24 November 2007

Analysis: Ceci Connolly's Dangerous "Oaxaca: One Year Later"

UPDATE: Jill Freidberg of Corrugated Films shares her thoughts on Connolly's article, and they are not kind.

It's a big weekend for Oaxaca in the major newspapers back home. Yesterday I saw the 36-hour Oaxaca tour itinerary in The New York Times travel section, and today I encounter Ceci Connolly's special to The Washington Post.

I've already posted an alternate 36-hour itinerary, so let me move straight ahead to Connolly's piece titled Oaxaca: One Year Later (and lengthily subtitled The Riots Are Over, and the Streets Feel Safe. But Can a Battered City Find Its Lost Soul?).

There are a number of things that Connolly gets right in her article. Chief among these is her characterization of how Oaxaca feels today. There are all the shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and bars one hopes to find while traveling, and, for the most part, they are all open for business--tenuously. Through her conversations with local business owners and residents, Connolly captures the tension and uncertainty hanging over the city's historic streets and open squares. Chic restaurants attend to their nightly preparations for the dinner hour, yet a majority of tables sit empty while waitstaff and owners, without enough patronage to keep busy, peer hopefully into the streets.

Connolly also, through her acquaintances here, transmits especially well the feel of the historic center of town, where the zocalo and pedestrian friendly Alcala form the hub of tourist activity.

Officially, Oaxaca is back to normal. And as if to prove it, the government has taken a more active role in some of the city's most beloved festivals, which once had been ad-hoc community affairs.

But a more nuanced truth comes out when you share a coffee or a shot of mezcal with Oaxacans or with those, like my friend John Rexer, who have adopted the city.

"It feels antiseptic," he remarks as we walk through the Zocalo and the adjacent square known as the Alameda.

And he's right, her friend John Rexer. Although another of the author's friends cautions early in the article that Oaxaca "is not Disneyland," these government sponsored cultural festivities, aimed at boosting tourism, generally come off in the same hollow vein one may observe on a stroll through "Mexico" at Disneyworld's Epcot Center. There's much of the sound and color, but an absence of real depth, tradition or joy.

Connolly takes us through Oaxaca's largely empty bars and restaurants, she talks with the owners who still don't know how it's all going to pan out. She interviews artists who fled last year because working in the city had become impossible, and who now struggle to reestablish exhibition spaces and a clientele base.

That's what Connolly gets right. A pretty good sense of the fragile peace that exists in Oaxaca, temerity on the part of residents to get too comfortable, and the possibility, looming just out of view, that everything could go to pot again in a heartbeat and this time people will really be hard up for options.

Now here's where she misses the boat completely. First off, and most glaringly, she uses the term "riots" like George Bush uses the phrase "War on Terror." Rarely, in her piece, do we read about conflict, civil unrest, protests, demonstrations, or civil disobedience. Instead we get:

. . . I have returned to Oaxaca on assignment: Find out if, one year after deadly riots crippled the city, it is again an attractive destination for visitors seeking language schools, colonial history, craft markets and art galleries.

. . . The city (population before the riots: 258,000). . .

. . . Before order was restored in December, the riots claimed the lives of at least nine and as many as 20 people, including American activist/journalist Brad Will.

. . . Before the riots, Oaxaca had a thriving art scene . . .

Fans riot after football games. Los Angelenos rioted after the verdict in the Rodney King case. Oxacans defended themselves with sticks, rocks and slingshots when police resorted to force to break up otherwise peaceful demonstrations. Connolly's use of the word "riots" throughout her article frames this struggle in such a way as to nullify efforts by the people of Oaxaca who peacefully protested for 7 months, from May 22 to November 25, against an oppressive government with a history of human rights violations. This is especially evident where Connolly gives a shoddy explanation of Oaxca's recent, tumultuous history.

Protest is as much a part of Oaxaca's tradition as its black clay pottery and hand-woven tapestries. So when the city's teachers announced their perennial strike in May 2006, it barely caused a stir. But unlike in previous years, the dispute escalated into a broader conflict over social justice.

Let's break this down. Oaxaca, like much of Latin America, is no stranger to incendiary politics and active, anti-government demonstrations. And yes, the teachers' strike is, if not a perennial condition, certainly an annual affair. Every year teachers from all over the state come to the capital to renegotiate the terms of their employment with an eye on better wages, better health benefits, and better conditions--books and supplies, and in some cases meals, uniforms and modern buildings with flush toilets--for impoverished students.

"But unlike in previous years, the dispute escalated into a broader conflict over social justice." Unlike in previous years, when the government responded at least by hearing grievances and offering token gestures, in 2006 Governor Ulisez Ruiz refused to bargain at all.

Anti-government demonstrators stormed local radio stations and occupied Oaxaca's famed Zocalo. The city once known for picturesque cathedrals, graceful laurel trees and colorful marketplaces was coated in graffiti and strewn with the charred remains of vehicles.

Now this is where Connolly--or her editors--leave out extremely pertinent information. It should be noted that anti-government demonstrators did not storm local radio stations until after city and state police raided the teachers' planton at 4 am on June 14, 2006, firing teargas canisters from shoulder launchers directly into the crowds and beating people out of sleep with rifle butts and billy clubs. Police also attempted to destroy the independent FM radio station installed there, Radio Planton, which had become the voice of the resistance broadcast across Oaxaca.

It should be noted that this is when the teachers' strike "escalated into a broader conflict over social justice." After the government refused to even hear the teachers' arguments, after the government attacked men, women and children in their sleep, after the government attempted to seize the people's radio access, and after families and friends across the state heard about the government's reprehensible actions. Then, yes, the dispute escalated from a list of teachers' grievances to a dramatic and widespread call for change on the part of more than 300 different people's organizations across the state of Oaxaca.

Some 4,000 federal police descended, erecting barricades and military-style encampments. Masked protesters countered with guerrilla tactics, hurling burning tires and rocks collected from the cobblestone streets. Before order was restored in December, the riots claimed the lives of at least nine and as many as 20 people, including American activist/journalist Brad Will.

Holy smokes. If I read this right, Connolly collapses seven months' worth of outcry, public despair and extreme police intimidation tactics into 3 short paragraphs before laying blame for the deaths of "at least nine and as many as 20 people, including American activist/journalist Brad Will," on "the riots," and by extension applauds the government effort to "restore order." Police raided the zocalo on June 14 and federal troops didn't reclaim Oaxaca City until November 25. Connolly makes no mention of the city as it lay under siege between these dates. She does not mention the formation of APPO, a coalition dedicated to organizing the myriad voices in Oaxaca in an attempt to create change. The article makes no mention of the roadblocks erected nightly by neighborhood patrols of concerned citizens intent on protecting teachers, activists and families from threats, intimidations, beatings, disappearances and assassinations.

Furthermore, there is no mention of the peaceful protest marches, first 200,000 people in solidarity with the teachers' organizations on June 16, and when that didn't earn an audience with the government another march of 500,000 people took place on June 29. Then there was the 3,000 person march in September of that year, from Oaxaca City to Mexico City, a trek of some 21 days over nearly 500 kilometers, to attract attention to the struggle in Oaxaca, to demand the removal of Governor Ulises Ruiz from power, and to restore justice to the streets of Oaxaca.

Yes, demonstrators engulfed the zocalo. Yes, graffiti covered most every available space. Yes, protesters blockaded the road between the city and the airport in an effort to frustrate the flow of tourism dollars into government coffers. That's exactly what is, to my thinking, so uniquely impressive about the conflict of 2006. When repeated calls for change went unrecognized, unarmed protesters effectively shut down the economy of a city of a quarter million people without resorting to violence and thus captured the attention of the government and the world.

This is just some of what Connolly's piece is missing. And all this missing background is exactly what makes it so hard to tell whether Oaxaca can rebound or not. As of November 25, 2006, when federal police quashed the last of the demonstrations and forcibly "restored order" to the city, not a single compromise has been made regarding any of the original demands made by protesters. That these issues have been silenced by an iron fist makes all the more difficult any assessment of what churns beneath the surface. Oaxacans are still frustrated and oppressed, but now they may simply be more submissive than they were a year ago.

One year later there is still not enough accurate, reliable information circulating about what has happened, and what may yet happen, in Oaxaca. Connolly's piece further serves to frustrate efforts to advance such information about the struggle in Oaxaca to the rest of the world. Oaxaca needs help reaching a point of comprehension and accountability regarding these events, and this will not be achieved through half-representations of recent history.