For the past several months, protesters have taken to the streets—in the United States over the killing of unarmed black men and the lack of accountability for the police officers who killed them. In Mexico, there were protests over the disappearance of 43 students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, and the lack of accountability for those responsible for their disappearance.
Bring Them Back Alive
On September 26, 2014 in the Mexican city of Iguala, local police ambushed several buses of students from a rural teachers college in the nearby town of Ayotzinapa. The teachers college has a history of student organizing and the buses were on their way to a protest. The police, together with unidentified gunmen, opened fire on the students, killing 6 people and wounding more than 20. They also “disappeared” 43 students. The mayor of Iguala and his wife have been accused of orchestrating the attack, and state and federal officials have shown little appetite to do more than offer cursory explanations.
Although Mexico has been plagued by widespread violence in recent years, this particular incident has shaken Mexican society. And although the students are widely presumed to be dead, their families and fellow students continue to demand, “Bring them back alive.”
In the United States, police violence in black and brown communities is nothing new, either. According to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black man is killed by the police every 28 hours. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer and the 2014 deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of the police each triggered a successive wave of outrage and protest. The militant and sustained response in Ferguson, a working class, predominantly African-American city, brought the issue of police violence into the mainstream in a new way. And the shocking video of Eric Garner being placed in a chokehold by a police officer generated a new level of moral indignation. The acquittal of the police officers who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner, coming just days apart, sparked a fresh round of protests all over the country.
For anyone interested in seeing these sustained and coordinated actions coalesce into social movements of real magnitude in Mexico and/or the United States, it is valuable to look at the history of other social movements for ideas and inspiration.
Twenty-one years ago, in January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) captured the world’s imagination when it rose up to demand justice and democracy for the indigenous people of Chiapas, taking on the Mexican government and global capitalism itself. The EZLN is named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and it took up his rallying cry of tierra y libertad (land and freedom). From its formation in 1983 until its 1994 uprising, the EZLN was a clandestine organization. Since its brief armed uprising, the Zapatista movement has become known primarily for its peaceful mobilizations, dialogue with civil society, and structures of political, economic, and cultural autonomy.
The Zapatista movement has inspired grassroots activists around the world for over two decades, including the students from Ayotzinapa. The EZLN recently hosted a two-week Festival of Resistance and Rebellion against Capitalism, where family members of the disappeared students were guests of honor, and 43 empty seats during the festival’s inauguration noted the absence of the 43 students. During this event, Omar García, a student at the Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa, said, “The most powerful reference point for us, in terms of knowing that it is possible to change things at their root, are the Zapatista compañeros and their autonomous municipalities.”
Long-term Vision and Holistic Solutions
The EZLN timed its uprising on January 1, 1994 to coincide with the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, identifying neoliberal capitalism as the underlying problem. This systemic analysis has always been key for the Zapatistas, and their vision for a society of justice and dignity has been just as broad. The EZLN’s First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle begins with “HOY DECIMOS ¡BASTA!” (Today we say, “Enough”). Stating, “We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” the EZLN made its case for going to war with the Mexican government, asked for the support of the Mexican population, and laid out 11 demands: work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.
We are already seeing elements of this in the current unrest in Mexico as well as the United States. And on both sides of the border, broad sectors of the population have joined the protests, signifying that many people— aside from those directly impacted— have come to the same conclusion that something is deeply wrong with society. In Mexico, the disappearance of the 43 students has come to represent the corruption of the state, and in the United States, the issue of police violence is one of racial and economic justice.
It Was The State
Another aspect of systemic analysis is holding the state accountable. This is not a lesson learned specifically from the Zapatista movement: ¡Fue el Estado, (“it was the State”) has been a rallying cry throughout Mexico since the disappearance of the 43 students. In New York City, during the protests following the acquittal of the police officer that choked Eric Garner, a common chant was, “Eric Garner, Mike Brown. Shut the whole system down” and a number of signs read, “Indict the system.”
Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from the EZLN’s insistence on holding the state (and the capitalist system) to account for the high levels of poverty, marginalization and violence in the indigenous villages of Chiapas. When paramilitary violence flared up in Chiapas, for example, the EZLN blamed the Mexican government for arming and training these paramilitary groups, rather than being drawn into a cycle of violence with other indigenous peasants. Its critique of the state—and of electoral politics—has not always been popular. During the presidential campaign of 2005, the EZLN insisted that change would not come about through electoral politics, and that Andrés López Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was a “neoliberal-light” candidate. The EZLN’s oppositional stance towards López Obrador caused a significant loss of support for the Zapatistas, but the EZLN stood firm. Personally, I believe there are multiple paths to achieving social change and that it is not necessary to reject the exercise of political power or a change in government as one possible strategy. But the EZLN’s unwavering critique of state power and complete lack of interest in converting into a political party has represented an important ideological pole.
It has also allowed for the creation of Zapatismo, a political philosophy that focuses on social transformation rather than seizing state power, and maintains that power is created from below. An important aspect of creating power from below is building alternative institutions. In 1996, the EZLN signed the San Andrés Accords with the Mexican government, which recognized indigenous rights and promised indigenous autonomy. But, as it became increasingly apparent that the government had no intention of implementing these accords, the Zapatistas decided to put them into practice on their own. The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy has meant that rural villages in Chiapas have gained access to rudimentary health care and education, which they were previously denied. They exercise self-determination through autonomous village and regional governments, and generate resources back into their communities through economic cooperatives that organize the production of goods.
In this small corner of the world, the Zapatistas are experimenting with their own government, alternative education and health care infrastructure, along with an economic system based on cooperation, solidarity, and relationships of equality.
The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy has represented, for many, an inspiring example of viable alternatives to global capitalism. During the Festival against Capitalism, Omar García, a student from Ayotzinapa, also said, “Our school, as part of a national student organization, has always been supportive of and participated in the new tendencies, the new forms of organization inaugurated precisely by the Zapatistas in 1994. The horizontal structures, the forms of self-government, of autonomy, these are now part of who we are. For those of us who are members of the student committees and councils in the rural teachers colleges, these things now form part of our vocabulary.”
Dialogue with Civil Society
Another element of Zapatismo is the belief that none of us have all the answers—that we make the road by walking. This means starting down the path and learning as we go, but it also means listening to and learning from each other. Since 1994, the EZLN has engaged in dialogue with national and international civil society, organizing numerous conferences, gatherings, and mass mobilizations in an effort to coalesce a broader national and international movement. In 1996, for example, the EZLN held the First Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against Neoliberalism, inviting all those who had been negatively impacted by global capitalism to come to Zapatista territory to share ideas and form alliances. Almost 5,000 people from more than 40 countries attended, and this event helped jumpstart an international anti-globalization movement. The Zapatistas have also traveled throughout Mexico several times, to meet with people in their own towns, villages, and cities. The EZLN has organized a number of events together with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which has helped strengthen the indigenous rights movement throughout Mexico. Maite Valladolid, a young Chicana photographer who accompanied a Zapatista caravan traveling around Mexico in 2006, described what she saw. “I remember the very first meeting I attended. It was in Tonalá, Chiapas, and it was in an old movie theater. I was sitting there sweating, but I was so impressed with the dynamics of the meeting because Subcomandante Marcos just sat there, listening, while people shared their stories, talking for hours. We went to other meetings where there were no chairs, no tables, and we all stood around in a circle under a roof made out of sticks and straw. Listening to these meetings I realized that all people really wanted was to be heard.”
Many of these lessons come together in perhaps the least tangible but most important lesson from the Zapatista movement, one of hope. Since 1994, the Zapatista movement has come to represent the voice of the voiceless—the resistance of the marginalized and the forgotten against the powerful. The Zapatistas have inspired hope with militant, well-organized actions: the 1994 uprising; a series of land takeovers that altered the economic balance of power in Chiapas; tiny indigenous women with sticks in their hands defending their villages from well-armed Mexican soldiers.
They have inspired hope with their patient, steady construction of indigenous autonomy—modest in scale, perhaps, but proving that alternatives to global capitalism are possible. The Zapatistas’ conscious effort to dialogue with civil society has meant that their message reached a much broader audience. And the EZLN has been exceptionally good at capturing its long-term vision in terms that are poetic but simple, specific to southeastern Mexico but universal enough to resonate with change-seekers throughout Mexico and around the world.
Hilary Klein is author of Companeras. She is a community organizer and worked with the Zaptistas in Chiapas, Mexico for six years. She currently works with Make the Road in New York, helping immigrant and working class communities.