Unarmed but Dangerous: Violence and Self-Defense in the Oaxaca Uprising


On May 22, the Oaxaca state Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers went on strike, calling its 70,000 teachers to set up a protest camp in Oaxaca City’s town square, or Zócalo.  Section 22 has been striking annually for 26 years, demanding better pay and a higher education budget for school repairs and supplies.  This year, however, Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) refused to negotiate and instead sent thousands of state police to violently evict the teachers’ camp at dawn on June 14.

The state police attacked the teachers and forced them out of the Zócalo.  Within a few hours, however, the teachers returned, supported by thousands of outraged local residents, to counter-attack the police, drive them out of the city and retake the Zócalo.  Two days later the teachers convoked a march of half a million people and called for Ruiz’s resignation or removal from office.  Around this central demand, Oaxaca’s typically divided left joined together to form the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly (APPO) and organized a civil disobedience uprising that would lay siege to Oaxaca City for months.

The Oaxaca uprising was born of violence.  In the pre-dawn hours of June 14, 2006, more than a thousand state police officers raided a peaceful teachers’ strike, beating sleeping teachers and firing tear gas from helicopters hovering over Oaxaca City’s central Zócalo.  This act of state violence occurred against a backdrop of decades of military and police repression of indigenous people, unions, and social movements of Oaxaca.

In the five months following the attack, teachers, students, unions, human rights organizations, and many others formed the APPO to demand the peaceful removal or resignation of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.  The man behind the June 14 attacks, Ruiz is also responsible for the murder of more than 15 protesters, journalists, and supporters since August 2006.

The first phase of the APPO’s struggle, from June 15 to July 26, involved traditional and nonviolent protest tactics such as marches, boycotts, political graffiti, electoral campaigning for an opposition party, and the continued occupation of the Zócalo.  Students at Oaxaca University took over its radio station and used it to both criticize mainstream media coverage of the struggle and continue to spread the call for Ruiz’ resignation.

Commitment to Peace

The second phase, launched as the “July 25 Offensive,” called for generating “ungovernability” and forcing the Mexican Congress to dissolve the state government in order to oust Ulises Ruiz.  The main tactic of the July 26 Offensive was to set up protest camps (plantones) outside of state government buildings, making it impossible for officials and civil servants to enter the buildings and do their jobs.  The APPO organized these protest camps and shut down the buildings without a single punch thrown or shot fired.  The protesters simply arrived early in the morning and set up camps.

While the Oaxaca rebellion was born on June 14 in response to the initial act of violence by the state on the teacher’s union, it owes its momentum, energy, and strength in equal part to a second act of violence later that same day.

Just hours after the police raid, thousands of outraged local residents from across Oaxaca City and surrounding working-class neighborhoods spontaneously took to the streets, gathering with the displaced teachers just blocks from the Zócalo.  Once together, they did not sit down.  they did not link arms and block the streets  They did not sing or chant and wait for the police to approach.  They attacked.

Armed with rocks and sticks against the riot police’s tear gas grenades, batons, and shields, the teachers’ reinforced ranks surrounded and beat back the police, forcing them out of the Zócalo and out of town.  Between June 14 and October 29 not a single uniformed police officer would be seen patrolling the streets of Oaxaca City.  Not one.

This act of self-defense not only came before the creation of the APPO, it made its creation possible.  Without the teachers’ and local residents’ initial and decisive defeat of the state police, the civil disobedience campaign that has drawn unprecedented grassroots participation and has formed the political  glue that held Oaxaca’s famously embittered left together in the APPO, would not have been possible.  Their victory not only sparked the mega-marches and protest camps, it created the strategic possibility — kicking the police out of town — for such radical and risky civil disobedience action as blockading government buildings and taking over radio and television stations.

The APPO therefore walks an uncommon and frequently misunderstood line: simultaneously calling for the nonviolent ousting of Ruiz while maintaining the right to self-defense.  This nuance has led the APPO into a dynamic of constant tension and danger: calling for nonviolent actions while preparing for defense against violent attacks.

A defining element of the modern state is its claim to hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.  When the public questions the state’s use of violence the state often uses more violence to quell its critics and thus safeguard its claim on legitimacy.  The public then has two choices: begin to break the state’s monopoly on violence by taking up violence themselves in the form of self-defense, or shame the state into repentance through appeals to morality and nonviolent exposures of the State’s illegitimate use of violence.  While these two strategies are often presented as oppositional, the APPO has tried to combine them.  One could argue that self-defense justifies proportional response to violence, and thus that a machine gun attack justifies a machine gun defense.  But the APPO did not go this route.  Its members do not have machine guns, by choice.  Instead of escalating the conflict to an armed struggle, the APPO exercised hard discipline to maintain its tenuously peaceful protest, supported by its commitment to some element of self-defense.

The most poignant expression of the APPO’s commitment to peaceful protest has been the organization of thousands of barricades across Oaxaca City — an explicit response to armed paramilitary attacks on the protesters.  For example, in late August, after a convoy of paramilitaries drove through town attacking protesters and killing Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes (on his first day participating in the APPO protests), one member of APPO’s provisional leadership committee said during a press conference, “We are going to respond with organization, barricades, and night watches.  There is no urban guerilla here, they are trying to provoke us.

Still the APPO has used the threat of violence to force behavior.  In September, and October, for example, the APPO began organizing “mobile brigades” that consisted of crowds of men and women bearing sticks, pipes, and menacing clubs with nails, ordering people to get off buses that they planned to commandeer, or exit government buildings they planned to surround or symbolically close.  On one occasion, an office worker upon exiting a government building shouted to the press: “You don’t call this violence? They are forcing us out! Look at the clubs and pipes in their hands! Is this not threatening?”

Yet while the APPO certainly used threats of violence, the protesters never carried them out.  During one mobile brigade action, for example, a woman refused to get off the bus, shouting at the masked men with clubs that they had no right to impede her free transit.  The men persisted, but the women would have none of it.  After only a few seconds of shouting, the young men backed down, stepped off the bus, and waved it on.

APPO’s is an odd and little-seen strategy; call it a civil disobedience offense.  They have neither employed guerilla tactics such as bombings or assassinations, nor espoused philosophical nonviolence.  It has been - awkwardly and innovatively - in the middle.

Spinning the Struggle

From very early on in the conflict, the Oaxaca state government tried with all its might to paint the APPO as an “urban guerilla” movement controlled by out-of-towners, and thus strip the protesters of their claim that they were using violence in self-defense.  Not even the federal government bought this argument however, issuing statements to the press discounting the state’s assertions that guerilla groups were behind the APPO.  Thus, the ensuing battle for legitimacy played out in the media, which became one of the chief targets of APPO actions, with protesters directly taking over radio and television stations to present their case for self-defense and toppling the government on the air.

The national press corps has filmed and photographed gunmen and death squads, leading to the identification of police and government officials in their ranks.  Yet the state attorney general has defended the paramilitaries, saying that they act in self-defense, not the protesters.

The disparity is brutally clear: protesters have made life hard for many in Oaxaca City, they have scared and inconvenienced many and injured a handful of police officers during clashes.  The state, however, has killed more than 15 and wounded, tortured, disappeared, and imprisoned more than 300 people.  Yet the protesters are still charged with being the violent ones.

The APPO’s civil disobedience offense and constant preparations for self-defense has opened the organization to many dangers: agitators sent in to provoke violent clashes, outbreaks of mob violence, and explosions of built-up rage.  These dangers were evident throughout the first months of struggle.  The APPO constantly warned of agitators and crowds called out — often unnecessarily — to remove suspected agitators.  The danger of boiling rage and mob violence was especially high in relations between protesters and the press.  Members of the APPO felt hurt and betrayed by the local and national press corps, whom they accused of only reporting the government’s version of the events, and especially the government’s description of the APPO as a violent urban guerilla movement.  Protest crowds would shout at reporters, “Tell the truth!”  They would approach reporters and demand to see their press credentials.  Correspondents from the major television networks Televisa and TV Azteca would be herded away from protest events by mobs shouting jokes, insults, and threats.

On one occasion a local reporter was hospitalized and required stitches after being beaten by protesters who thought he was a policeman.  Members of the crowd itself were the ones to hold the attackers back and help get the reporter to the hospital, and within hours the APPO’s provisional leadership committee held a press conference apologizing for the beating and calling on all APPO protesters to respect individual reporters, even thought their employers and directors may have been hostile toward the movement.

The APPO suffered its most serious defeat after the explosion of youth rage on November 25 that led to an impossible battle against federal police in central Oaxaca City.  Losing this battle opened the possibility for massive state repression against the protesters.  The APPO’s recuperation and future success will depend largely on its ability to maintain its self-defense capacity while avoiding explosions of violence.

Expression of Dignity

The APPO’S civil disobedience uprising claims self-defense as an expression of dignity.  The energy that ignited and fueled five months of massive, organized, and creative civil disobedience in Oaxaca was that of a people’s will to fight back and put their lives on the line to stand against being treated like criminals, to stand against the state government’s arrogant and illegitimate use of violence against striking teachers, to stand for the defense of human dignity.

The deep legacy of the Oaxaca uprising and the organizational vehicle that is the APPO will not be the eventual success or failure to oust Ulises Ruiz (a man whom few if any not on his payroll will defend) but in the lived experience of thousands of people who risked their lives to make a stand for nothing more and nothing less than their dignity.  From the children living with their parents in the protest camps to the youth on the front lines of battles with police, the adults working to provide food, support, and guidance to the movement, and the elderly who abandoned their retirement to stand guard through the night at the barricades, several generations in Oaxaca have taken a leap toward self-determination in their everyday lives.  Those lives, and those they come into contact with, will never be the same.