a fourth phase of the struggle. By now it is only a week shy of having lasted two full months. Its principal characteristics have been (1) a continuation of the extremely low rate of known fatalities caused by the conflict, probably not more than about 6 by now,[5] (2) an intense propaganda war in which, despite the overwhelming control of media by governments and their corporate allies, much of the truth of the conflict is finding its way abroad, (3) seemingly endless ‘negotiating’ sessions between the government and the movement over issues that are, at base, non-negotiable, (4) a barrage of governmental declarations alternating between promises not to use force and threats to use force (including troop deployments and military helicopter fly-overs), with the expected psychological roller-coaster effect on the population, and (5) continuing and deepening economic deprivation within the state.

Understanding the current situation,
a rock-solid point of departure.

I believe there can be no doubt whatsoever that if the ruling allied political and economic forces in Mexico had been confident that they could have launched a successful attack to crush the Oaxaca revolt, they would have done so without a moment’s hesitation. From this fact (I take it to be a fact, for reasons I will give below), it follows that since there has not been a full-scale assault (other than Ruiz’s abortive 14 June attack by state forces), the ‘big boys’ in Mexico City have been, up until now, fearful that a military-type attack, likely with much death and destruction, might backfire, fearful that they might lose even the seemingly tenuous control they still hold.

      They’re fully aware that everyone is convinced Felipe Calderon’s so-called electoral victory was a fraud, and they themselves know it was – they know that André Manuel López Obredor (AMLO) was the real winner. We can be certain that the unresolved presidential contest adds to the hesitancy of the PAN/PRI [6] coalition to act decisively against the Oaxacan rebellion. Everyone knows that the entire national superstructure is slithering in the deep muck of corruption. Only at the base of the society can honesty and principled adherence to the real need for a just and equitable society be found. So much for the certainties.

Why can the real news not be told? At the core of the struggle – the truth that must be hidden

If the true nature of the current rebellion were widely known, not just in Mexico but in all of North America, there would be no justification for crushing it that could find popular acceptance. The simple fact is that for almost 80 years Oaxaca has been run by the PRI, which has been ruthless in its control, imposing dire poverty on the majority of the population in order that an elite group enjoy extreme wealth and power. This grossly unjust state regime was closely allied with the equally ruthless power structure in Mexico City, and with major financial interests in foreign countries.

      Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz, the focus of so much hatred, is only an ephemeral tip of the entire Oaxaca ruling infrastructure. A human being as devoid of vision as he is of compassion, he is useless in the power struggle of his former PRI co-rulers, now aligned with the PAN against the PRD, except as a bargaining chip to divert attention away from the more fundamental demands of the popular movement, and for jockeying between the government and the popular movement. The first lightning bolt struck him, “¡Ulises ya cayó!, ¡ya cayó!, ¡ya cayó! (literally, already fell!, colloquially, is out!) screamed, and still screams endlessly from thousands of throats. Seen as a hated tyrant, he was the obvious initial target.

      But individuals are always expendable if the ruling structure remains intact. Simply getting rid of Ulises, by itself, would no more effect significant change in the government of Oaxaca than getting rid of George W. Bush, by itself, would make any meaningful change in the American ruling infrastructure. As I wrote in early July, of far greater impact on society, if it can be achieved, would be the demand made early on “to replace the long-standing political government by a Popular Assembly with no political parties” . . . “The swelling support for the movement to oust Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) and to change the form of government of Oaxaca state has emboldened the participants to insist on this truly revolutionary change at the state level.” [7] Such a development would be a nightmare for the entire capitalist system, potentially threatening its continued existence, as I now argue.

Autonomous self-government, a threat to capitalism.

This is the crux of the conflict. In today’s world, the capitalist system dominates life universally. It rests upon its ability to exploit both natural resources (forests, wind, water, etc.) and people for the material profit and power of the ruling sectors of society. It is rapidly destroying the biosphere, on which all life depends, and the lives of millions, or even billions, of people. Everyone knows this. Only the details can be quibbled about. The destruction is manifest.

      In calling for an end to hierarchical government in Oaxaca, for its replacement by a system of multiple popular assemblies based on direct face-to-face democracy at the local level, with no political parties, and for a maximum of local autonomy, APPO has challenged the ruling power structure, not simply to reform itself, but to totally give up its power, its control of the entire state. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the majority of wealthy, privileged, powerful beneficiaries of this abysmally unjust system cannot even begin to accept losing their special status. They’ll fight like hell to prevent it from happening.

The contagion of revolt. Dominoes indeed!

It’s not just the privileged Oaxaqueños who are threatened by the demands of APPO for social reorganization. Nor is it just those other Mexicans and foreigners who directly benefit from the exploitation of Oaxacan natural resources and/or cheap Oaxacan labor (e.g. U.S. employers of Oaxacan farm laborers). Everyone whose material wealth is enriched in part by the exploitation of natural resources in other parts of the world and/or by the exploitation of cheap labor stands to be affected, because if the people of Oaxaca can manage to end their own exploitation and that of their land by Mexican and foreign capitalists and corporations, that will serve as an example and an inspiration to other peoples. In fact the struggle here has already caught the imagination of many Mexicans and even foreigners, to the extent that the real news about this struggle has gone beyond the borders of Mexico.

      Naturally, any threat to profits, whether current or future, impending or only hypothetical, is of urgent concern to the entire capitalist system. Think ‘money’. That is the dominant concern. To understand how utterly dominated by money are the minds of the capitalists and those who aspire to be capitalists one has only to recall that wonderfully symbolic act in which Abbie Hoffman, from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange, flung the contents of a large bag full of dollar bills on to the trading floor below and brought the whole operation to a dead halt as the greedy brokers scrambled to the floor to scoop up as many dollars as they could. Totally individualistic, each one avidly seizing for himself whatever he could, no thought for the common good. That’s the controlling value of the anti-civilization misnamed ‘Western Civilization’.

The real challenge is to Western Anti-Civilization, to replace it non-violently by a true civilization

The struggle in Oaxaca is a gamble for the highest stakes. Throughout Latin America the imposition of neo-liberalism during the last several decades has brought increasingly severe polarization between the economically wealthy and the much more numerous – and growing – impoverished classes. As in Bruno Traven’s The Rebellion of the Hanged,[8] as in Chiapas with the largely indigenous Zapatista rebellion, so also in Oaxaca, the “most indigenous” Mexican state, finally, when the oppression became too great to bear any longer, ¡Ya basta! – Enough already! became the cry, the scream, the watchword. Preferable to lose life itself than to continue enduring so degraded an existence.

      The global system of capitalism would not be so threateningly challenged if it were merely the people of Oaxaca – between 3.5 and 4 million – and their land and economy that were largely withdrawn from the capitalist pool of exploited natural resources and peoples. That would be a loss of but a drop in the global bucket. The threat to the bourgeoisie is that the popular movement in Oaxaca is an example of great moral courage by (in this case) a largely indigenous population, shrewdly negotiatiating its own liberation from oppression, in an age of worldwide instant communication, and doing it without threatening bodily harm to a single one of its adversaries. Deservedly, it unquestionably holds the moral high ground, in stark contrast to the despised governor and all the other political toadies who are grasping for ill-gotten pesos and threatening, and eager to use, lethal force. The currency of anti-civilization: money and deadly force.

      The governments are eager to incite a violent response from the education workers and others in APPO, because it would, in many people’s eyes, legitimate a heavy-handed military crackdown to crush the rebellion. The corporate media, along with the entire infrastructure of giant capital, whose prime protectors are the nation states, likewise want the rebellion – until now determinedly non-violent though militant – to ‘lose its cool’ and respond violently to the attacks against it. Within APPO, and perhaps also within Sección 22 of the Education Workers Union, there are some factions that glorify the idea of ‘armed struggle against the repressive state’ and probably some young hotheads who would relish the opportunity to beat up some ‘cops’, without realizing the full consequences of attacking the state forces head-on. Fortunately, thus far the more mature elements within the movement have prevailed, and the calamity of full-scale military repression has, at least until now, been avoided.

      As James Herod correctly wrote in his seminal essay, Getting Free,[9]

   . . .[I]t is impossible to defeat our ruling class by force of arms. The level of firepower currently possessed by all major governments and most minor ones is simply overwhelming. It is bought with the expropriated wealth of billions of people. For any opposition movement to think that it can acquire, maintain, and deploy a similarly vast and sophisticated armament is ludicrous . . . It would take an empire as enormous and rich as capitalism itself is to fight capitalists on their own terms. This is something the working classes of the world will never have, nor should we even want it.
This does not mean though that we should not think strategically, in order to win, and defeat our oppressors. It means that we have to learn how to destroy them without firing a single shot. It means that we have to look to, and invent if necessary, other weapons, other tactics.

Thirsting for blood — the blood of the oppressed

Along with the governments, which want to crush the rebellion and seek, with armed attacks by their agents, to incite armed responses, is the vast phalanx of corporate media owned by the same capitalists and corporations which the governments serve. These media subject us to an endless torrent of lies to persuade people that the education workers, the adherents to APPO and the other popular groups that are demanding change, are a sordid lot of malcontents who are breaking the law and resorting to violence. The purpose of their propaganda is to persuade the population at large that a military crackdown is not only necessary, but desirable.

      Above all else those who own the media are committed absolutely to save the system of giant capitalism on which their highly privileged class depends for its special status. The truth is that the movement’s aim of replacing hierarchical governing structures based on political parties by non-hierarchical popular assemblies — multitudes of them — with maximum local autonomy is a direct threat to the capitalist system. That is the deeper truth, not the hatred of Ulises, that must be hidden. It is the entire value system of México Profundo [10] that is rising, and not just in Mexico but in much of Latin America, to reject capitalism and its entire system of distorted values, values which dictate the supremacy of money over life itself. This is

the truth that threatens to hurt these beneficiaries of giant capitalism. That’s why they are determined to suppress it.

Many people who rely on the mass media for their information about world news will object to my wholesale condemnation of corporate media. They will point out, correctly, that much of what they learn from the media is true. But that does not invalidate my criticism. It is the invariable refusal to provide enough of the whole truth, and to do it in a timely fashion, so that the selected ‘factoids’ they report can be understood in context. It is often possible to state partial truths without anyone in the dominant sectors of society being threatened, and in fact such partial truths, factoids out of context, may benefit them.

      Consider for example the current conflict between the mass movement in Oaxaca and the State and Federal governments. There are repeated government allegations that the rebellion is being supported by armed guerrilla groups. Such dramatic assertions are widely reported by the corporate media, both in Mexico and abroad. The partial truth on which these lies rest is that in Oaxaca State there do exist, I’m quite sure, elements of some armed guerrilla groups — the Popular Revolutionary Army [11] is one that comes to mind. The lie, sometimes explicit, sometimes merely implicit, but endlessly repeated, is that there is a deliberate connection between the civic struggle of APPO and the education workers and armed revolutionary formations. It’s much more gripping to imagine some Che Gueverra style group attacking state agents with deadly weapons than to contemplate a bunch of teachers sitting in an assembly discussing resolutions.

Citizen’s Initiative, Dialogue for peace, democracy and justice in Oaxaca. Photo, 2006-10-12, by G.S. No rights reserved.

      Violent incidents, despite their small number, as reflected by the small number of injuries and the extremely few fatalities in five months, are touted by the media as “armed clashes”. In fact that is seriously misleading, suggesting as it does a facing off of two more or less comparably armed sides. But it is only the government agents, whether uniformed or un-uniformed, who carry firearms. These paid attackers face teachers and other members of civil society who are “armed” at most with poles, bars, and stones, and – occasionally – someone with a machete (a lethal weapon in close combat, but nothing compared to the automatic pistols and semi-automatic weapons of the police and paramilitary).

Peace — or — bloodshed?

I believe no one at this time can accurately predict the outcome of the popular struggle. On the one hand, as I argued above, the potential stakes are very high for the large-scale capitalist sector. On the other hand, a negotiated settlement that leaves the traditional Oaxaca political system basically intact, no matter how many promises are made to introduce “safeguards” for the human and other supposed rights of citizens, will surely mark continuation of the regime of gross economic injustice for the great majority, enforced by assassination, corruption, political imprisonment and torture, with impunity for state agents who perform the oppression. Especially those individuals who are prominent in APPO, in Section 22 of the Education Workers Union, or other allied groups will be at immediate risk for their lives.

      As I walked in the bright sunshine into Sanchez Pasques Market and drank in with my eyes and ears the animated throngs of shoppers and vendors, children playing with little toys, the life of the market, the life of the people, I thought of other markets, of how everyday people pursue our lives as though normalcy, day after day, was what we could expect, other people in Sarajevo, in Beirut, in Baghdad. One can only hope that the confluence of social forces and consciousness in Oaxaca, in Mexico and in the world is such that there won’t be a bloodbath, either large or small, and that a true milagro méxicano, a Mexican miracle, will begin to show the world how to move from an anti-civilization of death to a true civilization of life.


[1] Noticias, the best daily newspaper in Oaxaca City. Its on-line edition, at: noticias-oax.com.mx/index.php, is sometimes a day later than the print edition.

[2] The two essays are linked to in my note, Striking Gold: The genesis of this “strategy for revolution” project, which is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/1996-08-30.htm.

[3] The non-violent struggle. An account of the first 3 and 1/2 months is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-08-29.htm.

[4] On the preparation to crush the rebellion with force, see my translation of the La Jornada report of 7 October 2006, “APPO reveals that Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has already plotted a new repressive operation”, posted at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-10-09.htm.

[5] Extremely low rate of fatalities. This rate, of about 6 in the five months since the strike began, should be gauged against the ‘normal’ rate for Oaxaca State in preceding years, when individual teachers in communities remote from Oaxaca City who were ‘troublesome’ to the local corrupt power structure were subject to assassination by local caciques (strong men) or their hired agents.
      The utter brutality and lack of accountability of the PRI government in Oaxaca (and nationally) is glaringly exemplified in an article with photographs in Noticias on 23 March 2006, p.10A. On 27 July 2004 the white-haired ex-elementary school teacher in Huautla, Serafín García Contreras, 64 years old, was beaten to death by Jacinto Pineda and another man. Pineda was then director of the PRI group, Land Movement, in Huautla. Two pictures show him, one wielding a huge pole against the old man who is on the ground, not yet dead. The second, taken shortly later, shows Pineda, his red shirt heavily spotted with sweat, he continuing to sweat profusely.
      On 22 June 2006 Roberto Madrazo, PRI candidate for the federal presidency campaigned in Huautla. Pineda provided security for Madrazo’s visit there. Also taking part in the Huautla event was “federal deputy Elpidio Concha, principal instigator of the beating against members of the Frente Único Huautleco, to which Serafín belonged.” A third picture shows Pineda, in a clean white shirt. The photo caption says that Pineda hugged Madrazo in front of the former prosecutor, who believes that at the moment, in spite of the photographs, there’s not a basis for prosecution for the assassination.

[6] PAN is the acronym in Spanish of the National Action Party, El Partido Acción Nacional, the right-wing party of president Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. PRI is the acronym in Spanish of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, El Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the right-wing party that ruled Mexico for almost eight decades until the PAN presidential victory in 2000.

[7] The quotes on the demand for a change in the form of state government are from the first paper listed in this note. Other items that either directly touch on this demand or are closely related to it follow the first item.

(1) “At a cusp in human affairs: the struggle for human dignity in Oaxaca, a southern state of Mexico” at
(2) “A few of many strands in the struggle for life with dignity: Palestine and Oaxaca, and now Lebanon, and . . .” at
http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-07-27.htm ,
(3) “Incipient Revolution in Oaxaca” at
http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-08-29.htm ,
(4) “In Oaxaca the Revolution isn’t just schlepping along, it’s in full-tilt” at
(5) “Building a Oaxaca information and solidarity communication network” at
(6) “A general loss of fear, an e-mail to my entire “large” list” at
http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2006-09-11.htm and
(7) “Oaxaca City, a ‘dangerous destination’ – ‘in the grip of anarchy’” at

[8] The Rebellion of the Hanged, La Rebelión de los Colgados, by Bruno Traven, Allison & Busby Ltd., London 1984.

[9] Getting Free: A sketch of an association of democratic, autonomous neighborhoods and how to create it, by James Herod, at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/GetFre/index.htm

[10] México Profundo: Una Civilización Negada, by Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, Grijalbo, Mexico City, 1989. Translated into English as México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, by Philip A. Dennis, Univ of Texas Press, Austin, 1996. I don’t know why ‘rejected’ – negada – was changed to ‘reclaiming’.

[11] The Popular Revolutionary Army, El Ejército Popular Revolucionario (EPR), an armed guerrilla group that appeared in the late night and early morning of 28-29 August 1996 in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Mexico, Chiapas, Tabasco and Guanajuato States. A number of officials were assassinated.

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