Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Zapatismo and Abolitionism

While in Oaxaca in January and early February, I sat down twice with members of the collective "Todxs Somxs Presxs" (We Are All Prisoners) to dialogue with them on their radio show on Radio Plantón. They discussed their work with political prisoners in Oaxaca and Guadalajara and were extremely interested to hear about the history of abolitionism in the US, from slavery to penal abolition, and about our political prisoners. These conversations sparked the thinking for this entry--thank yous to Heidy and Chucho--and also, of course, to Critical Resistance.

When All Legal Paths to Change are Closed,
Those Who Fight for Justice are Outlaws...

Mexico's top electoral court has just declared the US-backed candidate, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN), the official winner of the July 2 Presidential elections. This decision, in spite of overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud, means that the legal avenue to change has once again been unjustly closed in Mexico. So now the candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his supporters are faced with the same situation as the Zapatistas faced exactly four years ago...and it seems they are coming to similar conclusions.

On September 6, 2002, the Supreme Court of Justice declared that it could not overturn the Congressional passage of racist and neoliberal changes to the Mexican constitution regarding indigenous rights and culture. This marked an end for the possibility of a legal resolution to the conflict between the Zapatistas and the Mexican Government. It was at this point that the Zapatistas put all of their weight behind the construction of de-facto autonomy in their territories in the form of the Caracoles and the Councils of Good Government. It seems that Obrador is proposing something similar for his followers throughout Mexico as he has declared that there will now be two presidents in Mexico: the legal PAN presidency of Calderón and the legitimate PRD presidency of Obrador.

Just as with the Zapatista Caracoles, Obrador and his supporters are aiming to set up a de-facto rebel government at the federal level. Perhaps the first major showdown between Calderón's and Obrador's "governments", with the Federal Army thrown in for good measure, will be on September 16th when they will all meet in Mexico City's Zocalo for Mexican Independence Day. And this is within the context of an already existing national movement of rebellion in Mexico, the Zapatista-initiated Other Campaign.

Meanwhile, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, which has been effectively governing the state of Oaxaca for over 100 days now, has been charting a path for what a rebel government in Mexico could look like and is now calling for unity between the PRD, the Zapatistas, and the rest of the peaceful and civil national movement.

The Zapatistas have been betrayed many times over by the PRD and have vigorously critiqued Obrador during his election campaign so it remains to be seen what kind of unity is possible. What is interesting, however, is that Obrador has taken up one of the central demands of the Other Campaign, the creation of a new Mexican constitution, and is convoking a National Democratic Convention, just as the Zapatistas did twelve years ago. What comes next is unclear but, unfortunately, there is one thing that is almost certain: there will be repression.

What the people of Oaxaca and the Zapatistas have already learned is that when all legal paths to change are closed, those who fight for justice are outlaws. The Oaxacan struggle emphasized this experience during and in the days after Delegate Zero (Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos) passed through their state in early February as part of the Sixth Commission of the Zapatistas with the Other Campaign. In March, the Sixth Commission and the State Coordinating Committee for the Other Campaign in Hidalgo announced a National Day of Action Against Police Brutality. And, after the May attacks against the town of Atenco, the Other Campaign's commitment of "an injury to one is an injury to all" was amplified tremendously and heard around the world.

I titled this entry "Zapatismo and Abolitionism" although it could of perhaps more appropriately been named "Zapatismo and Political Prisoners". It is clear that the politics of the Other Campaign, for example, are not penal abolitionist. Indeed, Delegate Zero had pronounced many times during his tour that the movement sought to "jail the corrupt politicians..." That being said, there is a struggle for alternative forms of creating safety within and beyond the Zapatista communities. And there are reasons that I describe below in my essay that I feel there is an affinity between Abolitionism in the US and Zapatismo in Mexico. I hope for this entry to be a sort of "Part 1", in a continuing exploration of connections between these two struggles.

In the context of increasing resistance and repression in Mexico, here is something I wrote before the days of Atenco...

For a World Without Walls…
Zapatistas, Abolitionists, and the Rebellion that Crosses Borders

By RJ Maccani
(Originally published in The Abolitionist in April '06)

As massive immigrant rights protests erupt across the USA, a growing movement on the other side of the southern border is promising to, in the words of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, “…shake up [Mexico] from below, lift it up, and stand it on its head.” As an abolitionist who has worked on both sides of that border, I want to share a few stories and ideas that I hope will illustrate why we must cross both prison walls and national borders as we build a movement for real safety for all people.

For starters, the Zapatista rebels of Mexico’s Southeastern state of Chiapas are taking their boldest step since they rose up in arms twelve years ago. Continuing a twenty-two year journey of growth and transformation, they are spreading out beyond their autonomous communities to join with and build a Mexican and global movement for democracy, freedom, and justice. In June of last year, the Zapatistas released their “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle” that is serving as the guiding document for this work. In what is now being called “The Other Campaign”, members of the Zapatista leadership are joining with activists, organizers, leaders in Mexico to build a national movement of rebellion…and they are putting freedom for political prisoners at the center of this struggle.

With almost 11 million Mexicans living within the USA today, it would be impossible to discuss a Mexican national rebellion without also discussing the impacts it could have in this country. This is a fact that has not been lost on the iconic mestizo spokesmen of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, who, in joining “The Other Campaign”, has traded in his military title for a civilian one: “Delegate Zero.” Currently on a six-month tour of Mexico listening to “the humble and simple people who fight” and promoting The Other Campaign, Delegate Zero has mobilized former braceros (Mexicans who go to work in the USA) to join him in meetings in June with Mexicans “on the other side” at the border with Juárez and, later, Tijuana. As Mexicans make up almost a third of all people living in the USA without citizenship, Delegate Zero and the former braceros will no doubt be meeting compañeros who have been the backbone of the recent tidal wave of revolt against anti-immigrant legislation in this country. And he will invite them to take part in the Other Campaign.

“The Other Campaign” is a clever title for this new initiative when put into the context of the June 2006 Mexican presidential elections and the massive electoral campaigns being launched by the country's three dominant political parties. But the goals of the Other Campaign do not include winning a seat in the Mexican government. Its objectives are to join with Mexican civil society 1) to create, or recreate, another way of doing politics “from below and to the left,” 2) to build an anticapitalist national plan of struggle, and 3) to form a new Mexican constitution. Participants in the Other Campaign imagine that this will take at least ten years, meaning that it has begun before Mexico’s next president is elected and will continue after he has stepped down.

Working as a journalist for The Narco News Bulletin (an invaluable on-line journal), I was stationed in the Southwestern State of Oaxaca in January and February of this year to report on the development of the Other Campaign in the month leading up to Delegate Zero’s arrival. I attended regional and statewide organizing meetings and conducted interviews with leaders and organizers within the indigenous, political prisoner, pirate radio, alternative education and teacher's movements. Mexico’s majority indigenous state, Oaxaca is perhaps also its most repressive. Take, for example, the story of Donaciana Antonio Almaráz and her community of Loxicha.

Sitting in the restaurant where she works in Oaxaca City, Donaciana Antonio Almaráz told me the story of the home to which she cannot return. About a six-hour drive south of Oaxaca City in the Sierra Sur, the Loxicha region is home to 5,000 indigenous Zapotecos living in 32 communities. It was in 1965 that the “caciques” came to Loxicha. Burning homes and shooting down community members with impunity, they tried to seize the fertile land of Loxicha and control the coffee production of the region. It was neither the Mexican federal nor the Oaxacan state government but rather the indigenous of Loxicha themselves who were left with the work of bringing justice to the situation. Within five years, in 1970, they kicked the caciques out and began to rebuild their communities. By 1980 the Zapotecos of Loxicha had effectively recovered their traditional form of government and elected their own municipal president in assembly, without political parties, through an indigenous form of government known here as “usos y costumbres” (“rights and customs”).

But when an armed organization known as the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) appeared in 1996 in the neighboring region of Crucesito Huatulco, the caciques and their friends in government took it as an opportunity to reassert their control over Loxicha. Under the pretext of pursuing the EPR, they returned with helicopters and tanks to break the Zapotecos and retake control of the coffee of Loxicha. Initially arresting teachers and representatives of the indigenous government, including then-municipal president Agustín Luna Valencia, the Oaxacan state took more than 100 residents of Loxicha prisoner by 1997. Nine of them are now in there ninth and tenth years of imprisonment in the Santa María Ixcotél Prison. Other prisons also hold Loxicha prisoners and other members of their communities have been arrested more recently and joined them. The caciques and their gunmen remain free and continue to operate with relative impunity, “disappearing” up to 50 people in the years that followed the attack.

The repression has continued in Loxicha and began to get worst during the last year. Donaciana’s brother was organizing his community to reject the political parties once more and peacefully reclaim the municipal government through assembly and usos y costumbres when he was murdered on September 30, 2005… two days before the municipal elections. Donaciana has been living as a refugee since the murder of her brother, working in Oaxaca City, threatened with kidnapping if she returns to her home. On February 8th, 2006, Donaciana and I traveled together to Ixcotél Prison on the outskirts of Oaxaca City to join a protest coinciding with Delegate Zero’s visit.

Almost 11 years to the day since the Mexican government issued orders for his capture, Subcomandante Marcos, in his new role as “Delegate Zero,” entered Ixcotél Prison of his own accord… not to “turn himself in,” but to meet with political prisoners committed to building the Other Campaign. Amidst a demonstration of hundreds of supporters and media, this was the third prison Delegate Zero had entered on his tour. The largest and highest-security prison in Oaxaca State, Ixcotél is home to approximately 1,000 prisoners, roughly 50 of whom are considered “political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.” Delegate Zero came out of Ixcotél with a powerful message:

They (the political prisoners) have given their word and say that they are firm and will not surrender. They are considering the jail as one more site of struggle and in a few weeks they will begin a series of activities as part of their adherence to the Other Campaign…We are committed as Zapatistas and we invite the rest of the organizations and all members of the Other Campaign to give top priority in this first tour to the struggle for the liberation of all political prisoners and the cancellation of all arrest warrants — be they municipal, state, or federal — that there are against fighters for social justice.
There are at least a couple of reasons why the Zapatistas are putting the freedom of social fighters at the center of The Other Campaign. The idealistic reason is that, as part of “the other way of doing politics” of the Other Campaign, a core value in its organizing has been to fight to guarantee that every voice of the oppressed that wishes to be heard will be sought out and listened to. The pragmatic reason is that, as an anticapitalist movement that is building peoples’ power beyond the political party system, there does not appear to be much of a chance for the struggle to be co-opted. Following this line of thinking, if the Mexican elites recognize that they cannot offer the Other Campaign “carrots” to make them less threatening to their interests, than what they will deliver are “sticks”. And indeed, just over three months into Delegate Zero’s tour, the Other Campaign has already seen a great deal of repression…especially in Oaxaca.

A wave of state violence and repression swept Oaxaca after Delegate Zero’s visit in early February. In response to this, the state coordination of the Other Campaign in Oaxaca has committed itself to building a statewide and national movement against police brutality, for the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and for the cancellation of all arrest warrants against fighters for social justice. The most dramatic battle in this new phase of the Other Campaign in Oaxaca is taking place in the self-declared autonomous municipality of San Blas Atempa.

On New Years Day of 2005, the people of San Blas (a town of 14,000), after over a decade of single-party rule under political boss Agustina Acevedo Gutierrez, threw her out of City Hall with rocks and, eventually, fire. Since that date, they have established a popular autonomous council and governed themselves without the Mexican police. That is, until the arrival of over 800 state troopers and heavily armed police on March 1st, 2006. Less than a month after the people of San Blas joined the Other Campaign en masse on February 6th in one of the most moving moments thus far in Delegate Zero’s tour, the Mexican State returned to assert its authority. While they succeeded in expelling the rebel government from City Hall, the people of San Blas have successfully mobilized to block, physically, the re-entry of the old political boss and her cohorts. San Blas remains a rebellious example of what the Other Campaign can be and of what it is up against. And whereas two months ago their struggle was little known outside of their region, allies from across the country, and even internationally, are now joining them…and they are successfully remaining rebellious in the face of tremendous repression and setting an inspiring example for the rest of the Other Campaign.

As abolitionists in the USA, we have a great deal to learn and share with our compañeros to the South. Since becoming radicalized in the late nineties, the Zapatistas have been a major reference point in my political development. I have learned from them to place listening and truth-telling at the center of a strategy for movement building. Inspired by the Zapatista’s autonomous municipalities, Critical Resistance NYC is building the capacity to create community alternatives to the police, prisons, and surveillance through the Harm Free Zone project (HFZ).

In the past six months, the project has hosted a series of roundtables with groups throughout NYC who are building toward this long-term vision of community autonomy. Groups like FIERCE! (a queer youth of color organization based in Manhattan's West Village) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (a New Afrikan organization in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn) are both working on CopWatch projects. Whereas Sista II Sista (poor and working class black and Latina women in Bushwick, Brooklyn) are organizing Sista's Liberated Ground to combat violence against women. And Generation Five is developing transformative justice solutions to child sexual abuse. The HFZ project challenges the psychological, social, and cultural entrenchment of the prison-industrial complex with a liberatory, abolitionist practice.

A strength that we abolitionists share with the Zapatistas is that we reach into the founding struggle of our country to create a powerful, radical vision for today. In the 1840s, the abolitionists were at the forefront in opposing the imperialist US-Mexican War. Today, abolitionists in the USA have the opportunity to join in work and dialogue with “the simple and humble people who fight” in the Other Campaign of Mexico. The Zapatistas are also hoping to foster more convergences at the “intergalactic” level such as the legendary “Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism” that they convened in 1996, which laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Global Justice Movement. Perhaps our movements will meet at the next such Encounter…or perhaps somewhere closer to home, in our city, in our neighborhood, perhaps even in the next cell over.

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