Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Are the Cops in our Heads and Hearts?

Reprinted with permission from The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009).

Like many other activists on the left, I have been struggling with the contradictions found in organizing work here in the United States. I have worked in community-based organizing, both within and outside. My experiences both in the United States and in Latin America have shaped my analysis of the non-profit system as well as alternatives to it. In the US, I am involved in grassroots organizing work with a multigenerational community of poor and working-class women of color in Brooklyn (Sista II Sista and Pachamama). But what has most pushed my analysis has come from my work and experiences outside of the US, specifically in Latin America. As an adult, I have spent a few years in Chile, my country of origin, supporting organizing efforts against the military dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet and the neoliberal “democracies” of the Christian Democratic Party that followed. From Chile, I had the opportunity to travel to La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, in 1994, and meet with local activists. In Mexico, I have worked with women’s groups on political and physical self-defense in rural and urban areas. I also had various opportunities to visit the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, first spending three weeks in the autonomous territories in 1999. In 2003, I spent a few days visiting an encampment and a settlement of the MST (Landless Rural Unemployed Workers Movement) in Brasil and attended a continental gathering of autonomous movements in Argentina held at an occupied factory in 2005. Through these experiences and many (mostly informal) conversations over cheap wine and good music, with other compañer@s,[1] organizers, friends, and family in both Latin America and the United States, I have gathered these reflections that I want to share.

Lessons from Latin America

More than once, compas from Latin America have asked me: Why are you getting a permit from the police to protest police brutality? Why are you being paid to do organizing? Why are people’s movements based in non-profit offices? Behind these kinds of questions are different assumptions about organizing that might challenge activists in the United States to think outside the non-profit system.

Contemporary Latin America provides a helpful model for reconceptualizing and reimagining organizing strategies in the United States. The relatively recent articulation of powerful new revolutionary movements, as well as the economic connections and geographic closeness to the US makes it an important region for us to watch closely and learn from. In the past 15 years, we have witnessed the rapid development of mass-based movements that have significantly impacted the social, political, and economic structures in Latin America. From the perspective of the establishment Left, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Sandinista electoral loss in Nicaragua in 1989 seemed to signal the death of revolutionary struggle. But across Latin America, people’s movements were quietly but steadily building their base for years before making their work public. Gerardo Rénique notes:

Today the specter haunting capitalism journeys through Latin America. The region’s ongoing social and political upheaval threatens the hegemony of global capital and neo-liberal ideology. In an unprecedented cycle of strikes, mass mobilizations, and popular insurrections extending from the early 90’s to the present, the marginalized, exploited, and despised subaltern classes have drawn on deeply rooted traditions of struggle to bring down corrupt and authoritarian regimes closely identified with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank and Washington.[2]

Some countries, such as Brasil, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, have produced movements aimed directly at resisting US imperialism as a result of people gaining some control over their governments. In other countries, like Mexico, where the government is not in resistance to the US empire, we still see large social movements that are much stronger than current movements in the United States, ones that are able to put significant pressure on their governments.

On January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA was signed into effect, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) began an armed uprising by indigenous peasants in Chiapas, Mexico. I have vivid memories of the rebellion and its international impact. I lived in Chile at the time and the uprising made all the mainstream news for days (newspapers, television, and radio). It was major news everywhere along the continent except in the US. Within days, smaller rebellions popped up in various countries. Like the MST, which had been growing in Brasil since 1978, the Zapatistas had been steadily building their base since 1983, before becoming publicly known. This was a powerful moment that reignited hope for movements all across the continent in the possibility of revolutionary transformation from the ground up. It was a 12-day war that succeeded in capturing five municipalities that constitute 25 percent of the state of Chiapas. This defiant action was unprecedented in modern Mexican history. In the next year, 1995, the EZLN held the Consulta Nacional par la Paz y la Democracia, in which 1.3 million people participated in making the decision of what the future structure and scope of the EZLN would be.

This hope grew throughout the late 1990s, and new visions guiding revolutionary struggles emerged. Though there are still a number of traditionally Marxist/Leninist-based armed and/or political party national liberation struggles in Latin America, there are many other examples of revolutionary visions of transformation that are well worth listening to. Instead of a unified line, broad tendencies are developed through critiques of past struggles and organic modes of organization of the most marginalized, and are inspired by movements like the EZLN. These visions embrace principles like autonomia (autonomy) and horizontalidad (horizontalism); recognize daily life and the creation of liberated communities as political work; support collective, nonhierarchical decision-making; and aim, above all, to build a society grounded in justice and peace for all. As Raul Zibechi, a Latin American writer and researcher at the Popular Education Center of the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina notes:

It is revealing that Latin America has seen a whole set of revolts without leadership, without organizational memory or central apparatus. Power relations within the space of the uprising tend to be based on other forms. The mortar which binds and drives those who are in revolt does not correspond to the state-form—vertical and pyramidal—but rather is based on a set of ties that are more horizontal but also more unstable than bureaucratic systems. The best known instance of this rejection of representation is the slogan “que se vayan todos” (“they all should go”—all being the politicians) which emerges in the course of the December 19-20 [2001] events in Argentina. Both in the neighborhood assemblies and among the groups of “piqueteros” (people blocking commercial traffic on major highways) and in the occupied factories, this general slogan has concrete expressions: “entre todos todo” (“among everyone, everything”), which is similar to the Zapatista “entre todos lo sabemos todo” (“among everyone we know everything”). Both statements (which express the daily life of the groups that coined them) are directed simultaneously at non-division of labor and of thought-action, and also at there being no leaders who exist separate from the groups and communities.[3]

Another deep lesson we can learn from these struggles is to question the analysis of power—the difference between taking power and creating power. According to Rodrigo Ruiz, editor of the New Left magazine Surda of Santiago, Chile:

The questioning of the traditional forms of political organization is mixed with the questioning of whether those organizations are necessary. Certainly, what weighs heavily is the combination of popular defeats, in addition to many of the left parties being justly discredited. The new movements, the experiences of resistance to neoliberal globalization, like Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, movements like the MST…the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, or the Zapatista process in Chiapas, has meant a significant shake-up of the old knowledge of parties that were unable to resolve with efficacy the construction of forces.[4]

Historically, both political and revolutionary struggles focus on toppling state power and replacing it with people’s power. One problem with this model is that most of these movements re-created oppressive governance structures modeled on the same system they were trying to replace. In addition, this model rested on the notion that power lies mostly in institutions, instead of recognizing and building from the power that people already have. According to Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, for the Zapatistas,

the project will have succeeded when the struggles for autonomy have evolved into networks of autonomous peoples. Its objective is to create—with, by, and for the communities—organizations of resistance that are at once connected, coordinated and self-governing, which enable them to improve their capacity to make a different world possible. At the same time, as far as possible, the communities and the peoples should immediately put into practice the alternative life that they seek, in order to gain experience. They should not wait until they have more power to do this. It is not built on the logic of “state power” which entrapped previous revolutionary or reformist groups.[5]

Implicit in these models is what could be described as a spiritual framework for understanding power that recognizes and respects the humanity of all peoples. In these newer movements, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the MTD (Unemployed Workers Movement) in Argentina, though each is very different from the other, the emphasis is on the people’s struggle for autonomy, not gathering power to topple the state and take it over. Revolution is about the process of making power and creating autonomous communities that divest from the state. And as these autonomy movements build, they can become large enough to contest state power. Raul Zibechi, for instance, suggests:

If we look closely at the more important challenges launched by the popular sectors, we will see that they all emerged from the “new” territories, which are more autonomous and independently controlled than those that existed in previous periods of capitalism: El Alto, in Bolivia; the neighborhoods and settlements of the unemployed in Argentina; the camps and settlements of the landless in Brazil; the popular neighborhoods in Caracas; and the indigenous regions in Chiapas, Bolivia, and Ecuador.[6]

These movements emphasize not just winning a specific political goal, but creating new communities that model the vision for liberation. While direct confrontations with state power are ongoing and necessary, these are actually just one small part of the struggle. As Zibechi observes: “To understand this involves reversing one’s perspective: rejecting the negative and state-centered viewpoint—which defines people by what they lack (needy, excluded, marginalized)—and adopting another way of looking which starts with the differences that they have created in order then to visualize other possible paths.”[7]

For example, when US activists think about the Zapatista movement, the first image that frequently comes to mind is the popular Left postcard of Zapatista indigenous women fighting with the Mexican military. One of the women is choking a soldier. However, this kind of confrontation, though important, is really a small part of the work being done to build this movement. For over 20 years, the Zapatistas have organized almost 100,000 people to create their own separate communities, their own justice system, their own health care system, their own agriculture, and their own educational system. The day-to-day groundwork of these projects is not the sexy thing that gets the attention of the public like the dramatic confrontation of an unarmed woman with soldiers. But the Zapatistas’ global contributions run far deeper. Casanova addresses this directly:

Among the rich contributions of the Zapatista movement toward building an alternative is the recent project of the “caracoles” (conches). The project of the “caracoles,” according to Comandante Javier, “opens up new possibilities of resistance and autonomy for the indigenous people of Mexico and the world—a resistance which includes all those social sectors that struggle for democracy, for liberty and justice for all.” It invites us to build towards community and autonomy with the patience and tranquility of the conch. The idea of creating organizations to be used as tools to achieve certain objectives and values, and to ensure that autonomy and the motto “mandar obedeciendo” (“lead by obeying”) do not remain in the sphere of abstract concepts and incoherent words.[8]

This framework is an alternative model for confronting the state and for social transformation. When the Zapatista autonomous communities open their own schools and do not participate in state schools, it challenges state power because there is one less thing that the people need from the state. And the existence of a movement living its vision has deepened the conscience of the people of Mexico as a whole and has inspired many other social movements. All of these are in direct solidarity with the EZLN, like the radical student movements, squatters’ movements, teachers’ movements, other peasant movements, and more, forming the frontlines of what is now a very advanced mass struggle.

A powerful example of autonomous movements that may speak more directly to current US conditions is that of Argentina. Argentina had long been viewed as a Latin American model of economic growth and development under neoliberalism. But, apparently, this was not the case for the majority of Argentines. Peter Ranis writes,

The rebellion in Argentina [in] December 2001 was a spontaneous outpouring of wrath and a demonstration against the imposition and consequences of a prescribed neoliberal economic model. But it also included a direct confrontation with the governing institutions and political leadership. Argentines massively demonstrated in December 2001, beating on pots and pans, directing their opposition to President de la Rua’s establishment of controls over savings and checking accounts (corralito). The economic turmoil precipitated the sacking of supermarkets by impoverished consumers, which in turn resulted in a declaration of a state of siege, counter-demonstrations, and the death of 27 people. De la Rua resigned, and after a series of interim presidents, the congress designated the Peronist Eduardo Duhalde as president. The “cacerolazos” (pots and pans demonstrations) that began in December 2001 represented the mass of Argentine society from all walks of life. Argentina had never experienced such a spontaneous multi class uprising.[9]

Even before these mass uprisings, since 1996, groups of unemployed people had been beginning to organize as MTDs, as autonomous movements (autonomous from political parties and non-profit/NGOs and foundation funding) throughout the country, mostly concentrated in the marginalized neighborhoods surrounding the capital of Buenos Aires. Tactics varied and included takeovers of abandoned factories. These MTDs were also autonomous from each other; each had its own name, its own political principles and practices, and its own interpretation of autonomia. After 2001, many began to network and attempt to coordinate their power while still attempting to maintain horizontalidad; the goal was not to build a centralized MTD national power. Meanwhile, the mass rebellions intensified as did the repression of the state.

Many of these movements were thinking beyond the state, and even beyond an alternative version of current institutions, by politicizing every aspect of daily life and alternative forms of dealing with them. Specifically, the personal relationships between people also became politicized, with compañer@s looking for just ways to treat each other in the context of the movement work and beyond.

In Argentina, the piqueteros politicize their social differences when, rather than going back to work for a boss with a miserable wage, they opt to form collectives of autonomous producers without division of labor; when they decide to take care of their health by trying to break their dependence on medication and on allopathic medicine; or when they deal with education using their own criteria and not those of the state.[10]

Though many challenges have emerged along the way, these projects have demonstrated the possibility of nonhierarchical collective production, self-management (autogestión) on a large scale, in neighborhoods or in large industries with hundreds of workers.

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  1. Compañer@s or compas are warmer terms for the English equivalent, comrades; rather than using the letter a or o to designate a gender, as traditionally required by Spanish grammar, some activists and writers use the @ symbol to make the term both feminine and masculine. [Return to text]
  2. Gerardo Rénique, “Introduction, Latin America Today: The Revolt Against Neoliberalism,” Socialism and Democracy 19, no. 3 (November 2005): l. [Return to text]
  3. Raul Zibechi, “Subterranean Echos: Resistance and Politics ‘desde el Sotano'”, Socialism and Democracy 19, no. 3 (November 2005): 30. [Return to text]
  4. Marta Harnecker, introduction to America Latina Ia Izquierda despues de Seattle, by Rodrigo Ruiz (Santiago, Chile: Surda Ediciones, 2002), 10. My translation. [Return to text]
  5. Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, “The Zapatista Caracoles: Networks of Resistance and Autonomy,” Socialism and Democracy 19, no. 3 (November 2005): 81-82. [Return to text]
  6. Zibechi, “Subterranean Echos,” 19. [Return to text]
  7. Ibid., 18. [Return to text]
  8. Casanova, “The Zapatista Caracoles,” 79. [Return to text]
  9. Peter Ranis, “Argentina’s Worker Occupied Factories and Entreprises,” Socialism and Democracy 19, no. 3 (November 2005): 97-98. [Return to text]
  10. “Un Jardín Piquetero en Ia Matanza,” Página 12 (May 2004). My translation. [Return to text]