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Designer Uprising


Mexico City is in the grip of a designer uprising, a massive civil disobedience campaign organized by a national political party—the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD—and involving thousands of grassroots citizens. The movement could be best described as a hybrid between a political renaissance festival and a left wing protest, something like a Green Party Lallapalooza in front of the White House.

Here in the political heart of the nation, people from every state in the country are camping out in the central square and down several major avenues—cutting off traffic and tying downtown in a knot. They are united by a firm belief that the government officials who administer the national elections have cheated them, once again, by rigging the vote count to block their candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (affectionately called AMLO) from becoming president. Their demand is unequivocal: a full, vote-by-vote recount of all the votes cast during the presidential elections on July 2. 

But walking through the labyrinth of tents one is struck by an immediate discordance: the amount of money flushed into a protest involving some of Mexico’s more economically downtrodden citizens, or put another way, the battle between the homogeneity of the PRD’s top-down organizing of the encampment and the heterogeneity of the people filling it.

In Oaxaca—a city also currently under a siege of civil resistance—thousands of protestors sleep out in the streets on cardboard boxes under sheets of plastic; leaning against walls, they read the paper, knit and talk amongst each other as they occupy the town square and shut off access to state government buildings. But in the AMLO encampment protestors gather to watch political documentaries on widescreen television sets, listen to blues guitar and protest songs at outdoor open-mikes fully equipped with professional sound systems, and even stand in line to take their turn riding an old-style Western mechanical bull.  

Within an hour of Lopez Obrador’s Sunday, July 30 call for an encampment in downtown Mexico City to put pressure on the Federal Electoral Tribunal for a vote-by-vote recount, workers unloaded truckloads of large white party tents that they used to cover the encampments. Many of the tent walls are professionally printed plastic banners with party symbols and logos. Under the tents there is electricity; a lot of it, pirated from the city’s street lamps, which means that the PRD-controlled city government is footing the bill. People listen to music, surf the web, put on documentaries, and play electric guitars. While much of the activity is political, when walking down the now plastic-roofed Madero Avenue, it seems more like a fair than a struggle.

Cross over to Juarez Avenue and the movement becomes a circus, literally, with children riding merry-go-rounds, giant seesaws, and even a roller coaster called the Happy Little Worm, where a few AMLO bumper stickers have been pasted on the little worm cars. One can stop and listen to live performances of jazz, ska, salsa, and surfpunk guitar bands—all of them very good—or jump into a soccer or volleyball game. Keep walking down Reforma—downtown’s largest and most symbolically important avenue—and one finds puppet shows, karaoke, teenage garage bands, and—my absolute favorite—a full wrestling ring installed right in the middle of the street with two teams of three masked luchadores throwing each other through the air and slaying the small crowd gathered their with the teams’ exaggerated betrayals and set-ups.

In the town square encampment, where thousands of people sleep in tents organized by state, the scene is a bit less frivolous than on Madero, Juarez, and Reforma. People have organized volunteer kitchens with food donated by Mexico City residents and organizations. Many talk and mill about, play cards, dominoes and chess, and, sitting in rented, yellow plastic chairs—the PRD’s color—read the newspaper. Kids kick soccer balls across the clearing in front of the stage that has been installed, including two massive cranes suspending concert speakers in the air, since Sunday, July 30. Behind the stage, surrounded by waist-high, portable metal fences, Lopez Obrador and his inner circle camp. The buzz of activity is constant.

This past Saturday, August 5, the Federal Electoral Tribunal turned down the PRD and the movement’s demand for a vote-by-vote recount in a unanimous ruling that, by law, cannot be appealed. 

Everyone here in the encampment feels cheated by the government’s refusal to authorize a recount; everyone has lost faith in the two previous ruling parties and the corruption and economic plunder for which they are famous. What is remarkable is that they would then place their hope and faith in the hands of one man under the conviction that, as president, he will be different. And here lies the oddity and the underlying tension in the Mexico City protests: this civil disobedience is not a social, grassroots movement, at least not yet. It was called by and takes its orders from one man, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and though he makes a show of posing yes or no questions before the hundreds of thousands (the July 30 march pulled as many as 2 million people out into the streets) who come to hear him, he and his party inner circle carefully guard the reigns of decision-making, and goad the crowd away from more intense resistance methods like highway blockades or taking over the Mexico City airport.

The PRD is rigorously controlling the organization of the encampments, and the movement. I saw one huddled group of PRD officials discussing an inch-thick bound document titled “AMLO Encampment Inventory,” filled with charts, graphs, and full-color photographs of all of the encampment areas. Most of the money for tents, chairs, and supplies comes from PRD officials or candidates just recently elected in the past July 2 elections. I have not suspected, nor found evidence that the PRD is paying people to attend the protests as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has so famously done for decades. While people all say, with great conviction, that they have come because they feel cheated and want to fight to defend their vote, most of those here from other states got a ride on buses paid for by the party. One thus finds that heavy concentrations of people come from the regions where a local PRD official has taken charge of organizing the encampment for that state.

While the PRD and ultimately, to some extent, taxpayers are footing the bill for the stuff of this movement—the tents and chairs, electricity and rented stages, the porta-potties and traffic cops—the creativity is definitely from the grassroots. But the mood is odd, so much more like a party than an uprising. I recall being clearly disturbed by the manufactured, commercial and festive elements of the United States anti-war protests in 2002 (really, were we taking to the streets to stop a government form killing people, or to sell t-shirts?), but the absurd juxtaposition of a muscled and masked wrestler pounding his chest on Reforma Avenue with a sign that reads, “No to the electoral fraud” hung from the now meaningless traffic signal behind him simply leaves me punch-drunk. I don’t know what to think. Is this a bad thing? Why can’t protests be fun? Won’t that help bring more people in? 

While the small crowd caught in the wrestlers’ antics—this includes myself—were having a great time, the frustrated working poor ensnarled in traffic view the party element of the encampment with disdain. “The rich have helicopters, this doesn’t even impact them; it hurts us, the poor,” Marta Medina, a hotel worker in her twenties, told me. “I support the protest, because, of course, I think there were dirty tricks in the election. But this is a mockery; it irks me to no end. I think they are mistaken in the way they choose to protest.”

The energy, creativity and commitment of the thousands of Mexicans who are camping out in the streets and town square of Mexico City are truly remarkable. The fact that AMLO could pull so many people into the streets is a measure of the social discontent pervasive throughout the working poor of this country, a discontent that has been shaken into action by the electoral circus of the past 8 months, but has not escaped that circus.

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