The popular movement of Oaxaca, ten years later

The 2006 popular revolt in Oaxaca was the most significant movement in Mexico's recent history. 10 years on, its heritage lies in multiple protest action and stronger social relations among the population. Español

Manuel Garza Zepeda
8 December 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Scene from the APPO clashes with the state government in Oaxaca, June 2006. Wikimedia/Trebolbit. Some rights reserved.

Scene from the APPO clashes with the state government in Oaxaca, June 2006. Wikimedia/Trebolbit. Some rights reserved.The state of Oaxaca is located in southeastern Mexico. The state has a total population of about 3.5 million; at least a third are speakers of indigenous languages. Besides that, it is one of the poorest states in the country. But it has, too, a long history of popular struggles against the state. Three governors were ousted in the twentieth century. In this rich tradition of political struggles, teachers have been very important, especially in the last three decades.

June of 2016 marked the 10 year anniversary of the start of one of the more relevant political struggles in recent history, not only in Oaxaca but in the whole of Mexico, and with some resonance abroad. The name of the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca’s Peoples/ Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca — APPO, in Spanish — travelled in 2006 throughout the latitudes of the world. APPO synthesised the eagerness, hopes and efforts of thousands of women and men who were then calling for the ousting of a governor who had been accused of being corrupt, a repressor, a despot, and criminal. For approximately four months, the APPO kept control of the state capital, practically impeding the functions of public powers and taking over some of the media outlets including radio stations and Oaxaca’s public broadcasting television channel. 

The movement found its origins in the struggle of the Oaxacan teachers from the 22nd section of the national teachers union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion, SNTE). In 2006 they demanded the state and federal governments attend to a range of problems connected to their working conditions. The state government's repression of teacher protests in turn gave birth to the APPO movement. In November 2006, six months after it had started, the movement was again brutally repressed by the federal government. 

Ten years later, in May, 2016, Oaxacan teachers engaged in a new struggle, this time against an educational reform passed by the Mexican national government that gravely affects the work rights of teachers. The teachers' fight benefited once again from a strong popular support. The protesters set up road blockades throughout the state. On 19 June the state and federal police initiated an operation to clear the highway that connects Mexico City to the state capital of Oaxaca. It resulted in a series of clashes between the police and inhabitants of the surrounding villages (Asuncion Nochixtlan, San Pablo Huitzo, San Francisco Telixtlahuaca, Hacienda Blanca and Viguera) and resulted in eight deaths, 226 injured civilians, and 27 arrests by the police forces.

Oaxaca: home of protests

On the other hand, protest has become part of daily life in the main cities of the state of Oaxaca, which experience regular road closures, blockades, occupations of public buildings, work strikes, pickets, and marches. All kinds of collectives take over the streets to express their demands: public health workers, students, neighbourhood associations, freight haulers, cab drivers, or local merchants. There can be several protest actions on the same day in the capital city of Oaxaca.

It has been suggested that the accumulation of protest actions and blockades reflects a weakness in the state government, illustrating its inability to “maintain order”. Small business owners, depending primarily on tourism, believe that the manipulation of the population by leaders for economic or political gain lie behind the protests. Others maintain that the high levels of socioeconomic inequalities, corruption, insecurity and injustice in Oaxaca are the real origins of the protests. The experience acquired by activists and protesters during the movements in 2006 is probably another factor.

A number of parallels have been drawn between teachers’ protests in 2016 and the 2006 struggles, under the premise that we could witness a rebirth of the APPO movement. It hasn’t been the case so far. The 2006 struggles remain however a major reference point for today’s actors and a constant point of comparison.

The Popular Movement of Oaxaca in 2006 

APPO barricade in Oaxaca, June 2006. Wikimedia/public domain.

APPO barricade in Oaxaca, June 2006. Wikimedia/public domain.

Since the 1980s, Oaxacan teachers have occupied part of the historical downtown of Oaxaca to get the state government to pay attention to their demands. In 2006, just as they did in previous years, teachers presented their requests, that were scarcely addressed by the state government. The teachers then resorted to the forms of action they had developed during 25 years: street barricades, public gatherings, and rallies convening the 70,000 teachers who composed the state section of the teachers’ union in 2006. The most striking of its forms of action is the plantón (occupation of the main square and surrounding buildings). Starting on May 22, camping tents, tarps and multi-coloured plastic roof covers lent an alternative appearance to the colonial architecture, although it was becoming an increasingly common sight in downtown Oaxaca.

At dawn, on the 14 June 2006, the Oaxacan State government attempted to evict teachers who had been occupying the main square and 56 square blocks within the historic district of downtown Oaxaca. Minutes before 5am, the teachers who were sleeping in the main square and the surrounding streets were violently evicted, with heavy use of tear gases and batons. News from the violent eviction spread like wildfire throughout the city. Marches were immediately organised to repudiate the action. Assistance was provided to those harmed by the gas or injured in the havoc. Some even joined in the clashes against the police, employing stones, sticks, pipes or anything within reach. A couple of hours later, the main square was back under the teachers' control.

Teachers who were sleeping in the main square and the surrounding streets were violently evicted, with heavy use of tear gases and batons

In the following days, massive marches took place, referred to as “megamarchas” by the activists and the teachers. On 16 June, answering the call for action by the teachers' union and over 80 additional organisations, the APPO was formally installed. It was meant as a coordinating body to enable the joint involvement of all of the interested organisations and avoid the loss of participation momentum. They chose the assembly as their main organisational form, a choice rooted in daily practices of most Oaxacan rural communities and some urban spaces, as well as by the local section of the teachers’ union. 

The APPO's main demand was the ousting of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who was responsible for the repression suffered during the failed eviction of the teachers from the main square. The escalation of the confrontations with the government, the convergence of multiple organisations, and of thousands of unaffiliated individuals added a great number of claims and multiple grievances affecting the general population. Between June and December of 2006, the APPO deployed multiple forms of resistance and activism that went beyond conventional protest. They added street barricades and broadcast on occupied radio stations and a public television channel to the massive marches and rallies.

In spite of the attempts to coordinate the totality of the movement, groups of individuals also took the streets and took it upon themselves to enforce some collective decisions. Here lies the most important contribution of the 2006 struggles: the recovery of the decision-making capacities of subjects who had been previously rendered powerless. They were able to regain control over their own lives during the conflict and to decide, organise and practice different forms of relating to one another. 

Yet those months in 2006 were not lightning in clear skies. They emerged from a long and daily struggle against domination, as a moment which stood for freedom and for the possibility of living a life with dignity, in which one can make decisions about what one wants to do and how one wants to do it. 

At a particular point in the struggle Oaxaca was an explosion of exploration, of quests in uncertainty, of the impromptu; of giving birth to the attempted newness in the everyday, denying everything that denies us and makes us the appendages of a production system directed to delivering profits. In those months, thousands of separate individual fights against the dominance of capital found a way to be articulated and to build collectively new ways of relating — or what John Holloway has called “other forms of doing.” 

Within the barricades a collectiveness was built, thus negating the fragmentation imposed by capitalist domination

In the streets, in the barricades, during festivities, the capacity of the people was restored, their power to make common decisions, to organise and put pressure on a city and on a government that had become unbearable. People found a way to create those forms of articulation, rejecting everything that meant they would be losing their decision-making autonomy. People erred; they fell into contradictions, but they did so with a profound dignity. During festivities and within the barricades a collectiveness was built, thus negating the fragmentation imposed by capitalist domination.

This action, the rejection of ‘separate-ness’, or collectiveness, allowed them to go beyond simply refusing a government; instead they went on a quest for new forms of relating, taking into account all of their contradictions and limitations while questioning and trying to find a collective answer, rather than merely relying on pre-established political programs for guidance. That was the APPO: quest and experimentation. It was the fight itself, not its formal structures. It was the attempt to organise without creating organisations.

Is the APPO back?

In the ten years that have passed since the APPO struggles, those efforts to create other forms of relations — to do it autonomously and not leave it to hierarchies — did not go away. But they are no longer so evident. They go unreported in newspapers or on television. From the mainstream media perspective, images of angry mobs clashing with police, broken windows and/or burning cars are more relevant than the relatively mundane construction of a neighbourhood collective, with their concrete practices that reject the domination of money.

This perspective is not exclusive to the media, however. We can also find it in the organs of power. Political power attempts to orient the struggles to forms that can be managed. Those forms can be found within institutional politics (parties, elections, parliaments), but also in social movements. Because, even when it seems like a paradox, political power can better manage demands if they are framed concretely by organisations or groups protesting in the streets, however radical their actions may seem. Violence even can be legally repressed but not the creation of collectives that decide to live in another way and to create other forms of doing.

Political power attempts to orient the struggles to forms that can be managed

In such a way, the last ten years of Oaxacan administrations have pushed those who protest to make their claims through ‘manageable channels’. The negotiations between the government and the protest groups have been charted on a roadmap that does not necessarily fall within legal channels. Yet what appeared fundamental for the local government was the subordinate position of the people, groups and organisations, as claimants. In other words, negotiation should stem from the recognition that government institutions have been established as agents with the capacity to grant an answer to their requests. The violence of mobilised groups against governments does not necessarily change that recognition, since it is only a resource to get an answer. 

The claims can thus be formulated in quite diverse manners: in written form, through public rallies, road blocks, occupations of public buildings, blockades of offices, and strikes. But in spite of the different degrees of violence they may imply, they do not fundamentally alter the structure of political relation: a mobilised group demands an institution of the state to make a decision in a determined sense. The power to make a decision remains at the same end of the relationship. 

That relationship became spontaneously questioned in the struggles of 2006. However, in spite of some apparent radicalisation associated with the degree of violence deployed in collective actions, the current fights in Oaxaca show only a presumed coincidence with what happened ten years earlier. The occurrence of similar protest actions means undoubtedly a rising non-conformity. At the same time, the relation of subordination exemplified by the formulation of demands remains at the core of the current framing of the claims. Besides, the fragmentation of the protests, often dominated by demands that express the interests of particular groups, points to a very different actor from the APPO structures that aimed to become an articulation of diverse interests.

Protests in Oaxaca city centre on 22 June 2006. Wikimedia/R4Che1. Some rights reserved.

Protests in Oaxaca city centre on 22 June 2006. Wikimedia/R4Che1. Some rights reserved.It does not mean that practical efforts to build other ways of life and other social relations have disappeared. They are still being developed in the spaces of daily life, in a multitude of ways, individually and collectively, consciously or not, spontaneously or by organisation.

In that perspective, the public expressions of protest currently used in Oaxaca do not constitute an inheritance from the APPO. This was connected with older traditions of struggle that lent it a climactic moment in the search to transcend a particular form of organisation of social life but, above all, of the means by which that transcendence is possible. Current protests, on the other side, mean the acceptance of the political relation described here. 

The future of the struggle is thus not to be found in the construction of organisations that are capable of carrying the flag of popular demands. On the contrary, what needs be rescued from the APPO is the experience that seeks to abandon the formulation of demands and to recover the creative capacities of common women and men. Oaxaca has become a place for subjects who are moved by their will to take back their decision-making capacity from the hands of the government.

How to cite:
Garza Zepeda, M. (2016) The popular movement of Oaxaca, ten years later, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 8 December. https://opendemocracy.net/manuel-garza-zepeda/popular-movement-of-oaxaca-ten-years-later


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