Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Nineteen: The Oaxaca, Mexico Teachers’ Strike and Subsequent Community Uprising of 2006

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:

Hello everyone,

Three articles sent to the ESJ Ning, which I prefaced with the following summary of one of them:

I thought it appropriate, in view of the situation in Montreal and, in addition, in view of the coming sixth anniversary of the uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, to provide a summary of an article that was written in the heat of the uprising itself.

In his article, “The Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca: A Chronicle of Radical Democracy,”  the author, Gustavo Esteva, outlines a movement for social justice that was sparked by a teachers’ strike in Oaxaca City, a city hundreds of kilometers to the southeast of Mexico City in 2006. The author was not an ivory-tower observer, but a participant in the movement for social justice in Oaxaca. He recounted some of the events up to November 13, 2006—when the movement was still in process.

Given the control of the media by employers, most of those who are concerned with social justice probably are unaware of this movement during those years. Indeed, when reviewing The Manitoba Teacher for 2006 and 2007, I did not see any references to it. I wonder why that was the case. (I include two other articles on the same phenomenon; one of them mentions the awareness of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation of the situation and indeed its recognition of that phenomenon.)

After the fraudulent election of Ulises Ruiz (candidate for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional) as governor of the state of Oaxaca in 2004, many workers and peasants of that state (many of whom are also members of indigenous groups) resisted the evident repressiveness and corruption of his administration.

It was on May 22, 2006 that section 22 (which represented 70,000 teachers for that state and which belonged to the National Education Workers’ Union)) initiated, among other things, a sit-down strike in the plaza (central square) of the capital of Oaxaca to express their dissatisfaction with their wages, with the number of schools in the state and with the lack of free lunches and supplies for students.

The general attitude of the public was either indifference or  hostility (since it inconvenienced in particular parents who then had to find alternative means of caring for their children). On June 14, the governor of the state, Ulises Ruiz, made a tactical error in deciding to bomb the strikers in the plaza with tear-gas from helicopters; some of the tear-gas canisters fell on offices and homes below.

This terrorist act by the governor galvanized the teachers and others to form a movement against Ruiz’ rule in general. The teacher’s union responded to the anger of many Oaxacans over Ruis’ tactics (and corrupt rule) by creating an organization called the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca—APPO). Hundreds of grass roots organizations joined APPO.  An incredible outpouring of support  for APPO (and, undoubtedly, anger against the corrupt Ruis regime) saw at one point about a million Oaxacans participating in a march—about a third of the total population of the state of Oaxaca.

To oppose the propaganda machine of the Ruis government, a group of women took over the state television and radio network through peaceful means and began to broadcast APPO’s version of events. When government forces used police forces to destroy the equipment, the women took over all private tv and radio networks before giving them back—with the exception of one that would provide information to all throughout the state of Oaxaca.

How did APPO deal with the police and military forces? Frederick Engels, well known nineteenth socialist, argued that, when faced with the fire power of modern police and military forces, ethical forces would be key—having the police and military refuse to perform their function. That is in fact what happened. The Oaxaca police force refused to repress the Oaxacans when Ruis ordered them to do so. As a result, Ruiz ordered all police in the city to remain in their barracks, and it was APPO that effectively became the government for the city and for the state. Ruis and fellow bureaucrats held meetings in private, outside the places where they used to meet.  This situation lasted from June until the end of October.

At one point, when armed men in 35 SUVs fired upon the strikers (to scare them and not to kill them), APPO reported the incident through their communication system, and the Oaxacans set up over a thousand barricades to protect various neighbourhoods at night and removed them during the day.

This situation was a result, in part, of a conception of democracy different from the political model typical of capitalist democracies and the corresponding conceptions of the overthrowing of power through the seizure of the political instruments of power (such as control over the military and police forces).

To pressure the federal Senate in Mexico, APPO organized a march from Oaxaca to Mexico City that lasted from September 21 until October 8, when over 5,000 protesters arrived in Mexico City to pressure the Senate to remove Ruiz as governor and appoint an interim governor. On October 29 the Senate finally requested (rather than demanded) that Ruiz resign as governor since, in effect, he no longer commanded the government (APPO in effect did—with the exception of paramilitary forces).

At the federal level as well, however, business leaders pressured President Fox to send in federal troops to solve the problem in Oaxaca.  In the days leading up to late October, federal police and soldiers began to arrive in Oaxaca. On October 27, city police who were still loyal to Ruiz, as well as paramilitary forces, attacked the barricades and killed an American journalist, Brad Will. President Fox used this killing as an excuse to send in federal police (probably equivalent to the RCMP). The result was three dead, many missing, many brutalized and some sequestered by the police to do whatever they wanted with them.

APPO still advocated non-violence, and it succeeded in organizing three marches against the violence of the federal police. Opposition to the police violence also assumed the form of the erection of barricades.

On November 2, when the federal police attacked the university, the Oaxacans repulsed their violence through both peaceful and more violent means (such as slingshots and sticks). Following this victory, it was decided to hold a Constituent Assembly from November 12 to November 14. This move, in effect, meant that the Oaxacan people chose to create their own government independently of the federal and state governments; they were developing a dual power opposed to the power of governments that were either corrupt or who supported big business at the expense of ordinary working people.

On November 5, the largest march in the history of Oaxaca erupted.

By November 13, 1500 Constitutive delegates had reached consensus on a number of issues (such as gender equity)—and had decided that the movement would have to have a decidedly anti-capitalist direction. The delegates approved a charter for APPO, a plan of action and a code of conduct. They also elected 260 delegates as representatives from diverse parts of civil society to coordinate the action plan.

So wrote Gustavo Esteva before the following incident occurred: On November 25, during a mass demonstration that moved to the plaza to take it from federal hands, the federal police and paramilitary forces counterattacked, brutalizing the people through systematic violence and arrests in the following days.

In effect, November 25 saw the end of the mass mobilization of the Oaxacan people.

What lessons can be learned from this situation? In the first place, it is unlikely that an uprising against inequity and social injustice will succeed if it is not coordinated with other movements in other places. The Oaxaca uprising did not lead to mass support from forces that could provide a counterweight to the physical power of the government (the federal and local police).

On the other hand, the use of nonviolent tactics certainly should give one to pause. The lack of violent tactics by APPO is emphasized by Esteva. This tactic worked for as long as it did—because the local police refused to follow orders. Had they followed orders, the nonviolent tactics would have undoubtedly ended in bloodshed (as it indeed did on November 25).

The use of violence or nonviolence as a useful tactic to achieve equity and social justice cannot, therefore, be determined beforehand, and neither should be excluded from consideration. Esteva made the logical and tactical mistake of assuming that nonviolent methods would suffice to empower the people.

At the home front, the draconian measures passed by the Liberal government of Premier Charest in the form of Bill 78 should give those who are interested in equity and social justice pause for thought. The tactics used by some students should certainly be discussed, but just like the use of violence in the case of the Oaxacan uprising, such tactics should be neither condemned beforehand nor seen as appropriate. It depends on circumstances, and an understanding of those circumstances should aid in determining which tactic is to be more appropriate.

The use of the police in Montreal  to arrest students (like the use of police in Toronto in 2010), in addition, should also give those interested in equity and social justice pause for thought. Do the police actually enforce just laws in Canada? Or do they enforce unjust laws? Does the rule of law, in general, express something positive nowadays, or is the rule of law becoming a means by which to crush movements? Why is it that many seem to idealize “the law”—as if it were something sacrosanct? Should not those who are interested in equity and social justice issues ask themselves such questions?

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