La OkupaChe: Defending an autonomous space

OkupaChe defines itself as an autonomous space for self-organized work, a space for the people, one that is made up of different collectives and individuals.

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There’s a liberated territory on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico – UNAM). It’s called the Che Guevara Auditorium. Known as the Justo Sierra Auditorium half a century ago, its name was changed by students in the 1968 strike, and three decades later, it was taken over in the 1999-2000 student strike. Briefly lost when 2,500 federal militarized police invaded the campus on February 6, 2000, the auditorium was recovered a few months later. Since then, several different groups have taken responsibility for maintaining the space at different times.

The auditorium now named the OkupaChe defines itself as an autonomous space for self-organized work, a space for the people, one that is made up of different collectives and individuals.

Here you can enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal, find something interesting to read in the zine/fanzine library, listen to the latest news on Radio Desobediencia, watch a play put on by the Ollin Company, learn about alternative medicine, debate a socially relevant issue, help paint one of the murals that adorn the walls, grow organic vegetables, take part in an assembly, go to a good concert, or sign up for workshops on free software, dance, drumming, independent media, graphic design, street theater, crafts, or languages, among many other options. Here libertarian and anarchist activities are organized, as well as events in support of the struggles of indigenous peoples, Zapatismo, political prisoners, student struggles and autonomous projects.

What you WON’T find at the OkupaChe is training to be an executive of a transnational company, or an investigative or intelligence officer, or a senator, representative, judge or head of a rotten political party. Here you’ll find education for living in a world that’s reeling, or in other words, the world of today.

The presence of the OkupaChe has long been the worst nightmare of the UNAM authorities, especially former Rector José Narro Robles, who promised to throw out the “thugs” and make the auditorium a “decent” place for people of “high moral and intellectual character” once again. The current Rector, Enrique Luis Graue Wiechers, is following in his footsteps by launching a new offensive to evict those who are now occupying the space. Graue has recently been skewered by EZLN commanders Galeano y Moisés, as a sorry bureaucrat who’s “spent his life trying to be a successful cop.”

Just one example of the high moral character of the two rectors is noted in an article published in the Contralínea magazine last December. They were caught covering up corruption in the university, including “siphoning off money, overpricing, unlicensed operations, and expenditures of millions of pesos with no bids placed or contracts awarded…. in the organization of the 2014 National Olympics.”

The most recent onslaught against the OkupaChe began with the kidnapping and jailing of one of their activists –the artisan and cook Jorge Emilio Esquivel Muñoz, “el Yorch”.  He was snatched off the street at gunpoint on February 24 at 9:45 pm, by 10 or 15 armed plainclothes agents, who never identified themselves as such. They tackled Yorch, beat him and threw him into a white van with no plates, while the woman he was with and other people tried to keep them from taking him away. The illegal detention happened only minutes after Yorch had left an event underway in the Che Guevara Auditorium in support of political prisoners and disappeared people.

okupache-001After a frantic search, he was finally located four hours later in the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the Cuauhtémoc District, where officials planted a backpack on him with 50 bags of crack cocaine, 26 pills of clonazepam and 300 grams of marijuana, and charged him with street sales. He wasn’t presented in public until noon the next day, in violation of his right to due process.

After declaring the facts of his arrest, Yorch was transferred to the federal Attorney General’s Office in Azcapotzalco, where activists demonstrated in his support. His comrades insisted that it was crucial to get the videos recorded by the surveillance cameras, which will show that Jorge was not carrying a backpack or any kind of bag when he was picked up.

Meanwhile, the commercial news media have functioned as mouthpieces for the AG’s Office, as if they’d never heard of “the presumption of innocence.” Several newspapers, like La Razón and Excelsior, parroted the State version of the arrest, not of an “alleged dealer”, but of “a dealer” already found guilty before his trial even began. The main headline in El Financiero was “’El Yorch’ was an ‘activist’, but trafficked in coke and marijuana,” as if his guilt had already been established.

While expressing no concern whatsoever over the police terror displayed in Yorch’s arrest or over a possible forced disappearance, the mainstream media had a field day over the news that the young activists of the squat had set fire to garbage bins, tires, tree branches and a surveillance vehicle as a way of protesting Yorch’s kidnapping.   At the same time, they applauded Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, when he announced his plans to tighten surveillance around the university campus.

Without being held for the constitutionally established 48-hour time period for establishing probable cause or releasing a person, much less for the possible 96-hour period in this type of offense, Yorch was immediately flown to CEFERESO 11, a maximum security prison in Hermosillo, Sonora.

He spent 15 days in the cruel conditions of the Hermosillo prison based on the United States model imported to Mexico, and finally got out on bail on March 9, for lack of evidence or testimonies indicating drug sales. Graue is furious, say the Zapatista commanders, “because the police haven’t done a good job of fabricating guilty parties.” Even so, at a time when the legalization of marijuana in the country is a subject of hot debate, the activist still faces charges of possession of weed and other drugs.

In a press conference held in the Che Guevara Auditorium on March 17, in keeping with a resolution passed by the Assembly of Students and Professors that met last March 12 in the School of Humanities, several members of the OkupaChe denounced Yorch’s arrest and demanded his release. They spoke about the criminalization of the social struggle and the importance of defending the autonomous space.

They recognized that some differences of opinion have surfaced regarding the current situation in the space. Nevertheless, they stressed that the students and professors “agree that there should be no interference by the authorities in the auditorium. And in any case, if it’s necessary to reorganize the work in the Che, it won’t be through a dialogue or agreement with the authorities, but instead with student and social groups.”

okupache-004At the press conference, several repressive acts were condemned, including the climate of harassment experienced after Yorch’s arrest by the activists in the squat, several of whom have been followed or threatened in calls to their cell phones.

The police/legal/media attack on Yorch was followed by an attempt to abduct another comrade, who left the auditorium at 11 pm on the night of March 20, and was walking down Avenida Universidad towards the subway. In a statement not published in the mainstream media, the OkupaChe collective reported: “A yellow sports car with no plates pulled up beside our comrade and stopped. Two men got out, who were nearly six feet tall with military-style haircuts, dressed in white t-shirts and blue jeans.  They knocked him down, beat him and tried to pull him into the car, when a woman saw the skirmish and began to yell, “They’re trying to take him away!” People began to gather around, which caused the aggressors to desist and flee towards the Miguel Ángel de Quevedo subway station”.

And if that woman hadn’t screamed, what would have happened? A forced disappearance? The arrest and imprisonment of yet another OkupaChe activist and further criminalization?

Graue is now building support for an eviction. He insists that he will seek dialogue before requesting military or police intervention, but he has not proposed a dialogue. Even so, he has garnered support from several entities: The UNAM General Council, the Technical Council of the School of Humanities; and the Senate of Mexico, promised by PRD Coordinator Miguel Barbosa Huerta and the President of the Political Coordination Committee Emilio Gamboa Patrón. The Rector has also received support from a group of Law students who have called for a rally outside the Administration Building on Friday, April 1, to push for an eviction. “We believe that (Graue) was right in saying that he is going to exhaust the possibilities for dialogue and that if nothing is achieved, he will resort to public force,” said one of the students.

The criminalization in the news media has extended to other activists who have participated in the OkupaChe recently or in the past, and also to several persons who have never participated. Photos and information published in El Universal, Reforma, La Jornada, Milenio, La Razón, 24-Horas, Radio Fórmula, Excelsior and other media, portray more than a dozen activists as criminals, dope dealers and vandals, who have taken over the “Justo Sierra Auditorium” illegally. In this smear campaign they don’t even question the information put out by the university administration and the Attorney General’s Office.

Most of the photos are the very same ones released in 2013 and 2014, when it was reported that the AG had opened preliminary investigations in the cases of 19 “delinquents.” Half of the people criminalized in the supposed investigations have already been unjustly punished for participating in struggles against the privatization of education. In 2009, one activist spent more than a year in prison for marching for free, public education in the annual October 2 march that commemorates the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. Another spent more than a year in prison, accused of attacks against the public peace in the October 2 march in 2013, even though he was arrested before he ever got to the march. Four other comrades were arrested at the same time under the same charges. Two and a half years later, several of them, charged with a crime declared unconstitutional last February, have to report and sign in every week.

The list of “delinquents” also includes an expert in alternative medicine and a master of theater and dance, who not only puts on stage productions, but also carries his works to the streets and plazas of both urban and rural communities in solidarity with local struggles. And to top it off, the latest version of the list broadcast by Ciro Gomez Leyva on Radio Fórmula, includes the mother of an activist killed four years ago; she is accused of the terrible crime of demanding answers regarding the death of her son.

When liberal journalists like San Juana Martínez express alarm about the threat presented by the OkupaChe to the (non-existent) “rule of law” in México, an image comes to mind of Brozo the clown, tearing out his hair over the same threat supposedly presented by the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land in Atenco one blood-stained day in May of 2006: Oh my God! Look at the way those troublemakers are beating that cop! The rule of law is at stake! What do we do? Just stand by and do nothing? The rule of law! The rule of law! What do we do? What do we do?

Well how about sending thousands of state and federal police to beat, torture and kill righteous campesinos defending their land, you miserable clown. You called for it.  .

The current attacks on the occupied Che Guevara Auditorium are nothing new. In 2008, Rector José Narro stated his intention to evacuate the auditorium, and that year the main tactic consisted of using porros (organized paramilitary gangs) to try to do so. Although most student spaces were defenseless in the face of such violence, the OkupaChe put up resistance several times, including during an attack waged on September 12. The porros didn’t fare too well that day.

okupache-019All during Narro’s regime, however, countless death threats and cases of media defamation were aimed at the squat. On March 3, 2014, a violent attack was instigated by groups seeking to control the auditorium, with the result that three people standing guard were brutally tortured and beaten, with the pretext that they were “dirty drug addicts.”

Eight months later, on November 15, several members of the OkupaChe pointed out four agents sitting in a Sentra, who were taking pictures of the space in an alleged investigation of the theft of a cell phone. The illegal presence on campus of a secretary of the Public Prosecutor, an Investigatory Officer and two forensic experts of the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office, made the activists angry. As the verbal conflict heated up, the investigatory officer Luis Javier Aguiñaga Saavedra fired his pistol at a comrade, wounding him in the thigh. Later the aggressors complained that the shooter had suffered a head wound and that the Sentra was burned.  As many as 500 riot police who arrived illegally to “restore order” were repelled with rocks and bottles by at least 100 youth. The wounded comrade filed charges against Aguiñaga, and as a result has been followed around and threatened by plainclothes agents.

Meanwhile, the collectives making up the OkupaChe have insisted that they will resist a possible eviction and that each attack against them will be met with a response. They say that they will not leave the space of their own accord, and that if the rector is stupid enough to rely on military-police forces to get them out of there, the occupations will multiply. As an important form of resistance, they are simply carrying on with their daily work, organizing more and more events, including a day of international solidarity with Yorch on April 23.

Voices from the OkupaChe

In the face of criminalization, and the danger of being picked up off the street, disappeared, jailed, or shot, what moves the collectives and individuals of the OkupaChe to defend this autonomous space? What do they see as the most important aspect of their work? What do they like most about being there? Here I have a few answers:

  • Well aside from the fact that here in an institution like UNAM, we break with conventionality, I like the freedom and openness that exists here, the diversity of thought and ideas, and the freedom to engage in actions and activities because you really want to or because you have a good idea. What you see as an important struggle can be put into practice here.
  • What I like best about this space, in addition to supporting international struggles, is that a lot of free-thinking people come together here to express their ideas and work individually and also in mutual support with the rest of the community. And to keep on learning, right? There’s so much to learn, so much material, so much information. And to stand in solidarity with other people.

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  • I think occupying these spaces is a way to live with dignity, to keep on doing political work. You choose the way you live. You choose what you want to construct, what you do, what you don’t do – not out of obligation but out of consciousness. The authorities are being displaced. The dining room helps us eat healthy meals without meat. I like to help keep the video library in good shape and broadcast important struggles over Radio Desobediencia every day.
  • Here we are in the kitchen cooking up a vegetarian meal. It’s one of the things I like most, along with the art, theatre and music. I also like to build autonomy, new things, new relationships, ways of relating that aren’t based on individual interests, selfishness and consumerism. We invite you to come here and support us. The campaign against the space is really heavy now. The administration is making a lot of moves against us. But here we are, building another world.
  • About two and a half years ago, I began to come to this space, invited by friends who were working here. It was an alternative way of living and carrying on our everyday lives at a different level than what had been normal for us. Living collectively involves many responsibilities and problems, but in a way, we prefer this to a life that we know was leading us in another direction. That’s why we didn’t want it.
  • I like the fact that this is a place where many people come together to talk, form friendships, build ties, engage in work and projects. I don’t know, but somehow we feel in touch with life, even though sometimes we get depressed and downhearted. We help cheer each other up, because if we’re not together, it’s easier for them to break our spirit. Each person leads his or her individual life, but we work on this collectivity, defending our individualism but working together. I like to be here because it makes me feel good. I like to be with people I care about. I like to do things I want to do.
  • Here we do important stuff like supporting political prisoners and learning about the damage the prison system does to human beings. Today we had a workshop on this, and another one on drugs as a form of social control. They aren’t abstract issues. They’ve got a lot to do with our lives and the dangers we have to deal with.
  • I like the workshops, the one on self-defense, for example. During the past month, people here at the space have been attacked several times, so in this situation we can apply what we’re learning directly. We also have an anarcho-feminist space, where we share our experiences. We live in a macho society, but here in this space lots of people are beginning to break with those patriarchal ways of living and beginning to live without being dominated by machismo and sexism.
  • We have a medicinal vegetable garden here, where we can learn which plants help us to cure ourselves, and which ones can be used to prepare the micro-doses. Several of our comrades have experience in alternative medicine and help us stay healthy and teach other people how to do the same.
  • The thing I like most is sharing experiences with my friends because we’re all really different and this sustains us. We also show our solidarity with other people, or at least we try to. And we’re always looking for alternative ways of living in this reality.
  • For me this space is a seedbed where we give each other feedback as individuals who were unfortunately born into this mechanized, industrialized society. Here we propose new ways of transgressing reality. There are a lot of ways to do it. Each person chooses his or her own. I try to transgress what’s imposed on us. Our reality is violent. It’s oppressive. We transgress it by proposing new ways of relating to each other. For me, that’s what life is. And life is worth struggling for. People’s freedom, as well.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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