Two Bloomfield activists recently returned from Oaxaca, Mexico, where they joined protesters on the barricades -- literally -- and witnessed the shooting death of an American indymedia.org correspondent, Brad Will, by Mexican government forces.
The protests began on May 1, when Oaxacan teachers struck, demanding better pay and more help for poorer students. Their occupation of the city center, the Zocalo, was contested violently by police on June 14, leading to several protester deaths. Several hundred grassroots groups then joined the protest, which spread to a nightly barricade of 2,000 sites. Their marches drew up to 900,000 people.
De'Anna Caligiuri and Mike Avallone traveled from Pittsburgh Oct. 18-Nov. 11 to take part in the Oct. 27 battle against federal police, called "PRIstas" after Mexico's ruling PRI party.
As Caligiuri told an activist gathering in Pittsburgh on Nov. 20, "Every day, politics was not a question of who you would support [at the] next vote, but rather what you would do now. Every conversation between neighbors, every hour that you turned on the movement's radio station and heard the songs and stories of resistance, all of it was a victory for the movement."
Oaxaca is still a battleground today.
Why venture into such a volatile situation?
Caligiuri: I went to support the movement and show international solidarity -- to be on the ground to document what was going on and participate in whatever way was most useful.
When you arrived, did you find what you expected?
Caligiuri: In my mind, 2,000 barricades, it's got to be a tense situation. We arrived and it was so festive, it was really amazing. The idea of celebratory resistance was really inspiring. The house that I stayed in was a couple miles outside the downtown area, in the neighborhood of Santa Lucia -- a group house for CIPO-RFM, the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca-Ricardo Flores Magos. Magos was a Mexican revolutionary anarchist in the early 20th century; they called themselves Magonistas. Some days we ended up staying at that house because there were threats the government-backed paramilitaries were going to kick CIPO out [of] a predominately PRI-supportive neighborhood, and they were glad to have international people there.
A lot of the time in the day was spent organizing how to get money down from the United States. ... At nights we went to the barricades -- barricade 3, mostly. It was a big intersection of a highway. The highways were typically barricaded by trucks and buses. The side streets were barricaded by sandbags, big rocks, anything that could be used. The barricades were taken down during the day, so you had to acquire what you used each [night]. You had to ask a bus driver each day if he would park the vehicle horizontally on the street; I only saw one bus driver refuse. I'd estimate about 20 [people manned barricade 3]. On Oct. 27, when the barricades stayed up all day, there were 40 or 50.
That's the day the "PRIstas" entered the city.
Caligiuri: A [protest] call went out for Oct. 27 to be a day of action in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico and internationally. That meant keeping the barricades up and reinforcing [them]. At first it was really calm, though there were definitely supplies to defend it.
Avallone: I had just gotten back [to barricade 3] from CIPO house and started reading a book and I heard commotion. I went up to see what was going on. The PRIstas were maybe 200 feet away. They started moving trucks away.
Caligiuri: I had dozed off during the day, and I woke up to panicked shouts. I looked up and saw hundreds of PRIstas headed toward the barricade to attack. They were spanning the highway, marching toward us. People started taking kids inside. We sprinted through side streets to the nearest barricade behind us, one long city block away. People were setting off cohetes [rockets] to alert the neighborhood. ... Within minutes, hundreds and hundreds of people came out of their houses.
Avallone: [At the next barricade], we're there for maybe two to three minutes. There's a little bridge over a creek -- people were banging on it. People were on cell phones calling people to come down. Then people shouted, "Advance, advance, go, go." They started down the street toward barricade 3, to take it back. As we got closer, [protesters] were throwing rocks. The PRIstas started falling back. I didn't expect to repel them so quickly. One of them had to leave his SUV. ... I could actually see the loss on his face as he had to leave the SUV there to be trashed and burned.
I'm an anarchist -- my central belief is that people can do things on their own. There was this amazing sense of unity and empowerment. There was no central organization. It was people defending themselves. And then things went to hell when the PRIstas [returned and] began shooting. Some [protesters] had machetes. Some people had big wooden sticks. A surprisingly very few people had slingshots. There weren't a whole lot of Molotov cocktails at [first], but people were making them as fast as they could once the shooting started.
Caligiuri: They would shoot and everyone would duck for cover. ... Once the shooting stopped, we moved forward again and used the Molotovs and slingshots. ... We were all clustered at one end of a little residential street. There were several more rounds of shots. Then someone got a dump truck and they brought it down the street and we used it as a shield, so we could keep moving forward. We got closer and the truck parked horizontally across the street. Then another round of fire happened.
Avallone: ... [T]he people with guns retreated into the neighborhood. Some went into a house, ... some fell back to the end of the street and were shooting from there. I thought people were shooting from the house, but it was hard to tell. You just hear the popping that a gun makes. I felt, ludicrously, not in danger. I didn't realize they were shooting at us until people started to get hit. I thought they were just shooting in the air to scare us.
Caligiuri: The most some of us could do was to press ourselves up against a car that was parked parallel on the street. But that didn't help much. And that's when Brad Will got shot. I met him in Oaxaca. We talked briefly, maybe three times. We didn't see each other a lot -- he wasn't at barricade 3 often. [On Oct. 27] I was right behind him. He was videotaping for Indymedia.
Avallone: He was getting pictures of PRIstas. ... I was 10 feet behind him. He was at the end of this truck that was more to the front [of the fighting] and was pretty exposed. I was between two trucks. ... I turned around to run away and I heard something that made me look behind me. I thought he had tripped and fallen until I saw people running and shouting and picking him up and running down the street.
Caligiuri: He was shot in the lower chest. People were doing CPR and cheering him on to keep him conscious. He was conscious when the car came to take him to the hospital.
Was the whole city behind the protest?
Caligiuri: It definitely wasn't 100 percent of the people in Oaxaca by any means, but it was definitely a majority of the city. Oaxacans make a lot of their income through tourist businesses. Business owners and tourist restaurants were definitely opposed to it, and they were largely relieved when 4,000 federal police invaded the city.
In your talk, De'Anna, you described the protesters as nonviolent, but they certainly used homemade weapons.
Caligiuri: That's one of the things that can be kind of frustrating with describing something as violent or nonviolent. There's that whole false dichotomy around what that means. Collective self-defense is not considered violent.
Could nonviolence have worked?
Caligiuri: The radio station would be gone -- they wouldn't have that. How long would the struggle have lasted if everyone had sat there waiting to get shot en masse?
And what did you do yourself?
Caligiuri: I did what I thought I needed to do not to just stand there waiting to get shot. But I was also trying to document [events].
How did Oaxacans feel about Americans helping?
Caligiuri: They wanted international support. I heard some critiques that American are obviously coming from a place of privilege, so it's upsetting when people come down and don't provide resources and money, which they desperately need.
Since you've been back, the protesters have lost ground while the violence seems to have escalated. Do you see the protesters prevailing?
Caligiuri: APPO [the grassroots umbrella group] continues to have their meetings with neighborhood delegations, indigenous communities, the teachers' union, to figure out the future of the movement and their own system of decision-making. Whatever happens in this particular incarnation of the struggle, I don't think it will be over.
What can local activists learn from Oaxaca?
Avallone: The people are living without any central government, but they were solving their own problems. Crime was a big problem when we were down there, but it didn't make people cry out, "We need the cops back." They organized street patrols. It just reinforced the old faith in humanity.
Caligiuri: What I really brought back was an even surer commitment to organizing for social justice, and the knowledge that Oaxaca is not an anomaly -- it's something we can create for ourselves.
To see activists' reports or donate to Oaxaca, see http://www.organizepittsburgh.org/index.php?page=statements/oaxaca