Robert Joe Stout
Don’t Think, You’re Hurting the Team
On July 14, 2007 George Salzman reported online in Narco News’ website:
The teachers and the APPO [Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxcaca] have declared their intent to mount a free popular Guelaguetza…Yesterday afternoon I counted seventeen of the state’s police on the plaza at the entrance to the stadium, and many, many more on the road that climbs around the stadium…I am afraid there may be deliberate provocations intended to give the state a pretext to once again try to clamp down on the movement.
Robert Joe Stout’s books are Miss Sally; Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives; Why Immigrants Come to America; Running Out the Hurt; A Perfect Throw; Hidden Dangers; and Where Gringos Don’t Belong.
Commercialized over the past three decades into a huge tourist attraction, the Guelaguetza had drawn thousands of tourists to highly stylized performances of dancers and musicians in an amphitheater overlooking the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In colonial and pre-colonial times a harvest festival during which those who most had prospered shared part of their wealth with the community in which they lived, the guelaguetza lost the sense of mutual sharing and participation that had characterized its origins as speculators and entrepreneurs converted it into a Las Vegas-type event. The state cancelled the 2006 presentation because of violent confrontations between the states teachers' union and its supporters that culminated in a military takeover of the city.
The Oaxaca daily Noticias notified readers that police and military units were guarding the amphitheater to prevent threatened violence. The Popular Assembly reluctantly rescheduled their event to the plaza facing the Basilica La Soledad in the city’s central district. An estimated 10,000 participants and spectators for the Popular Assembly event converged on the plaza that Monday morning.
“The air was full of joy, festivity, defiance,” Indymedia reporters Kelly Lee, James Kautz and Michael GW asserted in an account that appeared online on July 24. “The brass bands struck up a number, the dancers started to dance…[then] the People’s Guelaguetza took to the streets…The march route soon became a river of bodies with people chanting, dancing, singing and playing music.”
The festive march didn’t end at the plaza as it was scheduled. Led by striking teachers and the leaders of the Popular Assembly, an organization that had formed to support them, the marchers detoured towards Fortín hill where the amphitheater was located. The Indymedia reporters asserted:
The police line systematically pushed into the crowd, batons raised, attempting to drive people back down the street. People held up open palms. We are unarmed. We are families, children, old women and men. We are the people of Oaxaca. But the police were charging, batons swinging, striking bodies and cracking heads
As I wedged my way through crowds bumping and stumbling against those who were retreating I could see militarized police surging against an angry throng of screaming cursing demonstrators. Tightly packed groups of Popular Assembly supporters, most of them teenagers, were hurling bottles, rocks and improvised Molotov cocktails from behind two burning city buses; others were dragging battered demonstrators out of the fray. Curdling black smoke darkened the sky above the burning vehicles.
The anger was pervasive, like the tear gas itself. Some demonstrators shouted, “Retreat! Don’t get yourselves killed!” but others shoved rocks and debris against cars to form improvised barricades. The Indymedia reports continued:
A fearless woman stood face to face with the riot police, calling them “murderers” and demanding they leave…An empty Coke truck, burst open and ransacked, sat lonely on an empty side street. As it turned out, Coca-Cola, Inc…supplied the combatants with their [Molotov] cocktails and the street medics with their [anti-tear gas] solutions…
Among the victims was teacher Emeterio Cruz, a forty-three-year-old union activist who was beaten so severely he lost consciousness and initially was reported to have died. I didn’t see police thrashing him (although I saw other protesters stumbling and trying to ward off blows from truncheons, saw teenagers siphoning gas out of parked autos to make Molotov cocktails, saw two middle-aged women, hands wrapped around each other, screeching Basta! Basta! En el nombre de Diós! Basta!).
Unable to get to a place high enough for an overall view of the melee and half-blinded and choking on tear gas I stumbled with others into the partial protection of a doorway. Leg armor clattering and shouting orders, police reinforcements grabbed and shoved men and women into vans and buses. The arrests seemed to be arbitrary: Many of the retreating and more violent protesters continued bursts of rock throwing and epithets while many of those who were being handcuffed and trundled into vehicles were submissive, dazed, unbelieving.
The Popular Assembly listed twelve more apprehensions than the state included in is accounting the following day. Assembly spokespersons told the press that two demonstrators faced life threatening injuries as a result of police beatings. Oaxaca Governor Ulisés Ruiz’s prosecutors charged thirty-four of those being held with damaging public facilities, setting fires, causing injuries, robbery and attacking public communications systems. All thirty-four were released on bail after the original amount set by a judge--$1 million pesos per person—was reduced.
The state held its Las Vegas-style Guelaguetzas the following two Mondays under heavy guard. No one was allowed near the amphitheater during those two weeks, even early morning runners like myself who habitually took advantage that the pathways around the amphitheater to zigzag along the lanes and up the flights of stairs leading to the seldom used facility.
Journalists cover thousands of events during their careers, some eye-popping and emotional, others interminably boring (legislative sessions, city council meetings, chamber of commerce speculations). Once stories are filed most of them slide away (“today’s news, tomorrow’s fish wrap”) but others lurk, unfulfilled obligations, in memory. That day of the intended “People’s Guelaguetza” lurked in mine, primarily because the rage I’d seen expressed, the violent reprisals, the community split into combating forces over what seemed an relatively insignificant dispute about where to hold a public celebration.
Over six months before I’d witnessed a massive police and military sweep of the city’s central district that culminated with hundreds of beatings and arrests and I understood that bottled-up emotions had built up in much of Oaxaca’s citizenry. But during the confrontation just described I’d seen the expressions on the faces of the baton-wielding attackers as well: hatred, viciousness, like killer wolves…
Police and military higher-ups refused to allow any of their participants to talk to the press (or to independent researchers, including academics) but I was able through someone I’d met through someone she knew to talk to a seventeen-year-old Oaxacan who’d been the novia of one of the young soldiers. She told me:
He admitted that he had grabbed people and beaten people. ‘How could you?’ I asked. They were the ‘enemy,’ he told me. Then he said it was like a football game. Like being with the team on the field and all one could think of was winning. Running after opponents. ‘Arrest them!’ ‘Get as many as we can!’ Like being drunk, he said. High on adrenalin.
Having played highschool football I understood, although I don’t remember ever having felt a fury that intense. A desire to win, yes, but not kill. But I’d also been a G.I. and gone through basic training, where the drill instructors pounded “don’t-think-you’re-hurting-the-team” emotional compliance. One sees it in political campaigns, at soccer games, during social protests. A contagious and consuming emotion that provides an outlet for energy, anger, frustrations, hatred.
A short time after talking to the seventeen-year-old I became involved in a neighborhood discussion. Mention of the Popular Assembly brought curses: The teachers were lazy and didn’t want to work, the riffraff that supported them were delinquents, hoodlums, the government should have acted sooner…
Although none of these neighbors had been near Fortín hill the morning of the Guelaguetza demonstration nor had witnessed the brutal sweep of the historical district six months earlier several had suffered lost income because of the protests and because of the barricades set up throughout the city that had impeded diving or walking at night and that had kept tourists from coming to Oaxaca.
As a young journalist in the South during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s I’d seen a society split by competing forces each claiming to be just and law abiding and I knew that even as calm was restored that feelings lurking beneath the surface wouldn’t go away for a long, long time.
Opinions about whether the Popular Assembly’s crusade to retake the amphitheater was wisely motivated and how to evaluate the brutal law enforcement reaction varied widely. Many of those affiliated with the Assembly felt the violent encounter demonstrated that the movement was still alive and could bring thousands of people together to oppose a repressive and corrupt state government. A retired civil engineer from Veracruz who changed his mind about attending the Guelaguetza after witnessing the confrontation shook his head in disbelief as told me that he thought Governor Ruiz and his law enforcement minions were trying to sabotage the tourist event.
“He seems to relish the chance to beat them [the protesters] up more. He must not give a rat’s ass whether tourists come or not.”
The melee also demonstrated what Spanish foreign correspondent Jacobo García had called “incomprehensible” actions on the part of the Popular Assembly. Despite persistent rain—July is one of the valley of Oaxaca’s most inclement months—armed militaries had maintained round-the-clock vigils around the amphitheater. A Popular Assembly spokesperson revealed that many of the movement’s counselors knew that the government was instituting a “Plan Disturbio” to provoke demonstrators in order to justify a violent and decisive crackdown. Even knowing this the Popular Assembly staged what many (including myself) perceived to be a suicidal maneuver.
“The only result,” one local journalist told me, “was more injured and more arrested. More martyrs.”
The Popular Assembly seemed to identify itself with martyrdom and seemed to indulge in acts like the apparently impromptu surge to hold their Guelaguetza in the amphitheater in order to confirm that martyrdom. A psychologist that I consulted compared this assumption of victimization to human relationships between aggressor figures and partners who felt (or were made to feel) that they deserved abuse or discrimination in order to confirm inferiority or guilt feelings. Mexico, he added, is addicted to martyr figures: the Niños Heroes, Cuauhtémoc, the brothers Flores Magon, Juan Soldado. When I mentioned this concept with a Mexico City journalist he winced, then snapped:
“Then the submissive wife needs to kick the aggressor in the nuts. It’s the only way she’ll get things to change.”
On July 18, two days after the Guelaguetza brouhaha, the Popular Assembly staged a “March of Silence” to protest the police action. Indymedia reported:
Massive banners stretched the entire width of the street, displaying the names and faces of all those detained, disappeared and in police custody. Giant wooden crosses reading ‘Repression,’ ‘Poverty,’ and ‘Misery’ lined the march. There were puppets of fallen comrades, displays of flowers, entire families all masked in black, linked together by homemade chains. All silent.