This audio gathers the voices of the demonstration on June 29 in the front of the Consulate of Honduras in San Francisco, California, in protest against the military coup that took place the previous day.
This audio gathers the voices of the demonstration on June 29 in the front of the Consulate of Honduras in San Francisco, California, in protest against the military coup that took place the previous day.
by Alejandro Reyes
Published by: Ciepac
The United States is going through a very particular historic moment. On one hand, the war in Iraq has turned into a genocidal chaos with no end in sight. Corruption scandals have shaken the public’s trust in the government and the system. The real estate market suffered a precipitous collapse that resulted in many people losing their homes and many more going bankrupt, and that announced the beginning of the worst financial crisis since the 1920s and a fracture of the global capitalist system. At the same time, nearly seven years of “homeland security” policies have led to an alarming reduction of civil liberties and the institutionalization of torture. The crisis and fear led to increasingly virulent anti-immigrant postures and to an unprecedented militarization of the border. In this context, the election of Barak Obama as the new Democrat president of the United States was received with skepticism by many people whose reality remains practically invisible, despite the fact that they have undoubtedly been the most affected-the poor and “people of color,” racial minorities that, more often than not, are not a minority.
Life in the poorest neighborhoods of the U.S. is extremely difficult and tends to get worse. Such is the case with South Central Los Angeles, today a mostly Latino neighborhood. It was here that one of the most important rebellions in the United States took place in 1992, when the police officers who had brutally beat Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, were acquitted by an almost all-white jury. The rebellion was the people’s desperate response to police violence, but also to a situation that at the time seemed untenable and which has only gotten worse: high unemployment levels, increasingly lower salaries, overcrowding, scarcity of housing and expensive rents, racial segregation, gangs, drug addiction, a disastrous educational system, abysmal health services, high obesity and malnutrition rates due to the lack of healthy food sources.
But it was precisely in this neighborhood that, during more than 14 years, flourished the most important urban garden in the U.S.: 14 acres cultivated by over 300 poor, mostly Latino families. South Central Farm was not only a creative alternative for economic self-sustainability, but also a source of high-quality foodstuffs at affordable prices. In addition, the farmers preserved ancient farming traditions, knowledge of traditional medicine, and ancestral seeds. The farm was a place for conviviality away from the violence, drugs, gangs, and racism, a refuge where children could play without fear, where traditional celebrations and ceremonies took place. Many of the farmers were members of the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign.
But a complex mesh of political and economic interests led the government of Antonio Villaraigosa-a Latino and a Democrat-to destroy the farm in June 2006, despite the formation of a broad social movement in its defense. This organic solution to the health, food, education, drugs, and crime problems of the community meant nothing to the politicians and entrepreneurs eager to profit from the land when a new freight train corridor made the price of real estate skyrocket. Today, a small group of farmers continues organizing and preserving the dream of the farm in lands outside the city.
The farm was destroyed in order to build a warehouse for the clothing company Forever 21. This is one of the businesses combated by the Garment Worker Center (GWC), which accuses it of violating workers’ rights of its employees, most of them immigrants. The GWC, an independent, community-based, horizontally-driven organization, operates in downtown Los Angeles, at the heart of the thriving clothing industry. Although much has been said about the global maquiladora industry, which hops from country to country in search of ever cheaper labor, little is talked about the internal sweatshop industry, which takes advantage of the precarious conditions of immigrant workers (fear, ignorance of labor laws, difficulties with the language, harassment for being undocumented, threats, and constant abuse) in order to reduce costs without having to take production offshore. The Garment Worker Center organizes with sweatshop workers to combat these practices, within the context of an increasing criminalization of and hostility toward immigration.
In recent years there has been a significant increase of anti-immigrant legislation. This has resulted in the deportation of over a million immigrants in the last three years-with a deportation rate three times higher than a decade ago. At the same time, it has seriously affected the living conditions of migrants, which facilitates exploitation. But the numbers can hardly speak of the everyday reality of millions of people who now live in a state of constant terror. A reality portrayed by the frighteningly common stories of the children left behind when immigration authorities take their parents away. By the stories of terrified families seeing heavily armed agents enter their homes kicking doors, threatening them with their weapons, handcuffing and dragging away people whose only crime was to work. By the stories of the panic of losing all material possessions and finding oneself deported in some border town without a penny in one’s pocket. By the stories of the months or years of detention, of being forcefully injected anti-psychotic drugs, in violation of international human rights legislations, of manipulated legal proceedings, of abuse and humiliation by immigration authorities. And also by the stories of the hundreds of people who die each year trying to cross an increasingly militarized border.
In this context, collectives like the very Zapatista Tierra y Libertad in Tucson, Arizona, organize from below to resist. Their objective is to combat specific issues, such as the immigration raids that maintain communities in a constant state of fear, but above all to build collective awareness through education and participation in organization. Because of that, in addition to an informational campaign on civil and immigrant rights they develop community self-sustainability projects, “rebel art” workshops, and community educational projects. The point is to create autonomous alternatives from below by communities which no longer believe in solutions from the government or political parties and who decide to take back control of their own lives.
Another interesting organization along those lines is the Kilombo Intergaláctico in Durham, North Carolina. The Kilombo is a social center where communities of color, migrants, workers, and students look for solutions for their everyday lives while connecting themselves to anti-capitalist movements around the world. The Kilombo is inspired by the Zapatista struggle but also by Argentinean piqueteros, the Black Panthers and Young Lords of the United States, and the palenques or quilombos of colonial times in the Americas (communities in resistance of runaway slaves, indigenous people, and mestizos). In Zapatista style, their strategies for organization and struggle are centered on assemblies, encounters, autonomy, territory, knowledge, and communication. The center has educational and sports programs (English, Spanish, literacy, computing, reading workshops, capoeira), a library, rights workshops, a radio project, a community garden, a health clinic, an affordable housing project, and an independent publisher.
One of the most serious problems affecting the poor and people of color communities is gentrification in the name of “progress,” real estate speculation, and commercial interests. It is a process that involves private investors, multinational companies, and local, state and federal politicians, and which results in the systematic displacement of poor populations, distancing them from their sources of income and destroying community ties. Such is the case, among many, of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, which the Paso del Norte Plan intends to destroy in order to build a large shopping center. As the organizers of the resistance (members of the Zapatista’s Other Campaign) explain, the Segundo Barrio is not only the oldest neighborhood in El Paso but, most importantly, a live community with a population of mostly Mexican origin-a veritable survival system that allows that excluded population to resist with its culture, its language, and its economic condition.
In New York, El Barrio, in East Harlem, suffers the same problem. One of the main aggressors currently is the London-based Dawnay, Day Group, which in 2007 bought 47 buildings and which intends to evict the residents for the sake of luxury developments. But the problem is much older than that, and in December 2004 residents of five threatened buildings organized themselves and formed the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which through media campaigns, legal actions, demonstrations, and direct actions struggle against gentrification. After the release of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio decided to join the Other Campaign and adopt Zapatista forms of struggle. In 2006 they organized the “Consulta del Barrio,” a long process whereby community members determined their priorities and strategies for struggle. In October 2007 they organized the First New York Encounter for Humanity and Against Gentrification, with the participation of organizations from all over New York and other cities that struggle against gentrification. In March 2008 the movement launched an International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, with the purpose not only of strengthening the resistance but of joining forces with struggles in other parts of the world.
Another ever present issue in communities of color is police violence and abuse. This past New Year’s Eve the black youth Oscar Grant was detained by a group of BART police at a subway station in Oakland, California. While his friends and a number of people protested desperately, two (white) policemen threw him face down on the ground. One of them immobilized him with a knee on the youth’s neck, while the other one withdrew his gun and shot him in the back, murdering him. The incident became public because of the many witnesses present and because it was captured on video on two cell phones, resulting in violent demonstrations. But police brutality and racism against communities of color is the norm throughout the country. As a response, CopWatch organizations have been created in many cities. Their members patrol the cities with video cameras, alert residents of checkpoints and raids, and organize community self-defense. In Los Angeles, CopWatch L.A., with Zapatista inspiration as well as other autonomist movements, is part of a much broader community autonomy project called Revolutionary Autonomous Communities (RAC), which includes community gardens, nurseries, and other collective projects.
Police violence is accompanied by legal mechanisms that tend to criminalize youth. For example, gang injunction laws forbid members of certain gangs to get together in certain geographical areas. But the ways in which authorities determine who is a gang member are very haphazard, which results in many youths, gang members or not, being criminalized for things as simple as getting together with friends in public, riding a bicycle, wearing clothes of certain colors, or using a cellular phone. The stories of abusive repression of youth of color are plentiful. In New York, a black 16-year-old has already been in jail several times-for passing from one subway car to another, for not signing up when entering a housing project.
These are the youths who supposedly have civil rights. But undocumented migrants cannot even aspire to that much. “Illegal” immigration has been severely criminalized in the last several years, so that today the “crime” of immigration results not only in deportation, but in detention for periods that can last years. In September 2008 the largest immigration raid took place in Postville, Iowa. Three hundred people were arrested, accused not only of illegal entry into the country, but of identity theft, a Class C felony with long prison sentences. The accusation was likely to have been dismissed in court, but pressures and threats, together with fear, ignorance of the laws, and unavailability of legal counsel led most of those detained to declare themselves guilty in exchange for supposedly shorter sentences of up to two years in prison.
But, why this criminalization? Part of the answer is found in the post-9/11 shift toward “homeland security” policies. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was part of Justice Department, was dismantled in March 2003, with most its functions transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), now under the Department of Homeland Security. With a budget of almost 6 billion dollars, ICE’s scope has been redefined to include the fight against terrorism and national security threats, a function that has been significantly played up in ICE rhetoric. However, the minute number of terrorists and “national security threats” detained (114 out of 814,073 between 2004 and 2007) is obviously insufficient to justify either the budget or the hardline rhetoric. The answer, therefore, is to present migrant workers as criminals capable of threatening national security.
But perhaps a more important factor is the privatization of prisons, in what has come to be termed the “prison industrial complex,” a multi-billion dollar industry that obviously needs “clients.” The United States has the largest prison population per capita in the world. The privatization of prisons not only results in direct profits from state funds. Much more lucrative is prison slave labor, permitted under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Prisoners, who for US capitalism are “social surplus,” represent a formidable source of cheap labor. Today, many companies use the labor of prisoners who are paid approximately 25 cents per hour.
What all of this shows is a complex mechanism to “reuse” millions of people who no longer have a place in the system. In this context, autonomist struggles play a fundamental role. To many people, the system is so complex and perverse that there is no way to change it from above. The reforms undertaken by the Barak Obama administration do not intend, nor would they be capable if they did, of restructuring the system in its foundation. For communities at the very bottom of the social scale, the only viable alternative is community and autonomous organization and the creation of networks of resistance with struggles in other parts of the country and the world.
(*) NOTE: The author is a writer and alternative journalist, member of the Radio Zapatista collective and a doctoral candidate of Latin American literature.
Interview to John Gibler, independent journalist, on the situation in Oaxaca, an update on the case of the murder of Brad Will, drug traffic and militarization in Mexican society.
This article is only available in Spanish.
by Alejandro Reyes
On a large patio of a community in the sierra of Guerrero, surrounded by mountains and forests, stand hundreds of peasants with their weapons held high. Among them there are many youth and quite a few elders. Their weapons are very simple, their equipment, precarious. It is the Community Police, one of the most important projects of indigenous autonomy in Mexico, which, on October 14 and 15, 2008, celebrated their 13th anniversary in this town of Tilapa, municipality of Malinaltepec accompanied by commissioners and representatives of the Regional Coordination of Community Authorities (CRAC) and several dozen visitors: activists, researchers, members of alternative media, and organizations in solidarity.
Thirteen years after its foundation, the Community Police, which together with the justice system represented by the CRAC is one of the most important experiences in indigenous autonomy in Mexico, has every reason to celebrate. The insecurity and violence that in the 80s and 90s devastated the region is today under control. But more importantly, there is now a widespread awareness that the communities can solve their own problems without waiting for answers to come from the outside.
The sierra of Guerrero has a long history of rebellion. It is the land of the guerrilla movements of Genaro Vázquez and Lucio Cabañas and of a long tradition of indigenous and peasant organization. It is also the land of one of the most brutal repression campaigns in modern Mexico. The counterinsurgent violence of the 70s created a deep social instability which led to an uncontrollable situation of insecurity: assaults, robbery, rape, murder. In the face of this violence, the despair of the inhabitants met only with indifference on the part of the authorities, or outright complicity with the delinquents.
As a response to this situation, on October 15, 1995, the communities decided to create the Community Police, composed of voluntary members who serve their people without any remuneration. Today, there are over 800 policemen from 73 communities, and insecurity has diminished over 90 percent. Father Mario Hernández Campos, who participated in this experience since its beginnings, described the process:
“Given the violence and insecurity we lived, our communities responded assuming a role we had never assumed: that of being subjects. Becoming aware that the solution doesn’t come from the outside. But in order to get there we had to do a lot of work, we had to hold many assemblies y many communities. How many of you participated in brigades, going from town to town. How many participated in those meetings that went on till 3, 4 in the morning… How many women making tortillas, cooking beans, how many men carrying firewood, how many neighbors supporting us. Thus we started to learn that we are subjects and that we are responsible for the solutions we look for.”
This awareness also explains the fact that the Community Police was not conceived in isolation, but as part of a much broader project which aims at resolving the communities’ most pressing problems: communication, education, justice. These efforts resulted in some important victories. The demands of the communities led to the construction, albeit defective, of the Tlapa-Marquelia road four years ago (the signs that boast the kindness of the government that “does provide” are intact; the road is destroyed). Very significantly, on October 12 last year was inaugurated the Intercultural University of the Peoples of the South (Unisur), an autonomous university which aims at preparing intellectuals with deep ties to the communities, and which today has four campuses: Santa Cruz del Rincón, Cuajinicuilapa, Xochistlahuaca, and Xalitla. And during the event this October 15, the community radio that has been transmitting for two months from the community of Espino Blanco, was formally baptized “The voice of the people.”
During the first years of its existence, the Community Police detained the delinquents and handed them over to the authorities. But Cirino Plácido, one of the founders, explains that the corruption of government institutions meant that a few days later the delinquents would be free. “Insecurity is a great business for the State,” he says. “The policeman wants money, the lawyer wants money, the judge wants money.” This reality led to the decision to create, in 1998, the Regional Coordination of Community Authorities, which is in charge of administering justice. It is this body which receives complaints, analyzes denunciations, emits arrest orders, and presents the detainees to the community assemblies, where, according to traditional custom, it is the people who decide on the punishment.
This punishment is neither fines nor jail, but what they call reeducation. This consists of community service such as paving roads, building infrastructure or anything else that the community might need. An important aspect of this reeducation process are the talks given by the elder council, which gathers regularly upon the commissioner’s request. These talks help the detainee to become aware of his or her errors. As in the case of the sentencing, the liberation takes place in an assembly, where the community commits itself not to treat him or her as a criminal, but as a member of the community in the process of reeducation. In other words, justice is understood as something that directly involves every member of the community.
The government’s response to this experience in community autonomy has been confrontation and criminalization. Over 40 authorities and community policemen have warrants for their arrest for the presumed crimes of illegal detention, usurping functions, and abusing authority. Curiously, what most bothers the government is not the existence of an armed organization outside of official institutions, but the administration of justice according to traditional customs. This opposition reveals the conflict between the “legality” of a system that the communities do not perceive as legitimate, not only because of its corruption, but because it does not reflect their reality, and the legitimacy of an autonomous experience that does not fit in the laws imposed by that system.
According to anthropologist Gillermo Bonfil Batalla, there is not only one Mexico but two: what he calls the “imaginary Mexico” (based on Western civilization) and the “deep Mexico” (based on indigenous civilization). Cirino Plácido says something similar: “They say there’s only one Mexico but that’s not true. There’s the Mexico that’s out there, but you only need to come here to realize there’s another Mexico, the forgotten Mexico.”
Among the murals by Diego Rivera that cover the walls of the National Palace in Mexico City there’s one that all visitors stop to look at. In it we find the image of an indigenous woman (with Frida Kahlo’s face) carrying a dark-skinned, blue-eyed baby on her back. “The first Mexican,” explains the tourist guide. In other words, the product of the encounter between Western civilization and indigenous cultures. An undoubtedly terrible encounter, but which supposedly engendered the great Bronze Race, the mestizo nation for centuries denied, which the Revolution managed to liberate from the shackles of history by recognizing our glorious pre-Hispanic past as a constitutive element of who we are today: a united, homogeneous, mestizo Mexico. But, in to this vision, where do indigenous peoples fit?
In a small, roadside restaurant on the way back from the Guerrero sierra towards Mexico City, in the heart of the Mixteca sierra of Puebla, the radio plays a dramatized version of a short story: an anthropology student from the US travels to Chiapas to study the Tzotzil Indians. Their customs and their life conditions horrify her, and the listener cannot help sympathize with her views: superstition, poverty, poor hygiene, primitivism. But when she decides to name her thesis “The savage condition of Mexican Indians,” Mexican nationalism rears its head in indignation: who does this racist gringa think she is? A rather difficult indignation to reconcile, given the previous conclusion that yes, Indians are primitive. Fortunately, a humble mestizo doctor, who travels from town to town, comes to the rescue. When he politely questions the appropriateness of the title, the student says, “But Indians live outside of civilization!” And the doctor responds, “Yes, that’s true. But that’s not their fault. It’s our fault, all of us.” Moral of the story: indigenous peoples of today are the unfortunate remnants of a destroyed past, and it is the duty of mestizo Mexico to civilize them in order to integrate them to the nation.
Bonfil Batalla proposes that things are not quite that way. He claims that what we have is the clash between two different (Western and indigenous) civilizations, and that Mexico’s history is the history of this conflict: the attempts on the part of the winning civilization to negate and destroy the vanquished one, and the latter’s mechanisms of resistance which have allowed it to survive for over five centuries. The ideology behind the mestizo nation represented by that “first Mexican” in Diego Rivera’s mural is just one more genocidal attempt against indigenous peoples, from which they defend themselves with the centuries-old arsenal of their civilization.
This clash of civilizations and the imposition of one over the other is evident in the experience of the Community Police of Guerrero. In its 13 years of existence, it has managed to accomplish what the state has failed to do anywhere in the country: to control insecurity in a region that was particularly violent. One of the work sessions in Tilapa focused on the national situation of security and justice. In it the participants evaluated where Mexico is today: an unprecedented explosion of insecurity and violence, militarization of the country, a law enforcement and justice system with a severe credibility crisis, a politics of fear manipulated by the media, and the criminalization of social movements. The state has not only failed miserably in the war against insecurity, but its relations with the drug trade and organized crime have become increasingly evident. That being so, it is at least paradoxical that the state, instead of coordinating efforts with this successful organization and promoting its growth in other parts of the country, insists in criminalizing it.
Like the Zapatista communities in rebellion, the experience of the Community Police is clear proof that this other Mexico, the deep, forgotten and ignored Mexico, is a live source of alternatives capable of facing the problems that most affect society. And if the Mexico in power, following its centuries-old tradition of denying that other reality, continues refusing to recognize its vitality and relevance, the Community Police will continue to serve as an inspiration for all of those from below, in Mexico and the world, and proof that it is indeed possible to create alternatives outside the system, learning from these peoples who have been resisting for over five hundred years.
13th Anniversary of the Community Police, Tilapa, Guerrero. (More info)
Lomas del Poleo: Father Bill Morton speaks from El Paso, Texas, about the history of Lomas del Poleo in Ciudad Juárez, the concentration camp-like situation created by millionaire family Zaragoza, the binational economic interests involved, and the most recent aggressions against residents and supporters.
Full interview (20 min) (Descarga aquí)
Short interview (8 min)(Descarga aquí)