Inside the Oaxacan protest at the Mexican consulate in Raleigh | First Person | Indy Week
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Inside the Oaxacan protest at the Mexican consulate in Raleigh 

A protest where, at least, no one had to die

click to enlarge Neal Robertson locked himself to a television at the Mexican consulate in Raleigh to protest a crackdown in Oaxaca that was responsible for the killing of U.S. journalist Brad Will, a friend of Robertson's. - PHOTO BY SANDY SMITH-NONINI
  • Photo by Sandy Smith-Nonini
  • Neal Robertson locked himself to a television at the Mexican consulate in Raleigh to protest a crackdown in Oaxaca that was responsible for the killing of U.S. journalist Brad Will, a friend of Robertson's.

The e-mail message stuck in my throat like bad indigestion. Maybe because I'd been working on my Salvador book that day, and the death squads that live in my head were prowling—there's this endless clip of my friend Tita being stuffed into a car trunk; it replays with gruesome variations since we never found out how she was "disappeared."

For whatever reason, I took it to heart when I read that Brad Will, a U.S. journalist with IndyMedia, had been shot dead by Mexican paramilitaries while filming a popular protest on Friday, Oct. 27. I knew there were protests in Oaxaca. But I didn't know much about them. So I guess it was guilt. Or one of those "there but for the grace of God" moments. I did not know Brad personally, but I felt like I did.

As a freelancer specializing in human rights, I had worked a similar beat to his in El Salvador in the late 1980s. The news transported me to the side of a gurney outside the operating room of Rosales Hospital in November 1989, where I gaped at the frozen, bluish face of a British colleague, shot dead by a government sniper in Mejicanos—the same embattled neighborhood of the capital that I had reported from the previous day. Two days earlier, I had received telephoned death threats myself. Grace of God, indeed.

As a foreign correspondent, you learn quickly what is "news." In El Salvador, as in Mexico, it is a well-known, if deeply disturbing, truth that an American death is "worth more" in U.S. news reports than scores of native dead. Since the "War on Terror," rural Mexico has rarely made the foreign news threshold in any case. It has been left to independent media to cover the drama of Oaxaca's 70,000 teachers on strike for five months, joined by the Oaxacan Popular People's Association (known as APPO), a large coalition of community groups advocating for bread and butter reforms like better pay and an end to political corruption. The latest clashes followed APPO's call for a work stoppage in their efforts to oust the state Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, who is accused of election fraud and hiring off-duty police to use violence against protesters.

In a double tragedy, Mexican President Vicente Fox cited Will's death and the recent death of a teacher as rationales for sending federal troops to pacify Oaxaca, where protesters had built hundreds of barricades, effectively closing down the area's usually thriving tourist trade. After a contested presidential election last July won by conservative candidate Felipe Calderon, protests and sit-ins by supporters of the defeated populist candidate Andrew Manuel Lopez Obrador have disrupted dozens of Mexican cities. The protests revealed a deep crisis of confidence in the Mexican state and the unpopularity of Fox's pro-business free trade policies that critics say have left millions without jobs and worsened the gap between rich and poor.

Fearing the crackdown would mean more violence, APPO asked for international solidarity on Monday. I attended a local protest that morning outside the Mexican consulate in Raleigh. Similar protests, organized by loose coalitions of groups that oppose neoliberal policies, took place at consulates in 12 other U.S. cities and at Mexican embassies abroad, including those of Chile, Germany, Spain and Brazil.

Drivers of cars streaming by on Six Forks Road were no doubt confused by the "Free Oaxaca" banners and the crowd of 30 to 40 mostly American, mostly young people with interesting hair colors, beating on drums and chanting. As on most days, the first floor of the consulate was crowded with immigrants waiting for their number to be called, many holding papers. Mothers held babies, children milled about, curious about the hubbub.

I took photos, then worked my way through the crowd to the stairway. Upstairs, 10 demonstrators sat quietly in a waiting area, and another five sat in an office talking with a middle-aged man in a sharply pressed gray shirt and tie, who turned out to be Armando Ortiz Rocha, the Mexican consul. The students had asked him to send a fax to Mexico City with their demands, which they had handwritten on notebook paper.

The demands were: 1. Immediate ousting of Ruiz, the Oaxacan governor. 2. Withdrawal of federal forces from Oaxaca. 3. Meet all demands of APPO. 4. Amnesty for all protesters in Oaxaca. 5. Hold all government officials involved in killing and brutality against protesters accountable. 6. No one here today is arrested.

But the consul would not agree to send the fax. He politely asked the protesters to leave. They politely refused.

I went downstairs just in time to hear a consulate spokesman on the loudspeaker announce that protesters were holding people hostage upstairs and would not reveal their demands. He said the consulate had no option but to call authorities and ended in an unctuous plea, asking the protesters: "Please, do not injure any of the children." The students holding signs rolled their eyes.

Having just seen the list of demands, I found the "spin" vaguely amusing but a little scary. Especially the part about hostages. I did not see any frightened children. The walkway outside the door was filled with Mexicans watching the demonstration. Some nodded in approval, others seemed apathetic. I chatted with Jose, a large man wearing a baseball cap with "Mexico" stitched on the front. He had driven here from Salisbury, where he works for an asbestos removal company, to renew his consulate-issued ID card. "I understand why they're demonstrating," said Jose. "It's terrible what's happening in Oaxaca with the violence, but what can you do?"

I went back upstairs, and since no one stopped me, I walked right into the consul's office, where the students were trying to reason with Ortiz, who seemed alternately amused and annoyed. I interrupted to ask him why his people just announced that the protesters would not state their demands. A male student held out the handwritten list: "Here they are, in two languages!"

Ortiz ignored him, and gestured to me with his palms up. "I can't understand their demands when I am held hostage. I cannot work. I cannot even make a private phone call."

"Are they holding you at gunpoint?" I asked, smiling. I turned to the protesters, "Do you have guns?" They laughed and shook their heads; several held up empty hands.

Then the consul's cell phone rang. He hurried out of the room as he answered it (clearly no one's prisoner). I sat down just inside the door to wait.

When the consul returned, he had police officers in tow. Negotiations ensued, but Ortiz refused to fax the demands or agree to a formal meeting with the protesters. Three students held a caucus by the windows, then one of them pulled out a U-shaped bike lock and attached it around his neck and to the lower struts of the wall-mounted TV facing the consul's desk. Realizing what had happened, the officer in charge became angry. He announced, "All right, no one leaves this room."

Two more police entered to guard the door. I quickly called home on my cell to let my husband know where I was, in case they made good on the arrest threat and took my phone away. Then I took some photos and spoke briefly with the young man who had his head in the bike lock. He said his name was Neal Robertson, and that he had been a personal friend of Brad Will, the murdered reporter.

A few minutes later the police let me and the other protesters go. Robertson, accompanied by a colleague, remained behind, still locked to the TV. We rejoined the protest outside. About 10 minutes later, Robertson appeared outside as well—the police had found the key to the bike lock in his gear. I asked him why he had been willing to get arrested.

"It was the least I could do," he said, describing his admiration for Will's years of reporting from Mexico. Neal said he had run into Will in recent years at Mexico solidarity events and had camped out with him. "He wasn't just a reporter, he was also active in the movement. That's the good thing about IndyMedia, they provide training so that ordinary people can get involved reporting the news."

"It was brave of you to risk being arrested," I said.

He shrugged, turning to rejoin the group, then called back to me: "There was no risk. It's not like I was getting shot at."

Unlike the 1980s, the deeper irony now is that, after corporate cutbacks of news divisions, today not even an American death seems to count in the U.S. media. Internet searches show almost no mainstream press coverage of the Oaxaca violence. Yet anyone can download Will's last video. In it he interviews a witness to the bombing of the APPO radio station, then accompanies rock-throwing youth in an urban neighborhood as they follow men in civilian dress with weapons who are firing into the crowd. The men hide in a house but continue firing as protesters try to break the door. Then suddenly the armed men are back outside and turn on the protesters. Will is still taping when a bullet to his chest brings him down. The video image swings wildly, then the world turns sideways as the camera comes to rest on the pavement.

A week after Will's death, federal troops have pushed protesters out of the city center, but skirmishes continue throughout the provincial capital. A teacher, a nurse and a teenaged boy are among the dead, which several reports put at eight. Human rights workers report at least 22 people detained and another 16 disappeared. The armed men photographed shooting at Brad were identified as a policeman, a former paramilitary soldier and two municipal officials. Although there were early reports that the men were arrested, as of Thursday, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported that they remain at large.

Nov. 2, which is "Day of the Dead" in Mexico, took on special meaning in Oaxaca as protesters set up special altars, with skulls and blood-stained white robes, marked by signs in tribute to Brad Will and others killed in the violence.

Sandy Smith-Nonini is a research assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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