Eyewitness Account from Oaxaca. June 17th, 2006

From Lois Meyer, Oaxaca.

It is now Saturday, June 17, and so much has changed since the brutal police action early Wednesday morning, June 14, that forced thousands of striking teachers out of their encampment in the historic center of the city of Oaxaca. After fleeing the initial attack of tear and pepper gases and physical force, the teachers spontaneously began to regroup in several areas of the city center, to arm themselves with bats and rocks, and to fight back. Although the police were armed with guns (denied by the government but confirmed by countless photos in the newpapers) and protected by gas masks, they were overcome by the sheer number and the outrage of the unarmed teachers.

News footage and photos document bands of teachers surrounding and overcoming armed police, picking up gas canisters and throwing them back to the police squadrons that had just ignited and tossed them, and taking over city buses to crash through police barricades. We experienced the first police attack on the encampment about 5 a.m.; within 4 hours, the teachers had disbursed the police, taken some of them prisoner (they were released later, unharmed), and retaken control of the center of the city. It was about 10 a.m. when teachers marched to where hundreds of us had taken refuge in the Law School and liberated us.

One of the teachers who is part of the Directions Committee for the strike told me that the committee met after the police action began in order to decide how to respond, but when committee members began receiving numerous cell phone calls informing them of spontaneous resistance by teachers in various parts of the downtown, they said, "To hell with this meeting!" and hurried to support the resistance efforts that had spontaneously exploded.

I am struck by how cell phones have affected this resistance effort. Almost from the moment the police action began in the early hours of last Wednesday, and certainly as soon as we found refuge in the Law School, hundreds of teachers were using their cell phones to call for help from family, friends, and organizations. I am certain the same thing was happening wherever teachers took refuge. Teachers have told me that in many neighborhoods of Oaxaca, as soon as their families and neighbors received the first notice of police action, the entire community organized and headed to the city center to support the teachers. Marches of teachers such as the one that freed those of us at the Law School were probably a mix of regrouped teachers and outraged family, friends, and university students. As calls went out to relatives in other cities of Oaxaca (the teachers in the encampment had converged from all regions and communities of the state, so their network of contacts was statewide), colleagues and families began to march and take over government centers in many outlying cities and municipalities, especially those controlled by the governor‚s political party, the PRI. Many of those cities and communities now have sent delegations of teachers, parents and social organizations to the capital to support the teachers‚ movement here.

The fact that in the first hours of police action the teachers speedily overcame the government‚s repression has galvanized the state of Oaxaca and beyond. Yesterday afternoon and evening the third "megamarcha" was held, the first since the failed police action. Today‚s paper reported more than 300,000 marched, including teachers, students, many universities and civic organizations, and outraged citizens from across the state and from other states. The marchers covered more than 12 kilometers and lasted over four hours. There were several torrential downpours, but nothing dampened the marchers‚ determination or their continuous shouts for the governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, to be dumped.

It is very clear that this movement has now moved to a very different level of political activity. The primary demand by ALL parties now is that the governor must go. Even the teachers say that their original list of demands has moved to secondary importance at this point.

Organizers of yesterday‚s megamarch had publicized its beginning and ending point but not its route, which confused lots of folks, including me. I spent several hours waiting at the park called the Llano, where the march was to end. Many congregated there, and as the rain fell we talked under umbrellas as we waited. I talked to teachers who could not march because of arthritic knees or eight-month pregnancies, but they were waiting in the rain to support the march. In many cases, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc., were marching, and cell phones kept us posted of their progress.

I talked with two teachers from private schools who openly said they disagreed with the union‚s strategies, "left over", they said, from the decades when the PRI wielded uncontested political power and which were no longer viable, such as the massive teacher sit-in that has entirely crippled Oaxaca‚s tourist trade and therefore it‚s economy. Nevertheless, they were there in the rain to support the demand that this corrupt governor and his cronies must go. Though they do not agree with all the union‚s strategies, they said the teachers are the only ones who are standing up and taking action.

I spoke with a woman in her fifties who told me she was not a teacher and her children weren‚t teachers but she came out to support the marchers. "This governor and his corruption must go!" she said. She told me that her son, who in a functionary in the government, has been told that he must deliver at least 30 votes to the PRI in the upcoming presidential election in early July if he hopes to keep his job. "I told him he must not stoop to that corruption, regardless what happens with his job!" she told me. I was struck to hear unsolicited confirmation of a report I had read in the newspaper earlier that morning about the political pressure being applied to government employees to "deliver the PRI vote".
When I finally encountered the march, it was already after 8 p.m., but it went on for another hour and a half.

The marchers were wet and exhausted, but their chants of "He‚s out! He‚s out! Ulises is already out!" never stopped. I spoke with a marcher today who said that all along their route, people offered them water, hot coffee and hot chocolate, and plastics to protect them from the rain. She said the support from the community was tremendous.

There was no government repression of the march. However, talking with my colleagues this morning in the newly-constructed teacher encampment in the Zocalo (which is now even larger than the one the police destroyed), they said that because of yesterday‚s rain and the fact that so many of their blankets, clothes, and sleeping materials were destroyed in Wednesday‚s police action, they were instructed to sleep last night in schools and churches rather than in the encampment.

At some point during the night, most of what was left of their tarps and belongings were removed by "civilians" who were paid either by the government or by angry business owners. But the teachers said, "Regardless, we are here in force and we are not going away." And in Mexican fashion, making light now of the terror they faced during the police action last Wednesday, one of the teachers laughed and said that the government had "done them the favor of cleaning the Zocalo well" so that the new encampment is even better than before!

One of the results of the massive expansion of civic groups in this struggle is that a Popular Assembly has now been selected to make decisions for what will happen next. Since the retaking of the Zocalo, the government has agreed to negotiate with the teachers, and now those negotiations will include the expanded social movement. In order to have direction and consultation with „the bases‰, a People‚s Assembly has been selected. As I write this, the Assembly is convening for the first time, in the patio of the same Law School that gave us refuge last Wednesday morning. I assume that tomorrow there will be word of at least some decisions concerning what is to happen next in Oaxaca‚s popular resistance. I will try to keep you informed.

Lois Meyer
Univ. of New Mexico
From Oaxaca

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