Sergio Beltran (Universidad de la Tierra)

What is Now Activism?: The Case of Oaxacan Society Uprising


In the last two years, with a very diverse group of people, I have become involved in a process of experiencing, reflecting and discussing the changes and shifts in the activism during the last four decades. We have been unfolding new characteristics and definitions of the human life flow, and the way personal and collective “moves” influence the way societies are organized. The transformation is happening not only at the visible layer of the “strategies” of protesting, but at deeper levels, affecting the means and purposes of activists’ demands themselves.


In the middle of the 20th century, activists around the world were protesting and demanding the recognition of civil and human rights around the “civilized” countries”. They demanded the State and the rest of society recognize equality among people living in the same country . . . even at a “human” level. At the same time, the colonial countries (in the traditional use of the concept) testify to the organization of the “radicals” (labeled wrongly by the “experts”) in liberation and guerilla armies, fighting for independence. After they succeeded (at least at some level) the “strategies” of struggle and demonstration, as well as the means of the protest switched in some degree. Recognized at the general level as the right to “equality”, the demand was for the local power institutions of the State to make the legal changes that allowed the people to effectively address their rights. A few years later, the struggle was concentrated on demanding that the “global” institutions draw the frames to contain the “local” governments and societies. At that moment, activists and general societies felt the right to protest and try to change any social, economic, environmental, gender, etc., injustice around the world.


Something that was shared by all the activist and social movements described above, is the notion that power is somehow held by “others”, out of the people’s hands. And that it was necessary to demand that the “legitimate” holders of that power consider the ways they were exercising power, in order to achieve people’s desire for the “way it should be”.


In recent times, the western “modern” conception of power has been changing. Increasingly around the world, activists, social studies “professionals” and people in general have started to believe that power is somehow in their own hands, that it is something that depends on the individual and could be shared at the community and social level. It is,  in opposition to the “modern” concept, under people’s control, and representative democracy has been challenged. Diverse social movements and actions taken by activists around the world are now exercising that “power” for social transformation with effective actions for change. We are not “demanding” that someone else do the changes or actions we want; we are not “waiting” for the “proper conditions” to live the way we want. We are transforming our realities at the local level, without abandoning the hope that this transformation could be a “good example” for others to effectively transform the world we live in.


The Oaxacan case

The social uprising that has been occurring in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is a good example of the transformation at the core of activists’ and social movements’ conceptions. This is true not only at the strategy level or at the level of the means for social transformation or the way we conceive power, but it is also a radical change in the “typical” actors of social change.


On May 20, 2006, the local section of the teacher union started a conventional strike to demand better work conditions and an incremental increase in their salary levels. At the beginning, ordinary people and social organizations were not paying attention to them. Teachers sitting in the main plaza of the city was quite normal, people were used to it. The strike happens every single year when the labor contract of the teachers reaches a level of new negotiations. After an intense media campaign against the teachers’ union, on June 14 the local government decided to use the police for repression of the strike. What was considered by the rest of Oaxacan society to be a “normal” labor strike, then catalyzed into a questioning of Oaxaca’s government. All the social inconformity that was isolated until that moment, all the struggles, unified against the governor.


In the days after the unsuccessful attempt to “finish” the teachers protest, the strike was transformed into a generalized social movement against the constituted powers. The labor and economic demands of the union were put aside, and the general demand was the dimition of the governor. The call reached society at all levels: social and civil organizations, “alternative” political parties, communities, indigenous movements and almost all the grassroots organizations and collectives. All of these came together to “fight” together for the common purpose.


The demand that the “head” of the government step down was just giving a frame for the real struggle. The real reason for the people’s struggle is the effective transformation of the power structure and the framing of new social “rules” for living together. People discovered that effective power is held by all and they are using it to put pressure on the constituted institutions to transform the way society has been commonly “ruled” in Oaxaca.


The way this collective and popular movement has decide to organize themselves is one of the key elements that made me feel it is a good example of the way activism is NOW under transformation. In order to coordinate and guarantee that very different efforts, demands and social collectives (some who’d consider others the “enemy”) could work together, Oaxacans decided to search their roots to find a way to ensure that their actions could be effective, and at the same time, prevent majority groups from imposing their vision and strategies on others. In indigenous communities, they found the assembly structure for social dialogue and collective decision-making . At the end of June, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) was born. The name implicitly recognizes the plurality and multi-culturality of Oaxacan society. At the beginning, urban “professional” analysts, were making fun of the idea that a popular Assembly needed to be of the people. The use of the plural is a recognition of the multiple differences between social and cultural groups, that at the same time, recognize each other as equals.


The decision-making process is “filtered” by using consensus as the only way to take decisions; the voting model is only used to take minor decisions (the date or route of a demonstration, but never the strategic importance of doing it or not; the use of a word or another in a document, but never the content of it). The Assembly model has open spaces of participation for social groups never listened to before (like the women’s movement, youth, etc.). It has enabled otherwise “antagonistic” groups to discuss and struggle together. In a session of the Assembly, the Marxist/Leninist Communist party can testify on one side, and on the other, the grassroots groups of the Catholic church.  Both listen to the other side’s arguments and express their own arguments and often, discover together that both are part of what has been notoriously recognized in Oaxaca in recent days as The People.


During the last 7 months, the State of Oaxaca constituted power has been effectively “neutralized” by peoples’ actions. The struggle has unmasked the idea that a society cannot exist without strong governmental institutions. Peoples’ organizations at all levels have substituted government actions that weren’t easy to imagine before. Some examples could illuminate this. After 3 weeks with no one collecting the garbage, several neighborhoods in the city of Oaxaca started to organize themselves and now the parks of the city have benefited with several composts and recycling projects have more clients than ever. At some corners of the city, garbage was used as construction material for the barricades. Unfortunately, those images were circulated (out of context) around the world by the mainstream media, without any understanding of the deep meaning of both the barricades and the use of the garbage.


Another amazing example of the Assembly process is the way people deal with security. For ages, humanity was told that police and government institutions were necessary for the sake of peoples’ security. However, there was no police presence at all for four months in the city of Oaxaca, as well as in several other parts of the state, and there was not an increment of insecurity in the streets. An international journalist was telling me one night, while we were visiting some barricades, that she couldn’t imagine any other city in the world that has burned in fire and wasn’t robbed after two days without police. Even though several thieves were “arrested” by Assembly members, there was not an increase in delinquency during the period that people controlled the streets. Nor was there any massive attack to commerce like the ones that the mainstream media needed (and sometimes even claimed) to increase their sales. The people organized night barricades not to protect themselves from other people, but for protection against the paramilitary attacks that plain clothed police officers (but using official cars and guns) and governor supporters perpetrated at night against the movement. The worst attack to formal commerce was not perpetrated by the protesters. It was done the night the Federal Police took the plaza and moved the people out. An owner of a newspaper stand declared to the media the next morning that after 5 months of people controlling the plaza, his business had never been attacked, but the night the Feds came in, they took all the magazines and destroyed the stand. Even the mainstream media circulated this story (all of them were recording the interview). So, in concern for security, another mask fell down.


But the most notorious change that the Oaxacan struggle has shown is the way different actors are participating in this process. Different social groups have come together in an unique way, trying to reach a new way of governance for the state of Oaxaca, and through that, for the country. Non-violent actions (often brutally attacked by the government) have been the strategy to bring together gigantic demonstrations, where people from all over the state, from all different cultures, beliefs and social sectors, came together to show the strength of The People, recognizing diversity as the only way to reach unity. It is important to remember here, that even though they had been historically and systematically ignored by governmental institutions, the Oaxaca movement has followed all the legal ways of demanding the removal of the governor and a new constitution, or at least, radical changes to local laws. Government institutions have been scaling up the conflict.


On August 1, the women actively participating in the Assembly had a parade (literally, without women, this movement wouldn’t made half of the actions it has made). After their protest (a peaceful but very noisy march of the women around the city smashing pots and other kitchen materials, which is becoming a popular action in Oaxaca), they took the decision to “do something” against the local government TV channel’s misinformation about the Assembly. They decided to march to the channel and demand for an hour to broadcast their position. When they arrived, the manager of the TV station (another woman) laughed at the hundreds of women sitting outside her office and denied the petition. Then the channel was “taken” by the women. They sent home all the staff, who first turned off the equipment to prevent the women from broadcasting themselves. However, a few hours later, the movement was broadcasting, giving voice to anyone who asked and increasing their capacity to transfer information.


After almost a month of the TV in the hands of the movement (plus the university radio and the teachers’ union pirate radio) the violence imposed its logic. The government shot out their own transmitter to remove the TV from the airways. The police action took place around 3 in the morning and by 7 a.m. all the commercial radio stations (12) were taken by the movement, who recognized the importance of alternative media use and communication as a strategic way of struggle.


These are a few examples of the new ways struggle is being born in Oaxaca. They are not the only ones, and not only in Oaxaca, but may be found around the world. However, the innovation of the Oaxaca struggle is not in the actors or in the strategy, or in any specific action.  Instead, the new is rooted in the general conviction that power is in the hands of the people, that now, we are the ones called to make the change, that never again will people renounce their power to the hands of representation, no matter how legitimate it could be. That conception of power is what is challenging the formal politicians. And that is what will never allow Oaxaca to be normal or what we used to be again. And that is what NOW we want to share with the world.