Police attack in Oaxaca sparks mass protest
Mexico teachers resist crackdownBy Elizabeth Lalasz | June 30, 2006 | Page 16
TENS OF thousands of public school teachers and their supporters clashed repeatedly with riot police in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in a battle over the future of education. On June 16, more than 300,000 people marched through Oaxaca City in support of the 70,000 teachers, who have been on strike since May 22. The demonstration–reportedly the largest in the history of Oaxaca–also called for the resignation of state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz of the right-wing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is widely accused of corruption.
The march was a response to a police attack two days earlier on the striking Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE).
Around 5 a.m. on June 14, close to 3,000 state police with riot shields and clubs stormed the teachers’ encampment (known as the plantón in Spanish) in the zocalo, the main city center. Strikers were brutally beaten, and there were reports that at least one helicopter dropped tear gas.
Eyewitness reports said 11 people died, including two children asphyxiated by the tear gas. Up to 100 people were detained, and many went “missing.”
Leading members of Section 22 were also imprisoned. Police also raided the union hall and destroyed “Radio Plantón,” the pirate station broadcasting from the encampment since the beginning of the strike.
In response to the repression, university students at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca began a radio broadcast round-the-clock to inform residents about what had just happened. At one point, police tried to shut down the station, but the broadcaster declared over the air that the police “will have to pass over our bodies in order to take away the microphones from us.”
Strikers fought back–and by 10 a.m., five hours after the police attack, the zocalo was retaken by about 5,000 strikers and supporters armed with sticks and batons. The imprisoned union leaders were released within hours. The plantón has since been rebuilt and strikers continue to occupy the zocalo.
The “mega-march” on June 16 to protest this repression was supported by college students, local health and university workers, and other unions. Also backing the strike were popular, left-wing organizations, including supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Front’s “Other Campaign,” which rejects all candidates in the upcoming July 2 presidential elections.
The crackdown in Oaxaca is part of a “strategy of tension” stoked up by the current Mexican President Vicente Fox, leading into the elections.
Fox wants to whip up fear of social chaos if the presidency is won by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party, rather than Felipe Calderón, the candidate of Fox’s conservative National Action Party.
This strategy has involved the violent May 4 police attack on residents of the town of San Salvador Atenco, where residents had resisted displacement in an airport expansion plan. There have been similar attacks on striking copper miners and on citizens of Isla Mujeres, who are protesting against the building of a rubbish dump on their island for the garbage from the nearby tourist resort of Cancun.
Meanwhile, there were solidarity pickets at the Mexican consulates in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco with university faculty unions, Chicago public school teachers and immigrant rights groups.
The struggle has highlighted the problems of teachers in Oaxaca, who can earn somewhere between $600-700 per month, frequently less. They are calling for an increase for students receiving grants, which now amount to 450 pesos per month–$40 in U.S. money. The union is also demanding decent schools, classroom supplies and government funding for uniforms, which are out of reach for so many poor families that the children stay at home.
The Oaxaca teachers’ union, Section 22, has a 26-year history of social and workers’ struggles to defend gains and win improvements in education and teachers’ salaries. Their strategy has been to hold a strike every year as their contracts are renewed, but this year, the strike has lasted longer than usual, due to the government’s defiance of the teachers’ demands.
The teachers have come from all over the state of Oaxaca and engage every day in civil disobedience, including shutting down tollbooths and tearing down electoral propaganda around the city for the upcoming July 2 elections.
With negotiations with the federal Department of the Interior going nowhere, Section 22 held a Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca June 17 to create a permanent space for citizens to debate and discuss strategies for going forward with their struggle.
About 170 people representing 85 organizations attended, including SNTE delegates, union members, social and political organizations, non-governmental organizations, collectives, human rights organizations, parents, tenants farmers, municipalities, and citizens of the entire state of Oaxaca. Follow-up meetings took place June 20 and 24, and the teachers threatened to mobilize a popular boycott of the July 2 elections.
Whatever the outcome of the strike, the mobilization and organization of hundreds of thousands of teachers and their supporters will not be quickly forgotten–and points the way forward for building the left and popular struggles in Mexico.