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Broken Barricades: The Oaxaca Rebellion in Victory, Defeat, and Beyond (1)

category north america / mexico | indigenous struggles | opinion / analysis author Sunday March 30, 2008 06:03author by Collective Reinventions Report this post to the editors

It is written after the apogee of the Oaxaca rebellion, but with the certainty that this movement is not over, that in one form or another the struggle that began in 2006 will continue. Our analysis is presented in the hope that will shed some light on Oaxaca before the uprising is mythologized (by anti-authoritarians); distorted (by all the Leninist vanguards who, in their arrogance, are eager to impart their stern “lessons” to the “masses” in Oaxaca); or simply fades away, far from the glare of the proverbial media spotlight.

Broken Barricades: The Oaxaca Rebellion in Victory, Defeat, and Beyond

by Collective Reinventions

The following text is the result of a collaborative effort, and is the fruit of a considerable number of meetings and discussions. It reflects the give and take, even the hesitations, of an ongoing conversation. It should also be noted at the outset that this essay makes no pretense of being a definitive account of the Oaxaca rebellion, nor is it the product of a directly observed or lived experience of the events themselves. Like all significant historical events, there are many truths - instead of one Absolute Truth - to be discovered in the Oaxaca rebellion. In any case, this analysis was written at a literal distance from the unrest in Mexico in the period under discussion here. While the text is unashamedly partisan, in the sense of taking the side of the Oaxacan rebels, and specifically the most radical among them, it is not a work of mere advocacy or apologetics. Still less does it represent the kind of ventriloquism common to the left: it does not speak for Oaxaca, which can most certainly speak for itself. It seeks to afford some perspective on the rebellion, and to reveal some of the roots of a complex phenomenon, and nothing more.

It is written after the apogee of the Oaxaca rebellion, but with the certainty that this movement is not over, that in one form or another the struggle that began in 2006 will continue. Our analysis is presented in the hope that will shed some light on Oaxaca before the uprising is mythologized (by anti-authoritarians); distorted (by all the Leninist vanguards who, in their arrogance, are eager to impart their stern “lessons” to the “masses” in Oaxaca); or simply fades away, far from the glare of the proverbial media spotlight.


“Since all of this, we will not be the same at all as before; we can’t be and we don’t want to be.”
-- Oaxacan resident quoted in La batalla por Oaxaca (Ediciones Yope Power, Oaxaca: 2007)

For the last half of 2006, and continuing well into 2007, the city of Oaxaca, Mexico was the epicenter of a rebellion that defied both the the Mexican state and its local incarnation, the governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In this defiance, the social movement that emerged in Oaxaca challenged other nexes of power, capital, and class within Mexico, assuming a markedly anti-hierarchical and, over time, anti-systemic cast. As it grew, expanding well beyond its initial focus and demands, the uprising in Oaxaca also dispelled conventional notions of centrality and importance tied to quantitative criteria: a provincial capital in the second poorest state in Mexico (after Chiapas), a city best known beyond its borders as a tourist destination, became for a time the focus of considerable attention on the part of radical opinion throughout the world.

While it shared certain characteristics with the Zapatista movement in neighboring Chiapas - most importantly in its strong orientation toward indigenous peoples and the defense of their common lands and traditions - it also differed from the EZLN in other signficant ways. The Oaxacan movement arose in an urban environment, even as it drew support from (and embodied the concerns of) the rural, largely Indian communities in the Oaxacan hinterland. Also, unlike the Zapatistas, it had no army, only crowds of determined men and women, supported at key moments by contingents of youths willing to fight the police in the streets of the city.

Crucially, in Oaxaca there was no charismatic leader in the mold of the voluble Subcomandante Marcos (1). Instead, there was a reference - stated again and again in the discourse of the movement - to the fact that this was a movement de los de abajo, of those “from below,” meaning both that the participants primarily came from the base of the Mexican social pyramid but also that the movement itself was controlled by its rank-and-file and not by those who sought to become its “leaders.” The rebellion found organized expression in an assembly, and did so in the plural, not the singular. Not only did it give itself the name of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, it was a movement in a near-permanent state of assembly, or rather assemblies, at least in its beginning phase.

Beyond the question of the movement’s form - reminiscent of the traditions of direct democracy dear to the anti-authoritarian left - there is also, of course, one of its content. Here, one treads cautiously. While many reports on the Oaxaca uprising have stressed its radicalism, its innovativeness, its status as the “first rebellion of the 21st century,” these claims have often been made in the facile, overblown language that is the hallmark of leftist triumphalism (2). Such accounts of the movement often read like a morality play in which the noble People - who, in the naïve chant of Latin American militancy, “will never be defeated” - fight valiantly against Evil Incarnate (Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the Mexican state, Yankee imperialism). Given the realities of Oaxaca, its grinding poverty and its brutal, corrupt authorities, such a depiction is not without its aspects of verisimilitude. But it hardly does justice to the complexities of the Oaxacan rebellion, and provides little basis for a discussion of its implications.

Other more critical, but equally shrill voices pointed out the weaknesses, the contradictions, the insufficiencies of the rebellion. The arid Marxists of the International Communist Current dispensed their usual verdict on all such uprisings: not “proletarian” enough. Anarchist insurrectionists in Mexico City denounced a rebellion that did not abolish the state and capitalism overnight. Again, in such analyses there were kernels of truth: the Oaxacan rebellion could be understood as a kind of radical populism; there were bureaucrats present in APPO from its inception. But to dismiss the entire rebellion in this way only showed where dogma can lead to: a cutting off of the branch (or pedestal) on which one stands. There is no need to endorse the Oaxacan movement uncritically and become yet another leftist cheerleader, but attitudes of disdainful superiority or maximalist denunciation are equally unhelpful. Unless, of course, one wants to miss the full significance of the rebellion entirely (3).

That said, one must recognize that even at the height of the rebellion, when the fires of Oaxaca were seen as beacons of hope around the world, certain paradoxes were noted by some commentators. Here was a movement that resonated internationally with those opposed to the status quo, and yet within Mexico itself the rebellion found no large echo, and no sequels in terms of mass actions or similar rebellions. While there was extensive coverage of Oaxaca in the Mexican media, there was no general strike in the country in support of those being crushed by the repressive power of the state in November 2006. One, two, many Oaxacas did not erupt across Mexico.

Where the situationist Raoul Vaneigem saw a Oaxaca Commune - and in this rhetoric he was merely restating a theme used by others before him - a large number of Mexicans saw something else. Rightly or wrongly, they viewed Oaxaca as being one or more of various things: a corporatist, self-interested strike by teachers; a rebellion belonging to the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, and not the rest of Mexico; an entirely local affair that was for the Oaxacans to decide. While the influence of media distortions in such perceptions cannot be discounted, it does not explain everything. What is clear is that something in the Oaxacan movement, or in current Mexican realities, worked against its calling forth other such movements. Understanding this is perhaps the greatest analytical challenge confronting those identifying with the movement.


To get to a place where answers to the above questions can even be ventured, one must renounce the conceit of believing that one can “explain” Oaxaca, as if there were a single explanation (or set of explanations) that could be adduced, or as if those in the streets of Oaxaca (or elsewhere, for that matter) were waiting for some sort of benevolent act of critical interpretation that would bestow significance on what they have already made significant in their own lives.

It is also necessary to back up a bit, and to allow one to be astonished again at what did take place - and continues to take place - in Oaxaca. If such a commotion has been made about the Oaxaca rebellion, it is in the first place because of all the commotion occurring in Oaxaca itself. Beginning in June 2006, and continuing virtually without interruption for the next six months, the so-called common people of Oaxaca did uncommon things.

In an epoch in which environmental issues seem to trump all others (and there is no denying their fundamental importance), it is worth remembering that there is a human environment, and a social world, as well. What occurred in Oaxaca was an example of radical environmental change, one accomplished with a minimum of resources, and a maximum of initiative and creativity. It even extended to the kind of novel recycling plan implemented on the barricades of Oaxaca: scraps of junk, even entire automobiles, were put to new uses. The walls of the city were repainted with graffiti, featuring spray painted invectives and stenciled designs. Not all of this was at the level of poetry - far too much, in fact, remained at the level of mere sloganeering - but it did achieve the effect of reminding a world that had seen Oaxaca as only a quaint and picturesque market town that indeed something was happening in this place, that the city was a battleground whose identity was being disputed, its physiognomy refashioned.

This eruption of the marvelous in Oaxaca caught many by surprise. In the absence of serious research conducted on the scene or any comprehensive attempt to let the Oaxacan rebels tell their stories for themselves, various readymade analyses were put into service, without much concern as to whether were they were commensurate with the situation they purported to describe. It is not only the “corporate media” that engages in superficial reporting; many posting on Indymedia, while clearly motivated by something other than commercial gain, have been guilty of the same. In spite of the so-called “information age,” language and cultural barriers still exist that hinder a full translation of an event like Oaxaca into words, and for that matter, even Spanish words.

Many leftist supporters of the Oaxaca movement have produced a quick and easy solution to the riddle of its origins: it is all due to the ravages of “neo-liberalism.” Moreover, in a textbook case of a simplistic linking of “cause” and effect, the Oaxaca uprising is characterized as a response to, and revolt against, the deleterious impact of NAFTA and the Washington Consensus: the set of enforced trade agreements and financial policies that constitute the arsenal of neo-liberalism, which is only a newer name for laissez-faire and monetarist economics (of the Chicago school that wrought such havoc in Chile and Argentina, for example) (4).

Of course, just because an argument is simplistic - one thinks of the one positing the U.S.’s need for control over oil supplies as the root cause of its invasion of Iraq - doesn’t mean that it is wholly wrong. The question is whether neo-liberalism is the casus belli of the social war in Oaxaca, or even the primary target of those who have taken to its streets in protest.

Certainly, the damages wrought by neo-liberalism can be and have been measured. For the past nearly 20 years, Mexico has been caught in the vortex of a globalizing hypercapitalism and its transforming, destructive powers, of which NAFTA was only a relatively small expression (5). Before the implementation of NAFTA, the billionaire Texan populist Ross Perot warned darkly of the “giant sucking sound” that one would be able to hear as North American factory jobs migrated south of the U.S. border. He neither cared nor was clairvoyant enough to know that the post-NAFTA horror show he tried to scare American voters with would play out in a far more complicated way as far as Mexico was concerned.

Hydraulic forces would hollow out the U.S. economy without transferring substantial numbers of industrial or post-industrial jobs to Mexico, outside of those in the maquiladora (assembly for re-export, using mainly components of non-Mexican origin) zone along the U.S-Mexican border. And since it was indeed a question of a world market, and of a drive to find the lowest price for labor, Mexico was only of transient interest for transnational capital. Mexico began to lose jobs to China and elsewhere, as its export sector was undercut by products from areas where labor costs were even lower than its own. Investments in the small electronics sector in Mexico have yielded a relatively low number of jobs in high technology assembly and manufacturing, and these have been clustered around Jalisco and Mexico City, and in the maquiladora zone just described. In terms of information technology, what resulted was an “enclave economy,” and not any kind of “take off” of the Mexican economy as a whole. (For more on this subject, see Kevin P. Gallagher and Lyuba Zarsky, The Enclave Economy: Foreign Investment and Sustainable Development in Mexico’s Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Mass. (2007).)

Moreover, the magnetic pull of the United States - which for decades has been unofficially importing a cheap labor force for its agricultural and service sectors from Mexico - did not disappear with NAFTA. A significant number of Oaxacan workers have continued to migrate to el Norte, and their remittances have become a major source of income in the Oaxacan economy.

This larger story is really only part of the story insofar as Oaxaca is concerned, however. If NAFTA and the changes wrought by neo-liberal policies have shaped oppositional currents throughout Mexico, including Oaxaca, and sharpened their language in terms of a denunciation of foreign capital and globalization in general (a critique of domestic Mexican capital being another matter altogether (6)), they did not alone generate the social crisis that led to the Oaxaca rebellion.

In the case of Oaxaca, this crisis predates NAFTA, and even in the current period there are other factors at work. The Plan Puebla Panama, for example, which is designed to provide infrastructure for the easier transportation of goods and resources has been targeted by Oaxacan protesters who see it as leading to a further integration of their region into an area dominated by North American capitalism. This may indeed be the end result, but the Plan Puebla Panama was largely an initiative of the Mexican state, acting in concert with other countries in the region. It may ultimately serve the interests of foreign capital, but it also has a south Mexican and Central American dimension.

And while there is of course a larger context to the Oaxaca rebellion, its immediate dimensions were shaped less by neo-liberalism in the abstract than by concrete regional characteristics of social stratification, culture, and history, including the tradition of organized protest in Oaxaca state. This also meant that while the movement had a local coloration, a uniquely Oaxacan identity, it was for this very same reason a deeply rooted, embedded phenomenon, one that could not easily be suppressed, removed, or indeed replicated elsewhere.

The rebellion was further defined by the kind of power structure it opposed, which again had specifically Oaxacan features, ones not necessarily found everywhere else in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the dinosaurs of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, the political party that had perpetuated its rule at the national level through clientelism, repression, and the creation of a large public sector) were still in power in Oaxaca state and practicing their decades-long traditions of corruption and brutality, using caciques (political bosses) as their local surrogates. For a long time, power had been enforced in Oaxaca at the point of a gun, coupled with a kind of institutionalized bribery: the granting of subsidies to various organizations, including those perceived to be a potential threat to the social order. Under Ulises Ruiz Ortiz’s predecessor, José Murat, these subsidies were given to indigenous groups, including some organizations who loudly proclaimed their Magonista radicalism, such as the CIPO-RFM (Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca - Ricardo Flores Magón) (7). The withdrawal of such subsidies by Ulises Ruiz Ortiz may have been the first of the many missteps he made in confronting opposition to his rule.

Ulises Ruiz Ortiz’s decision to unleash his police against an encampment of teachers on their annual strike for better pay and improvements in the educational system was the spark that ignited a rebellion, producing a broader and bolder social movement in the streets of Oaxaca. What emerged when the clouds of tear gas cleared in June, 2006 was APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Its creation - in what was a classic example of a collective invention, with no individual author or instigator - was a manifestation, and the direct expression, of a struggle that had become both wider and deeper. The “assembly” part of its name was an assertion of the supposed sovereignty of its rank and file, which meant that the movement would, in theory, no longer be beholden to the teachers’ union and its bureaucracy.


When looked at retrospectively, the trajectory of the Oaxaca rebellion resembles that of one of the fireworks that were used as improvised weapons by the movement. There was a smoldering at the beginning, a swift ascent, and then an explosion that left pieces and burning embers scattered on the ground. In trying to discern just where the brightest sparks were, some recapitulation of the key episodes in the movement is necessary. Furthermore, an interpretation of the movement’s rise and fall requires a closer scrutiny of its various components.

APPO was a problematic entity from its inception. It quickly became clear that, in its emphasis on a kind of lowest-common-denominator unity, APPO had become all things to all people, being part bureaucratic condominium and part social movement. For the anti-authoritarian component of the rebellion, it was an example of direct democracy. For the Stalinists of the FPR (Revolutionary Popular Front, an organization controlled by the Communist Party of Mexico (Marxist-Leninist)), whose operatives moved aggressively to install themselves in positions of leadership, empowering themselves as spokespersons for APPO, it represented a golden opportunity to expand their influence. Other political groupings, such as NIOAX (The New Left of Oaxaca in which the político Flavio Sosa - and the first political prisoner of the Oaxacan movement - had found his latest perch), saw an opening for a more conventional kind of political advancement. In the words of those who later criticized such manipulation and opportunism, APPO was viewed by some as a “trampoline”: its power could be leveraged to achieve other aims, whether securing elective office or furthering the agenda of a Marxist-Leninist party, or both at the same time. The much vaunted “autonomy” of the base of APPO was often more honored in the breach than in reality, at least within the assembly itself.

As mentioned previously, the Oaxaca rebellion did not appear ex nihilo or simply as a spontaneous response to economic and political circumstances. There had been a longstanding history of opposition to the status quo in the state of Oaxaca, one in which the tactic of the plantón (protest encampment) had been used repeatedly; indeed, it was part of the repertoire of social protest in Mexico generally. Over two decades, Section 22 of the teachers union had demonstrated its combativeness and its demands often exceeded purely economic categories: better education for indigenous peoples has been foremost among them. However, there had also been a clear limit to the kind of struggle waged by the teachers. While often portrayed as altruistic champions of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca - and behind this idealized portrait there is indeed some truth - the teachers’ struggle clearly also had an element of self-interest.

For example, it was no accident that the leadership of the teachers’ union, immediately prior to intervention of the Federal Police in October 2006, was prepared to cut a deal and sell out the rest of APPO. This betrayal was denounced by the rest of the Oaxacan movement, including the rank and file of the teachers union itself, but the picture was not as simple as a clear division between union bureaucrats on the one side and radical base on the other. Within the teachers union, and in opposition to its more mainstream leadership, the Stalinists of the FPR had a considerable following, and this was the organizational fulcrum that allowed them to effectively colonize much of APPO itself, installing their activists in key positions and attempting to curtail and silence the anti-authoritarian currents within the larger rebellion. It is perhaps no surprise that radical Oaxacan teachers, who like their counterparts in so many other countries see themselves as bearers of consciousness to the unenlightened masses, would also be such avid Marxist-Leninists.

Before this dreary denouement, however, a good deal else happened in Oaxaca that was due to the initiatives of the movement’s base and which largely escaped the strict control of its proto-bureaucratic “representatives.” These outlined a new configuration of social power in Oaxaca, but not in the classic sense of “dual power” so often discussed by revolutionary theorists in the twentieth century. In Oaxaca, this reconfiguration was more implicit than explicit, more “nomadic” and mobile than something objectified. This relative failure of the movement is something its critics on the left point to, but they overlook the fact that it was “in its own existence in acts” that the Paris Commune had value in the eyes of Marx.

What still isn’t clear at this late date is what happened inside APPO, and what its proceedings were like. We know that there countless meetings, and that various commissions were elected with specific tasks to accomplish. In this respect, there does seem to have been a principle of mandates that operated within APPO. But the fact that various spokespersons (and it worth reiterating that these were for the most part Stalinists) continued to speak for the movement, without any accountability to its base, throws this into question. The fact that the assembly insisted on functioning on the basis of consensus, at least in its first few months, is also interesting, but no less problematic. Strict adherence to consensus would seem ipso facto to mitigate against the ability of a radical minority to have its viewpoints expressed in the assembly. Anti-authoritarians within the movement would later discover the limits of such a principle, and of an illusory consensus that in any case was not something that bothered the unscrupulous operators of the FPR. At present, we have no transcripts available to see if the deliberations of the rank and file of APPO meeting in assembly were, in fact, analogous to the debates of the Petrograd Soviet or to revolutionary workers’ assemblies in Barcelona in 1936-1937. For all of the use of the term “Oaxaca Commune,” at this point it can only be understood at best as a goal the movement aspired to, and at worst as mere wishful thinking.

What is clear, however, is that the period of October-November 2006 was the highwater of the Oaxaca rebellion, and the decisive stage for the movement in a strategic sense. With the entry of the Federal police into the city on October 29, 2006, the movement was confronted by the armed power of the Mexican state, and not just the police and goons ( porros) of the governor. Following this intervention, the rebellion was first placed on the defensive, being dislodged from its central positions in and around the zócalo (town square or plaza) and falling back, under the pressure of riot police and tear gas fired from helicopters and on the ground, toward the area around the university.

On November 2, 2006, as the police moved toward the university to silence the movement’s remaining radio station (one that had served as a vital means of coordinating resistance to the police), a defense was mounted by the rebellion, using the barricades that had already been erected in the city. Determined street fighters were successful in thwarting the police advance into the university, and for a time it looked as though the movement had regained the initiative. But after this victory in the streets, protesters sought to retake the zócalo on November 25, 2006, and in doing so they fell into trap designed expertly by the authorities, who launched their own violent counter-offensive against the movement. The results of this would be counted in the scores of wounded protesters, the killings conducted by porros, the imprisonment of activists, and a general strategic situation in which the movement was forced underground and literally put on the run.

When the rebellion raised its head again in Oaxaca City in early 2007, it was not the same movement. The movement confronted a kind of police state at the local level, while its own contradictions had sharpened, reaching the breaking point. Already, on November 25, 2006, at a crucial moment of confrontation with the police, the self-styled leadership of APPO had tried to remove the Cinco Señores barricade, only to be shouted down by its defenders, who refused to move. A more general split between the Stalinist, official face of APPO and the anti-authoritarian currents within its base was intensifying, and would emerge in broad daylight in early 2007.


In the beginning of September 2006, at a time when barricades surged throughout the city of Oaxaca, it was evident that an unprecedented occurrence was taking place: the city had been converted into a laboratory. Never in the contemporary history of the country and its cities had barricades been erected on such a large scale (and neither had there been spontaneous creations of such amplitude in an urban setting in Mexico), something that also implies that never before had the population of a city taken control of such an extensive urban area.
-- Hector Ballesteros, Introduction to Puntos B: Cartografias de una ciudad en crisis: Oaxaca 2006, interactive DVD, 2007 (

As well as a narrative of politics at the macro and micro levels, the Oaxaca rebellion should be understood in terms of the creation of an alternative social space within the city of Oaxaca itself. This space was created by means of occupations, the erecting of barricades, and in the large street protests (called “megamarches,” often, but not always, accurately) conducted by the movement over a period of many months. As much as any meeting of APPO, this is where the movement expressed itself and, like so many other similar movements, free and creative expression was one of its central characteristics. The rebellion itself was a kind of streaming torrent of words, images, and deeds. These left their imprint on the walls of the city, on the intersections of its streets, and in the minds of its inhabitants. When the police reoccupied the center of Oaxaca, one of the first acts of the authorities was to order a painting over of all graffiti, an act that resulted in swathes of different colored paint replacing the slogans and stencils of the movement. This abstract police “art” was designed to erase all traces of the rebellion, but all it did was to provide those with cans of spray paint a fresh canvas for their works.

As Hector Ballesteros implies in his remark about Oaxaca becoming a “laboratory,” the rebellion had an experimental quality in the uses it made of the city. Whatever its shortcomings in terms of political clarity or an ability to generalize its struggle, the rebels of Oaxaca showed a remarkable endurance, as a well as a considerable talent for improvisation and innovation.

One of the myths that has grown up around the movement, and needs dispelling even at the risk of upsetting many of its supporters, is that the rebellion was completely or even essentially non-violent. While the movement seems to have made a collective decision not to escalate its own violence, and to act in self-defense of the spaces it occupied, it was not a peaceful struggle in the pacifist sense. Instead, it was a hybrid: something more than a movement conducting civil disobedience, and something less than urban guerrilla warfare, it had aspects of both.

The term “asymmetrical warfare” is a buzzword among military theorists, a euphemism for a battle in which the sides are unequal, or wage qualitatively different kinds of combat. For such analysts, the Oaxaca movement may ultimately serve as a textbook case. An interesting example of the rebellion’s creativity is how participants gave a new and positive meaning to the phrase “smoke and mirrors.” At crucial points in the battles with police, groups of bazuqueros (named for the plastic tubes they used as launchers for fireworks) would shoot sky rockets at the police lines, thereby partially offsetting the effect of volleys of teargas directed at the protesters. Buses were also set on fire and rolled toward police lines: these were called kamikazes. (If nothing else, the Oaxaca rebellion has added some new words to the lexicon of radical social protest.)

Mirrors were used both to reflect light and to put matters in a different light. When a police helicopter circled over a crowd of protesters on November 1, 2006, hundreds of hand mirrors were used by those on the ground in an attempt to confuse or disorient the pilot. If nothing else, it showed the Mexican armed forces that they were dealing with a movement that was not easily intimidated. After reports of rapes and other violence by police against women who had been arrested, protesters held up larger mirrors to the federal police, who could their faces in the mirrors with the superimposed words: “I am a rapist.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the Oaxaca rebellion, and one that may in fact define it for posterity, has been the degree to which women have participated in it, creating their own space within the movement and undertaking important initiatives of their own. In this, they have directly challenged the reigning machismo of Mexican society in general and the patriarchal traditions of indigenous culture in Oaxaca state specifically. The radical redefinition of gender roles is a topic much discussed in the well appointed campuses of North American and European academia. In Oaxaca, such change has had a more down-to-earth and substantive meaning: relations between men and women, and among diverse categories of people generally, are being renegotiated in everyday life and in the context of a radical social movement.

Women took the lead in one of the most remarkable episodes in the rebellion: the taking over of a local television station, which then resumed broadcasting as a movement station, with the occupiers creating new programs, conducting interviews, and radically altering the balance of media power within the city. Not of all of these broadcasts were free of dogma or repetition, but in at least some of them a rebellious, alternative spirit shone through.

Young people also played a major role in all phases of the rebellion, contributing both élan in the street fighting and taking the initiative in creating alternative media that played a vital role as sources of tactical intelligence (about police movements, for example) and as a means of communicating the ideas of the movement to the surrounding population. These media included the radio stations used by the movement, as well as publications like Barrikada and various cultural workshops that brought fresh perspectives and new idioms to social protest in Oaxaca. And this was all done without younger activists ever narrowly defining themselves as protagonists of a “revolt of youth.”

However, there was a far from progressive aspect to the rebellion’s relation to its very youngest participants, and this was the curious (and perhaps culturally specific) use of children as mascots who mimicked adults in giving staged performances of speeches before much older audiences, mouthing words that they clearly could not have written, much less fully understood. This was repeated in similarly scripted appearances by children in programs broadcast by the occupied television station and by the movement’s radio stations. What may have looked cute to a Oaxacan audience only seems to an outsider to be both contrived and cloying, however benign its intention may have been. Documentaries made by U.S. and Mexican independent media have recorded such scenes without any comment, displaying a kind of paternalistic indulgence that ironically, and no doubt unintentionally, echoes past stereotypes of indigenous peoples as “nature’s children.”

In terms of the socio-economic categories represented in the movement, great attention has been paid of course to the role of teachers, at least initially, and that played by the working population generally in Oaxaca, along with the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods. Marxists have seen the heterogeneity of the movement as its Achilles’ heel: it was not strictu sensu a "truly working class" phenomenon. This may indeed be a reason why the movement did not receive tangible support elsewhere in Mexico, unlike recent strikes there that have received an active response from other workers. But the issue of class, in a era in which so many fixed social categories, including class structure, are being disarticulated or recomposed, is one that is in need of a radical rethinking to begin with, especially as the much-touted “modern proletariat” dear to situationists and others has yet to make its appointed rendezvous with history. There is no doubt, however, that a sociological inventory of the Oaxacan movement would reveal specific characteristics that may not be found elsewhere, either in Mexico or in other countries.


Where does the sound come from?
It is the sound of the barricade…
-- “The Sound of the Barricade,” a song of the Oaxaca rebellion

One category of participants that is discussed by Mexican observers, but by few outsiders, is that of the chavos banda, a term that is difficult to render into English, but which means something like “street toughs” or “hoodlums” (a French equivalent might be blousons noirs). This group played an active role in the rebellion, especially on the barricades and in the fighting with police, and became so conspicuous as to figure in the polemics of others. Not surprisingly, since these were members of the “lumpen-proletariat” (and one must remember just how pejorative and subjective a term this is, and that it is another of Marx’s more dubious theoretical legacies), they were viewed with scorn by the Stalinists of the FPR and by those with a more secure social status generally, such as the teachers and the petty bourgeois elements who were also part of the movement. And it is not an unambiguous story, for that matter. Many of these politicized street fighters were influenced by anarchist ideas (another reason why they were treated with such disdain by Marxist-Leninists), but that didn’t mean that their autonomous actions always made strategic sense to the organized anarchists in Oaxaca. Clearly, however, it would be interesting to know more about how such tensions have played out since the end of November 2006, and to learn what has happened to the chavos banda since the ebbing of the rebellion as a movement in the streets.

In addition to those on the barricades, the other radical focii of the Oaxaca rebellion were comprised of those groups and individuals within APPO who challenged the hegemony of the FPR Stalinists over the formal structures of the assembly. These anti-authoritarians, who loosely comprised the Magonista/anti-bureaucratic wing of the movement, did have a conscious political perspective, one that was committed to free debate and the autonomous power of the rank and file of APPO. Having been outmaneuvered by the FPR in the early phase of the assembly, these elements - who included the groups that make up the Alianza Magonista Zapatista and the more recently-formed VOCAL (Voces Oaxaqueñas Construyendo Autonomía y Libertad, or Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom) - were in a weak position to challenge the Stalinists, especially when the base of APPO could no longer meet easily or openly in the wake of the severe repression in the weeks and months after November 2006. However, these groups did publicize their vehement criticisms of the FPR’s manipulative politics and its character assassinations of those opposed to its vise-like hold on APPO (for English translations of materials detailing the positions of the anti-authoritarian left in Oaxaca, see

Shortly after these divisions within APPO came out into the open, the leading activist of VOCAL, David Venegas, was imprisoned by the state, giving the anti-authoritarians in Oaxaca a figure and a cause (political prisoners) around which they could rally, as they also tried at the same time to disseminate their anti-Stalinist views on the future of the movement. However, the imprisonment of Venegas deprived them of an eloquent and sharp tongue, one that was unafraid of taking the fight to the FPR (Venegas was released from prison - for the time being - in early March 2008, but still faces trial on a number of charges). In late 2007, the anti-bureaucratic wing of APPO held a public meeting, which called itself the Third State Assembly of APPO, one that was convened in an open break with the FPR or “official” wing of APPO. This brought together a number of groups, as well as representatives from neighborhoods and the (former) barricades, including a considerable number of young anti-authoritarians.

While this development seemed to indicate that there was a clear opening for the anti-Stalinist sector to grow and establish itself on its own terms as an autonomous movement (with or without the use of the APPO name, which some in VOCAL saw as already badly compromised by the actions of the FPR), but it appears that, for the time being at least, the Oaxacan anti-authoritarians are waging a valiant but lonely battle, making do with limited resources and attracting only a relatively small number of people to their cause.

State repression and the bureaucratic politics of the FPR and its teachers’ affiliate have taken their toll in Oaxaca. The movement is no longer what it was, and no longer mobilizes the crowds it did in its heyday. Thrown on the defensive, what remains of the rebellion has been reduced to almost a single demand - the one, overriding issue that has been there from the beginning - the removal of the reviled Ulises Ruiz Ortiz from office. In doing so, the movement has become self-limiting: it no longer overtly embodies a vision of a different society, something that is admittedly very hard to do in present circumstances. Still, meetings take place, and young anarchists have been especially active in keeping the flames of the rebellion from being entirely extinguished. Meanwhile, the teachers’ union has gone its own way again, and while making an appeal for the release of political prisoners, has essentially returned to the terrain of corporatist, economic demands.

The last pages of the Oaxaca revolt clearly have not been written yet. However, if the rebellion is ever to become a mass phenomenon again, and if its message is to be taken up elsewhere in Mexico, it will have to, somewhat paradoxically, reconnect with the larger Oaxacan society while trying to break out of being narrowly typecast as a purely Oaxacan movement. It is a very tall order, and it seems arrogant for those on the outside to criticize the shortcomings of a rebellion that went as far as the one in Oaxaca did. But turning a blind eye to the movement’s weaknesses and dilemmas is of no use to anyone.

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