Learning from the (r)evolution of a political movement

‘Can you really teach rebellion?’ my friend asked after spotting the cover of the book on my table. ‘Yes, I think you can,’ was my reply.

'Teaching Rebellion'When Eleuterio, Sara, Hugo, Carmelina and other compañeros provide their account of the popular Mexican uprising in Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca, we can learn some valuable lessons for progressive dissent.

The July 2006 police attack on striking teachers in Oaxaca lit the spark for the people’s movement that demanded justice and a civil society. Decades of state government corruption, abuse and devastating poverty inspired the broad uprising. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca – the APPO – came to life and was determined to make change.

A collective of international activists and human rights observers called CASA Chapulin came to work in solidarity with the citizens of Oaxaca in their struggles against a repressive regime and help provide witness to the brutality and killing.

What is extraordinary about Teaching Rebellion is just that. It actually provides a study guide to draw out the learning from the brutal repression of a social and political movement. It brings to the forefront things we know intuitively from our activism. It reminds us the value of things that seem basic but can be easily overlooked.

One crucial question is: what do we call the nonviolent setting up of barricades, taking over of television and radio stations, marches and sit-ins at government buildings? Is it a popular insurrection, a rebellion, an explosion against a despotic governor or the beginning of a historically important social revolution?

The reason this question is so important to me is because it helps me think about what shapes my political actions – not just for one issue or one time – but also for how I want to see our society operate into the future.

Understanding what happened on the streets of Oaxaca in 2006, the historical context, what worked and what didn’t provides us with important insights into fighting repression in our own communities and assisting others in their struggles.

Each year in Oaxaca the teachers took their demands to the street, but in 2006 20 000 teachers went on strike and participated in a sit-in (planton) that attracted a brutal official response. The repression in turn outraged Oaxacan citizens who witnessed the brutality.

The Popular Assembly (APPO) that grew from the repression comprised unionists, students, Indigenous communities and neighbourhood organisations from over three hundred different groups.

All of these groups were targets of the regime when they spoke out against injustice.

The APPO maintained a nonviolent approach to maintaining public safety, food distribution and transport during the six months of the movement’s actions. A newly established security force protected the sit-ins, barricades and marches.

They even boycotted a popular government sponsored commercial festival and replaced it with a ‘people’s festival’ of dance and music.

Taking time to celebrate the value of solidarity and cultural traditions within a state that has almost three quarters of its population living in extreme poverty and sixteen distinct Indigenous ethnic groups was essential for the movement’s cohesion.

These stories of the Indigenous school teachers, human rights workers, medical students, a dancer, senior citizens, journalists, photographers, a radio technician, visual artists, a priest, a maid, a massage therapist, and a nine-year-old boy who feared for his father’s safety when he was arrested, revealed how the repression empowered the citizens to use their skills and voices to fight back.

There was tear gas and a state-sanctioned bloody break-up of the barricades and deadly attacks on the community-run media after the famous ‘Pots and Pans’ march successfully overtook state-controlled broadcasting.

Mega marches that grew to 800,000-strong, boycotts of official activities, sit-ins, barricades, delegations and hunger strikes were all met with paramilitary and police attacks from land and air. Officially, twenty-six Oaxacans and a US journalist were killed, hundreds injured and hundreds more arrested, tortured and ‘disappeared’.

Tonia best articulates one of the important lessons of this uprising:

At first I didn’t sympathize with the striking teachers. On the contrary, I was annoyed with the sit-in in the centre and felt like the teachers just repeated the same thing every year. But everything changed after the brutal repression that the government unleashed against them. It made me put myself in their shoes. I thought about the suffering it caused them – the woman who had a miscarriage, the children who were beaten or fainted because of the gases. If they can do this to a union that big and organised, what can you expect to face if you’re a single citizen or housewife making some demand or expressing your discontent?

And Aurelia:

I work as a maid since I don’t know how to read and write. I’m 50 years old and a widow. I have three children. I had just left work when they arrested me … I didn’t know why … I saw police firing gas at everyone. They grabbed me by my hair and yelled at me to walk. They were shouting all kinds of vulgarities at me. They kicked me. They tied me up. I cried, ‘I just got out of work, I don’t know what you’re talking to me about!’ I could see so many wounded men, covered in blood, groaning… I could see all the women they had thrown in (a red truck) one on top of the other like animals, with their hands and feet tied. They pushed me on top of others and the ones on the bottom cried out. We were taken to prison for twenty-one days … and we never heard anything about the rest of our family… I never went to the marches before but now after what the government has done to me I’ll be there to show my support. I want to fight for the release of the innocent women who are still in prison.

And Padre Aria:

Since many of the leaders who found themselves in the most danger as a result of their participation in the social movement had received their social justice education in our churches, it would have been a great betrayal for the Catholic Church to abandon them during this social struggle… In our country, the word of the priest can have a significant impact… When a woman came to my church to see what we could do about what was happening in the centre, I called the Bishop in the main church … and asked him what he could do to prevent the government repression… Despite the palpable fear and terror of that night, he denied that anything important was happening. I told him that perhaps he was unable to see from all the teargas that must be in his eyes. Still he did nothing to help those suffering from the violent repression that day.

As well as empowerment via betrayal and brutality the Oaxacan uprising emerged because the Indigenous communities had traditional forms of self-government that operated outside the official system.

Children were included in discussions on social justice and the teachers brought their concerns to the streets year after year. A public and inclusive shared conversation kept the people informed and able to see the suffering of others.

The importance of communication and how the media could serve a valuable role to dispel myths and air concerns was understood at a grassroots level.

Personal and political links through unions and human rights activism strengthened the solidarity between supporters in exile or remote Indigenous communities.

There were hard lessons in this people’s uprising. One activist, David, was imprisoned for over a year for his work denouncing the actions of the state government. He believes his refusal to participate in negotiations and elections, because they legitimise state power, put him at in serious conflict with moderate voices in the APPO. David’s commitment to the Indigenous struggle for autonomy had revealed a tension and betrayal within the broader coalition of the APPO.

The last word goes to Leyla:

We made the banner, ‘Cuando una mujer se avanza, no hay hombre que retrocede,’ when a woman advances, no man will be held back. In other words, we all move forward together. We encouraged women to bring out pots, pans and eggs. What a ruckus! … there were so many of us … ‘Compañeras, lets take over the radio!’ We ended up taking over the state television and radio station. … ‘You’re listening to 96.9 Pots and Pans Radio…’

Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca is published by PM Press.

Sharon Callaghan

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thank you for that post Sharon, it is not a movement I am particularly familiar with so it was very informative. That last quote from Leyla has echoes of cacerolazo actions in Argentina in 2001. Great stuff!

  2. Thanks Liz. What struck me reading the accounts of that six months was how useful it had been for there to be a strong union, student, Indigenous and human rights voice already in place. So even when people felt out of their depth in particular actions, for example, taking over the radio stations, they had such a strong collective sense of the need to stop the injustice they could push through and make decisions.
    I particularly like how parts of domestic life and using whatever you have on hand is part of making your voice be heard. It serves to break down that myth that only the ‘experts’ and well resourced can make things happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *