Deadly Mexican labor strike highlighted in Greensboro

by Sharon Armstrong

A bitterly cold wind chilled the protesters at the corner of West Market and Eugene streets in downtown Greensboro on Nov. 20 as they gathered on the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution in response to a call for international displays of solidarity by the Mexican Zapatist Army of National Liberation. The demonstrators joined forces with local publisher Richard A. Kortiz at his weekly peace vigil in an attempt to raise public awareness of the ongoing civil unrest and violence, which has been taking place in the Mexican city of Oaxaca since June 14, 2005.

Erica Bratz, one of the rally organizers, said she believes there are similarities between what is happening in Oaxaca and to people here in the United States.

“They are connected on a world level, they ultimately fight against the same enemy: the economic and political agenda of those in power worldwide to keep power in the hands of only a few while using the masses to generate wealth,” she said. “The people making the decisions to put figures in power are not even elected.”

What started as an annual protest for better pay and work conditions by Oaxaca’s teachers in May and June 2006 has become a state of widespread civil unrest in Mexico after striking teachers were attacked by government-sanctioned police forces in a violent attempt to remove the protesters from the historic center of the city. A result of the police action was the formation of an umbrella group known as Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca or the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, APPO for short, and a steadily escalating conflict between said group and Oaxaca state Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

The APPO is made up of over 365 grassroots organizations and includes various unions as well as indigenous groups and women’s movements and on June 17 declared itself the governing body of Oaxaca. The APPO is not just demanding better conditions for Oaxaca schools but also for the resignation of Ortiz, who is accused by the APPO of official corruption and the use of violent repression against dissent.

Ortiz took office as a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and became Oaxaca’s governor in 2004. Questions have been raised about the validity of his election because of suspected ballot rigging. His term in office has not been a peaceful one.

His resignation is one the non-negotiable demands of the APPO, but in a 74-31 vote the Mexican Senate decided that, despite the increasing violence, the state government in Oaxaca had not ceased to function and it was not necessary to remove Ortiz from office. This decision, despite a senatorial recognition that Oaxaca remains ungovernable, effectively ended what “little confidence” some Oaxacans may have had in the state’s institutions and has led to an escalation of the conflict between members of APPO and state forces. There have been at least six verified deaths since the commencement of this conflict including that of US journalist Bradley Roland Will, who reported for Indymedia.

Will was shot on Oct. 27 while videotaping events near one of the barricades in the historic district that had been erected by activists sympathetic to the strikers. He died while being carried away from the scene. The Associated Press reported that he was caught in a shootout between protesters and an unidentified group of armed men. Whether the armed men were paramilitaries or police as APPO insists, or, as Oaxaca Attorney General Lizbeth Cana claims, they were upset residents from the local area has not been resolved.

Representatives of Indymedia contend that video footage recovered from Will’s camera and the testimony of eyewitnesses establish that Will’s killer was a paramilitary member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

There is no peaceful end in sight in Oaxaca and the protesters here in Greensboro were concerned by the apparent lack of unbiased coverage of the conflict from news sources here in the United States.

Henry McMillan said he wants to see an Indymedia office reestablished in Greensboro.

“Brad was here in North Carolina doing an article on mountaintop removal in the Asheville area,” he said. “So he was here not long ago and it is a sad thing what the paramilitary and the police are doing down there. It’s good to see people here in Greensboro doing what they can. This is important too.”

Concern about the coverage, or lack thereof, of the origins of the conflict in Oaxaca was expressed by many at the vigil.

“We are here today because of the call from APPO for solidarity,” protester Lindsey Hutton said. “American coverage is really skewed towards the untrue perspective, the government perspective, which suggests the death of Brad Will was at the hands of the APPO when in reality it was at the hands of paramilitary groups. Brad was carrying his camera and his film IDs his killer as a police member. I think that it is important to have unbiased news reporting.

“APPO is made up of hundreds of organizations,” she continued. “Basically it represents the views of a widely diverse group. The force being used to quell this group’s protest is basically the last straw. We feel the same things apply worldwide, not just in Mexico, in Oaxaca. It’s Bush. It’s a problem of lost connection between the government and the people and we feel that it is so inspirational to see people taking back some control that we want to encourage people here to do the same.”

Another protester, Matt Blalock, said, “I am here in the cold because I support world peace and people need to notice. It’s devastating what is happening in Mexico, the oppression.”

Koritz, who sees similarities between events in Mexico and those in Iraq, shares the idea that what is happening in Oaxaca could have far-reaching effects here in the United States.

Koritz has been protesting the war in Iraq since the beginning. He and his family hold up antiwar placards to passing motorists every Monday at the corner of Friendly and North Eugene streets, outside the federal building, encouraging them to honk for peace. He feels that solidarity is the key to change both here and abroad.

“Stay as informed as you can about what is going on,” he said. “We are, in a sense, all Oaxaca. Don’t let your struggle become isolated. Even if it seems futile sometimes, you have to stay hopeful. I have been here since the war started. At first people would, you know, give us the finger. Suddenly the honks are starting to double. The highest we had was 370 in a one-hour period; the most negative was five. We need to make our views known.”

Koritz smiled despite the cold wind.

“I think people are excited by the elections,” he said. “The way we are going today we could set a record.”

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