John Ross’ “Twenty Questions for Big Al, the Other Campaign, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation”
A Discussion and Debate Near the Fault Lines Between the Anti-Capitalist Left and Electoral Politics in Mexico and América
By John Ross (Questions) and Al Giordano (Responses)
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
June 19, 2006
Al Giordano: In recent weeks, journalist John Ross has sent me various emails criticizing the Zapatista Other Campaign in Mexico and Narco News’ coverage of it, which he considers to be too uncritical. Last week, he sent me “20 Questions” that reflect John’s frustration. These are busy times: I weighed whether it would be worthwhile to answer what are, essentially, loaded questions, rife with statements of “fact” that are, as I point out below, unsubstantiated, based on John’s own suppositions.
Piled one on top of another, these “twenty questions,” laced with references to “shameless cheerleading” and “Stalinist totalitarianism,” some directly related to the Other Campaign’s raining on the electoral parade in Mexico that ends on July 2, make an argument to which there is a counter-argument. John’s questions and my responses are reflective of historic debates on the left and in social movements in general and throughout Latin America in particular. If John is honest enough to ask them aloud, there might be others asking them – or repeating their errant claims as “fact” – more quietly. I therefore think it would be useful to respond to John here, and – since neither John nor I hold the last word on such great and sweeping matters – invite our 288 co-publishers and anyone else willing to sign his and her name to join the round table by sending your commentaries to email@example.com.
John Ross: Why have there been no communiqués from the Comandancia of the EZLN since the Other Campaign began January 1st?
Al: Why are you asking me, friend? I don’t speak for the EZLN, and I won’t be speaking for that organization or any other in the twenty responses that follow. But I can, just like any other colleague, help you to look at the information that is already on the public record. A “refresher course” on the Other Campaign is in order.
In November 2005 came a communiqué signed by the CCRI-CG of the EZLN (“Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee – General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation”). Subcomandante Marcos signed it (for the “Sixth Committee”) and so did Lt. Colonel Moisés (for the “Intergalactic Committee”). It announces a “cyber-consultation” for people all over the world and a participatory web page to that end. There, you can read subsequent communiqués signed by Lt. Col. Moisés, writing from Chiapas, during 2006. So its not as if we haven’t been hearing from the jungle during this time. And its not as if the Comandancia doesn’t have access – indeed, every person on earth can post to that page – to speak any time it wants to issue a communiqué. Your question seems to imply that what you hear as a silence reveals, somehow, a lack of faith in what Marcos is doing out on the Other Campaign trail,
I hear it differently. In this case, silence equals consent and approval; a ratification. Beyond that, each moment when the Zapatistas in Chiapas have not been silent, they have indicated their consent and approval – and enthusiasm – for the direction the Other Campaign has taken.
But your question, really, is in the context of the questions that succeed it. So on to question number two…
John: Why have the Juntas de Buen Gobiernos (JBGs) operating out of the five Caracoles issued few communiqués since January 1st?
Al: What do you mean by “few”? I count four communiqués from Zapatista autonomous municipalities in the past three weeks. They can be read on the Enlace Civil page. There have been thirteen such communiqués, all in all, since March 5th.
Prior to that, I see a March 4 communiqué from the “JGB” (“Good Government Council”) of the “Caracol” (autonomous government seat) of Roberto Barrios, another dated February 17 from the JGB of the Caracol of Oventik, and another dated February 14 from the JGB of the Caracol of La Realidad, all of them posted on our denuncias page, along with so many others from so many other organizations in so many states that are also, like the EZLN, part of the Other Campaign.
From what I can tell, 2006 has brought more communiqués from Zapatista autonomous municipalities than at most other five-month periods in Zapatista history. Given my different memory, and the facts I’ve just shared, do you think your question continues to make any sense?
Your next question repeats the same theme…
John: Why are there no indigenous comandantes accompanying Delegate Zero on the Other Campaign?
Al: That question, different than the previous two, is based on an actual fact: There have been no, to my observation, EZLN comandantes with Marcos on the Other Campaign trail outside of Chiapas. That’s a decision they made – and announced – well in advance of 2006. I’m comfortable with the decision, particularly after witnessing this wave of repression in Atenco, and, really, before that in San Blas Atempa and in other places.
It was the Commandancia, after all, that sent Marcos out to be their “scout” and whose members, according to their own words, will follow him, two by two, into every state for extended stays in Phase Two, once the first national tour is completed. I would like to refresh your memory back to Lt. Col. Moisés’ explanation, last September 16, about why they were sending out one scout first – Marcos – to report back on the national terrain, from all the places to where the comandantes and insurgents will fan out later. Here is what Moisés said:
“…it is our duty to explore the terrain where we will bring the compañeros and compañeras of our people, as well as our soldiers. There is always someone who goes as a vanguard. We call whoever goes forward and views the terrain that we still don’t know the vanguard. And the task of he who goes forward as the vanguard is to detect what is there: if the terrain is swampy, stony, or spiny, and of other situations the vanguard observes, and this informs us so we can know what to do and how to do it.
“We know that you understand a vanguard to be someone who leads, or those who know how the fight should be waged, or those who give orders, and who are the only ones who are right, those who know more and better… But we don’t understand it that way. The vanguard for us… is he who goes to understand the terrain, for us unknown terrain, and it is necessary to go to that terrain to advance the struggle. This is soldier’s work, the exploration of the terrain…
“The vanguard’s work of exploration of the terrain for the Other Campaign has been given to compañero Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. He will be the first to go out and we will come behind him in turn to do the work…”
– Lieutenant Colonel Moisés
Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)
September 16, 2005
That’s exactly what the EZLN said it would do from the start. It all seems very natural and consistent to me that they’re keeping their word and sticking to the plan.
John: Why are the voices of Zapatista women not heard on the Other Campaign?
Al: Oh, brother: why are you addressing this question to a man?
You seem to have forgotten that the Other Campaign plan was proposed by an EZLN commission (“the Sixth Committee”) that included eight Zapatista women – Gabriela, Rosalinda, Keli, Delia, Ofelia, Yolanda, Ana Berta, and Graciela – with seven men plus Marcos. You remember them – the ones wearing the ski masks – from the six planning meetings last summer in the jungle, of which you attended at least one.
And on September 16, when we heard details of the Other Campaign proposal from Marcos and Moisés we also heard from Comandanta Ramona (four months prior to her death), from Major Ana María, from Comandanta Susana, and various other women comandantas, urging all of us to busy ourselves with the work of their proposal: The Other Campaign.
I know you’ve attended some Other Campaign events and meetings since the first of the year because we saw each other there. Admit it, please, because your question infers otherwise: at every one of those meetings women were heard from on a par with men, at some of them more women spoke than men, and others of the events have been run by women, such as the Women Without Fear concert on May 22nd where Marcos was one of only two men with speaking roles.
You were there on January 1 in Chiapas when, according to our report, by Giovanni Proiettis, Comandantes Keli and Hortensia spoke, sending Marcos off on his voyage.
You haven’t been around much since. I didn’t see you, John, in Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Oaxaca, Querétaro, Michoacán, Morelos, Guerrero, Tlaxcala, or the State of Mexico. I saw you twice during events in Mexico City. In all those places, we’ve heard the same vocal participation by women and men (and children, and elders). And others of our team have reported from other meetings in the other states, and reported the same from those places. So the bases for your question are just not accurate. The voices of women, men, elders, kids, indigenous, non-indigenous, and from every other sector have been heard throughout and for hours on end. At each Other Campaign adherents meeting, everybody is invited to the microphone. Everybody gets to speak as long as she likes. Your loaded question implies otherwise. There’s a mountain of reports on the Other Journalism page that disprove your claim. But I don’t have the final word on this. Anybody reading this discussion has the ability to go back and check the record, via our page or others, and there are thousands of eyewitnesses to it all.
Now, maybe by “Zapatista women” you mean only the ones with ski masks on their heads? Like Gabriela, Rosalinda, Keli, Delia, Ofelia, Yolanda, Ana Berta and Graciela? Like Ramona, Susana, and Ana María and others? They explained already why they sent Marcos out to be the scout, and that they’ll be coming out in the next wave.
In Chetumal – you might have missed this nugget from the first Other Campaign stop outside of Chiapas – Marcos announced that Comandanta Susana will be one of the two Zapatista commanders who will go to live and organize in the state of Quintana Roo when that time comes, in round two. We’re looking forward to covering her extended stay – and organizing efforts – on that peninsula.
John: Is the Other Campaign really a collective endeavor?
Al: Yes. I challenge you to provide an example of anything this big that has been more collective than the Other Campaign. It’s easy to toss around a vague word like “collective.” Let’s hear your stated examples of other national efforts that have been more “collective” than this one. And let’s hear how you define “collective” in that context.
I argue that the Other Campaign has been more collective because the collectivity happens not above among “movement heavies” with a penchant for group process, but from below where the work is being done.
As for the Sixth Committee of the EZLN – one of the organizations that is part of the Other Campaign – I don’t know all the details of their internal decision-making process, although they’ve dropped us many hints over the years.
I think you are speaking of the relationship between other organizations (hundreds) and individuals (thousands) that are part of the Other Campaign and whether the EZLN and its scout, Marcos, have a disproportionate voice. I argue that to the extent they do, it is granted collectively by all the other organizations and individuals involved.
This is how I see it, and it corresponds with what “Delegate Zero” has said in every state along the road: that his fact-finding and listening tour is just one part of the Other Campaign, but that all our efforts in each of our sectors (for example, the sector of authentic journalists, of which I am part, and where you’ve had a placemat at the table since the beginning) and organizations or as individuals are also part of it. And within this Other Campaign we have autonomy and they – the EZLN – also have autonomy. They can say and do what they want. So can we. And so can you. I notice you’re not shy about speaking your mind, John.
For example, as an adherent, when you sit down to write an article or a commentary, do you report to some committee before you publish? I doubt it. Writing works best as a solitary task. Within this collective effort there is also individual and organizational initiative. Nobody has to ask permission of anybody else to do or say anything. The same goes for Marcos: Do you want him to submit his communiqués to a larger committee before sending them out? How about the text of his speeches? What about adlibbed and improvised comments (I posit that his most important and effective statements and actions have been improvisational; but as you know, I’m partial to jazz), of which there have been many. Are you suggesting that his free speech ought to be subjected to prior restraint by committee? That’s not what La Otra is about.
To the extent that those meetings attended by Marcos draw more people, in general, than those Other Campaign events without him, reflects a kind of collective decision. Every individual who attends those events is voting with his and her feet. They – we – attend because it furthers our struggles to do so.
Meanwhile, in twelve states in the North of Mexico, where Marcos has not yet set foot, there is also an Other Campaign, active and visible, from Tijuana to Juárez to Monterrey to San Luis Potosí and everywhere else. There, the EZLN hasn’t attended one meeting.Likewise, should they wait for him to get there before mobilizing? No way! That’s the beauty of La Otra. Nobody waits for orders from headquarters any more. Those days are over in Zapatista and solidarity efforts. And I believe the path is being marked for other movements in other lands to use this recipe – which might be called “autonomy all around” – and achieve great advances.
This new freedom of speech makes it possible for us to do the Other Journalism with the Other Campaign. We have that freedom too. As Marcos said last summer: Take your place in the Other Campaign, maintain it, and defend it, and don’t let any other organization take it away from you. That statement was a turning point for me. It signaled the long-awaited delivery of the promise of autonomy, here and now, not as something to be waited on.
How about the efforts all over the world – the marches and actions in scores of cities in many countries – especially since the Atenco atrocity? Have the people that organized abroad sat around waiting for permission? Have they passed their decisions, slogans, statements, songs, decision-making processes or anything else through a central committee? No, they haven’t done that. They’re autonomous. That, too, is La Otra. (And although, in these 20 questions, you categorize the Other Campaign as an “all but wrecked” venture, do you at least admit that it has inspired more active solidarity efforts from more parts around the world than at any other point in the past twelve years?)
What you seem to be suggesting is that just one of the organizations involved – the EZLN – because of its convocatory power (based in part on its unique success in organizing a grassroots base) should subject its statements and actions – even the proposals it makes to the larger Otra – to a committee or group process. Not only do I disagree with that. I wouldn’t want to participate in anything so boring. I can’t think of anything more doomed to failure than a gringo activism-style “group process” – rigid, anally-retentive, and placing the “talkers” that like to attend meetings as the self-appointed bosses of the “doers” – to rain on everybody’s good work and spirit.
La Otra comes to break that script of defeat! And as long as it keeps doing that, we’ll be here reporting it. Because what also attracts many of us to the story is how the recipe being developed here can be applied in other lands – such as in the US – to break the horrible, doomed, control-freak, bureaucratic, turf-obsessed style of “identity politics” activism in the so-called developed world.
When the Other Campaign does reach the US border, and has its meetings with the Mexicans from the “Other Side” in Juarez and Tijuana, that will be an important test, as to whether this very “other” way of organizing – autonomy all around – can take root in an activist culture that still suffers from many of the vices from which La Otra has freed us down here.
John: How has Marcos bumbled into this dumb war of desgaste (attrition) that has all but wrecked the Other Campaign? (Answer – an absence of collective decision-making.)
Al: As I answered above, the existence or absence of collective decision-making (or desgaste) is in the eye of the, um, spectator.
From where I stand, as a non-spectator – with my experience, stated above, that this is the most collectively run movement I’ve ever been part of – there’s no “war of attrition,” the Other Campaign is not at all “all but wrecked” and that you think otherwise simply says to me that you haven’t yet “taken your place, maintained it and defended it” in this effort.
After Mexico’s Election Day, July 2, the Other Campaign will still be here whereas all the electoral campaign committees and political parties will have shot their wads, with only one as the possible victor, and even that might be called into question. Your “statement of fact” that the Other Campaign is “all but wrecked” and “in attrition” is going to be proved false in just two weeks, John, so hold on to your horses and you’ll see that what I’m saying here is demonstrably true, or at least will be very shortly.
Collective, schmollective: The EZLN is an army. You knew that already. It has always admitted that it is hierarchical, that it has a chain of command. You’ve known that for years and it never seemed to bug you before.
Since a term like “collective decision-making” is pretty damn vague, I’d like to hear your specific proposal over how you think decisions ought to be made.
The Other Campaign is a horizontal effort that includes collectives, individuals, some unions (that have their own forms of organization), NGOs with boards of directors and some with paid staff, local ad-hoc organizations formed around it, artists, communicators, indigenous communities with their own diverse decision-making methods from place to place, and, yes, some organizations with hierarchical chains of command.
Do you want the Other Campaign to, instead, be a hegemonic venture? Should any organization that enters La Otra be subjected to a purity test and only admitted if it has “collective” decision-making? And what in hell is “collective decision-making” anyway? Does that mean that a national movement must work by consensus? Or by Robert’s Rules of Order? Or by elections? Should we run slates? Should the Other Campaign have gigantic assemblies prior to any tactical decisions being made? And what about the folks out in the provinces who can’t travel so easily? Should folks from one region, say, Mexico City, dominate it? Or groups with lots of experience out-maneuvering real people with “group process” tricks up their sleeves; should they be in charge? Should people who like to attend meetings – I call them “the talkers” – have the final say over what those doing the grassroots organizing – I call them “the doers” – can and can’t do? Well, that’s when I’d get off the bus. And a lot of other “doers” who can’t stomach silly meetings full of “talkers” who do little or nothing would probably take the same exit door. Not as a protest, but simply because a lot of very creative people have little tolerance for the tyranny of meetings, no matter how “democratic” their processes are claimed to be.
The Other Campaign is set up so that each and every person – including you, John – who wants to take initiative and puts in the elbow grease to do something, can go ahead and do it within parameters that were established in six gigantic meetings last summer where everybody, including you, had a shot at the microphone. The Sixth Commission of the 16 Zapatistas listened to all 106 hours of testimony, without interrupting or even rolling their eyes at what anyone said, then formulated it into a proposal. Thousands of people and organizations expressed their enthusiastic agreement and willingness to participate with that game plan. A gigantic national campaign was launched and continues in the present. Suggestions are made every day on the message board of the Sup’s weblog, and many are implemented. From our little corner of it, we’ve made various suggestions via e-mail to the Sixth Commission as to how the Other Campaign could better facilitate coverage of the Otra by us and by others, and most of them were implemented rapidly. It’s clear that the Sixth Commission – and Delegate Zero – read their emails carefully and take everything and everyone into consideration. That, to me, is “leading by obeying” and the epitome of collective effort.
Anyway, I doubt very much that your “20 Questions” were written by committee, or that any “collective decision-making” or even collective effort was made to formulate them. And I would never argue that what you or anybody else writes should be subjected to that. But why, as your question implies, should Marcos, alone, be censored in that way?
John: Why has a Red Alert been imposed on Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas? What was the danger? Why has it not been rescinded?
Al: That’s a military question. I’m a civilian. And since I am not a resident of any Zapatista autonomous community in Chiapas, I don’t consider it my role to answer on their behalf. Again, I respect their autonomy, as they respect mine… and yours, and everybody else’s. What I can say is that, since the Red Alert has been declared, the Other Journalism Road Team and I have done more work each day than before, and that’s your best indication that we’re comfortable with the autonomous decisions made by one of our co-adherent organization, the EZLN.
We don’t take orders from anybody. And we respect that other adherent organizations – including the EZLN – don’t take them from us. In any case, I don’t foresee anything, based on how its gone so far, that would make us want to exit an effort that we believe in more today than when it started.
In the Other Campaign, nobody from a different organization within the larger one is ever going to be able to tell the EZLN, or the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, or Marcos, or John, or anybody else what he can and can’t do. Those days are over, thanks to La Otra. It is a development that all of us that vote with our feet and occupy this newsroom cheer.
John: Why was the Red Alert, an EZLN political/military mechanism representing the highest level of danger, imposed from Mexico City by Delegate Zero if, in fact, Delegate Zero is no longer the commander of Zapatista military forces?
Al: The supposition in your question – that Marcos (“Delegate Zero”) is “no longer” the EZLN military commander, is incorrect. As we’ve reported throughout the Other Campaign, Marcos is still the military commander of the EZLN. I’m not sure where you got a different idea. As recently as April in Guerrero, when Marcos met with the Community Police in Guerrero, he introduced himself as the “commander in chief” of soldiers and officers of the EZLN, saluting them soldier-to-soldier. I don’t have anything in my memory or in my notes from any of the meetings – including last summer, when the plan was laid out – that have suggested that he ever stopped being that.
What has been said various times is that a plan is in place should anything happen to that military chief – Marcos – for someone new to take on the military command. But that shouldn’t be confused with any suggestion that he was at all removed from that position.
In any case, you and everybody else have seen that when the Red Alert was called, the Zapatista communities in Chiapas acted in accordance with it. Doesn’t that also indicate consent? And you don’t know that it was decreed, as you imply, without the full consultation and consent of the Comandancia. Anybody outside of the EZLN command who claims to know what goes on behind closed doors – there or anywhere – doesn’t know anything. Those are decisions appropriate to that organization. I respect it.
John: Why did Marcos begin the Other Campaign as “Sub-delegate” Zero and is now identified as “Delegate Zero?”
Al: You can take that question back if you like.
Here is what Marcos said on September 16, when the Other Campaign plan was announced:
“The first trip out, as I already explained, will begin in the month of January and end in the month of June. For six months, the one we call delegate zero – that is, me – will make a first pass touring the country to hold state meetings for the Other Campaign and look at plans for the transportation, lodging, feeding, and movement of the Sixth Committee.”
He said “delegate zero,” nothing about sub-delegate.
Here’s a link to a translation of the entire speech, made from the same stage where so many of the comandantes (and comandantas) sat and spoke. None expressed any disagreement with that. There’s also a link on that page to the original in Spanish. The words “sub-delegate” aren’t used. Perhaps there is some confusion since his other title is subcomandante? He has been both all along: Subcomandante and Delegate.
There was one communiqué – December 26, I’ll link to it when I reference it, below – that he signed as “Sub-delegado.” It was a play on words. Maybe he did that on other occasions. Sheesh, John, you’re a poet. Figure it out.
Your questions seem to imply that he’s off on his own show and that the Comandancia doesn’t back him. But those words come from a communiqué signed by the famous “CCRI-CG of the EZLN,” a communiqué that ends with the following signatures of seven women and six men in the command. Here it is:
…The Sexta and the Other Campaign are now no longer only the EZLN’s, but belong to all who want to make it theirs.
For the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee–General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation,
Comandanta Ramona, Comandanta Susana, Comandanta Esther, Comandanta Miriam, Comandanta Hortensia, Comandanta Gabriela, Comandante David, Comandante Tacho, Comandante Zebedeo, Comandante Ramón.
For the insurgent militia troops of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation,
Insurgent Lieutenant Colonel Moisés
For the EZLN’s Sixth Comizzion,
Insurgent Subcommander Marcos
I hope that clears up any confusion you might have had. On to the next question…
John: Why during his May 3rd appearance at Tlatelolco, after viewing television footage of the first day of battle in Atenco and well aware that the coverage signaled brutal repression by the mal gobierno (bad government) did Delegate Zero urge adherents of the La Otra Campaña to go immediately to Atenco where they were arrested, beaten, raped, and even murdered (Ollin Alexis) the next day, May 4th?
Al: Your question is based on errant claims, again. Fortunately, there are audio and videotape, transcriptions and translations, that disprove your “statement of fact.” Here is what was actually said at Tlatelolco, quote:
“As the Sixth Commission of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an adherent organization to the Other Campaign, we are asking, respectfully soliciting the regional and sub-regional coordinators throughout the country to agree upon and carry out mobilizations in support of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land beginning at 8:00 tomorrow morning, May 4, 2006.
“As the Sixth Commission we declare ourselves on alert. The troops of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation have already been declared on red alert, and at that time the Caracoles and Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities will be closed. From this moment on, the new chain of command is functioning in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. No matter what happens to me, there are people here to make decisions. We don’t know about all of you, but today, we Zapatistas are Atenco.
“We are going to be paying attention to your demands. We call for meetings by sector and region for you to think about and agree on these actions. As the Sixth commission we are canceling all our participation in programmed activities and waiting for word from the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land. If they need our presence there, then there we will be. If not, we will participate directly in one of the actions that you program for tomorrow beginning at 8:00 in the morning.”
Pay close attention, please, to exactly what was said. Marcos called for mobilizations beginning at 8:00 a.m. on May 4. He didn’t say where. And he said, it is very much worth repeating: “we are waiting for word from the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Land. If they need our presence there, then we will be. If not, we will participate directly in one of the actions that you program for tomorrow beginning at 8:00 in the morning.”
He said wait for the invitation from the FPDT, the adherent organization in Atenco, and told that the EZLN was waiting for that call, too.
Right after he spoke those words, América del Valle, representing that same FPDT, asked people to mobilize at 8 a.m. May 4 at the University of Chapingo (outside of Atenco) and also at a bridge in Ecatepec (outside of Atenco). Neither she nor Marcos told people to rush off to Atenco. And none of the people who answered the call that was made and went to Chapingo and Ecatepec were arrested, or beaten, or raped, or killed: not one of them.
As adherents, we don’t second-guess the autonomous decisions of each organization or individual. We are in solidarity with those who did go (many of whom are now wounded or political prisoners, one of whom, Alexis Benhumea, is dead) and we also respect and support the those who waited for the FPDT to invite them there (including the EZLN).
To us – and this is very much the spirit of the Otra as we interpret it – the autonomy of every organization, of every individual, is paramount, deserving of solidarity and support. The days when sectors of social movements could sing “oh, but we would have done it differently, so therefore we’re withdrawing our solidarity” and could find a significant chorus to sing along are over, at least as far as the Other Campaign has developed.
I can’t think of anything more snooty than the form of activism that insists on purity, that gives and withdraws alliance over disagreements on tactics. That outmoded, egotistical, approach to politics doesn’t work. It’s full of self-importance. It views social movements as consumer products in which the consumer says, “well, I’ll take my business elsewhere!” It’s silly. It never won a single battle for any movement and it has caused the defeat of many. La Otra is a return to the principle of “solidarity forever.” That was a song that was sung – and an ethic that was lived – when unions and social movements did win battles. All for one, and one for all: that, to us, is the Other Campaign.
John: Why did Delegate Zero not appear in Atenco until the evening of May 5th?
Al: Because that’s when he was invited. He went on May 5th – one day after the police raid – with thousands of others, all together. That’s when the local organization – the FPDT - invited him and them to go. It seems rather natural and sensible to me.
And to underscore this point, what the people in Atenco have told us (as we’ve been there on and off ever since) is that Marcos – in various cell phone calls with their spokesman, Nacho del Valle on May 3 – offered repeatedly to come right away. And Nacho said no, that they were about to get hit hard there and they needed the Other Campaign still on its feet to get them out once it came down. That, for me, also confirms Nacho’s smarts as a strategist and tactician – and his selflessness. Under enormous pressure and repression, he made a cool-headed call. And that’s what has happened. Not everybody went to jail. There’s a movement on the outside fighting for their release that has so far gained the release of 189 of the 217 who were arrested.
Here’s a credo that we’ve repeated around our newsroom a lot over the past month, as we’ve watched everybody’s reactions to the Atenco crisis, from the heroic to the effective to the manic to the depressed to those who chose, in the heat of the moment, to complain and toss spitballs instead of work to get our people out: In an hour of moral crisis, the true character of each individual is revealed.
On May 3 and since, we’ve been able to see who has been methodical, careful, successful, and under enormous pressure. These are the people – not those with knee-jerk reactions whose first instinct in crisis is to start bossing others around and herding them like sheep – that bring a movement to victory.
John: Why did Delegate Zero grant Televisa a lengthy in-studio interview with star anchor Carlos Loret de Mola after denouncing and lampooning the TV monopoly for 12 years and in spite of the Senate’s passage of the infamous “Ley Televisa” just days before?
Al: On May 5th, in Atenco – we were there, reporting, and you can read about it here – Marcos announced, transparently, that he would grant interviews under very specific conditions to any mass media that guaranteed that his words would be broadcast in full and without editing. La Jornada, Televisa, CNN and TeleSUR, in that order, provided those guarantees.
Nobody – at least not below and to the left – has ever openly placed that condition on Televisa or any major TV network, but that’s what he did.
My opinion is that the interview – in that important context, which is omitted from your question – was a victory for the struggle against the Commercial Media and a defeat for Televisa in particular. I see it in the light of my 1997 “manifesto”: The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against the Media (with updated footnotes reflecting some evolutions in my thoughts dated 2002). Televisa was forced by the Other Campaign into a position of setting a precedent that one can now demand no censorship from them in exchange for granting interviews. And that precedent also establishes that one can do it in what you call a “lengthy” manner (you state the length of the interview as a complaint: No, I say. Winning the right to lengthy, uninterrupted, uncensored, unabridged access to the airwaves is the antidote to the sound-byte dumb-it-down mentality of the TV news!) In any case, I’m granting you an even longer interview than that one right now…
Plus, I thought the interview itself was important on its merits. It was part of the turning the tables on the “official version” of the Atenco story (which was that of an unruly violent mob set right by the forces of law and order) and made it become what it is now: a story about a repressive and illegitimate regime that beats, arrests, rapes and kills to get its way. I wrote about that in “The Zapatista Other Campaign and the Netwar Over Defining Atenco” on May 26 if you’d like more of my thoughts about why it worked.
And, just this past week, we’ve seen how that “turning of the tables” came to play in Oaxaca, leading to the failure of a similar state police raid (this time, on striking teachers), and a very distinct response from the federal government which, this time, refused a governor’s call to send in federal troops to smash heads. That’s your best indication that the strategy that included, but was not at all limited to, an appearance on Televisa, worked.
John: Why at public meetings does Delegate Zero now call for the overthrow of the government when in the past the EZLN has repeatedly declared that it was not interested in taking state power?
Al: Toppling a government is one thing. Taking state power would be another and different thing. I don’t agree with your inference that they are one and the same. One can destroy something and not appoint himself its owner afterwards. Perhaps the best example of this in Mexican history is Emiliano Zapata, who toppled a regime, but refused to sit in the president’s chair when it was offered too him.
But this is nothing new, and you know it. If one reviews, as we have, the sum total of everything that Marcos has said along the Other Campaign trail, consistently, in every state, the message is the same as it has been for twelve years. In the first communiqué in 1994, the Declaration of War, they vowed to “overpower” the federal forces and topple the government when the revolt reached Mexico City. It’s been repeated for 12 years. And it was certainly said again in the Sixth Declaration, a document that you read, you signed, and you went to the jungle and spoke as an adherent to it. The Sexta calls for the destruction of capitalism. You didn’t express any disagreement with it then, and I’m not sure you really disagree with it now.
The sum of your questions – because in listening, we try to listen as well to what people don’t say aloud – seems to suggest that Delegate Zero is somehow a lone individual abandoned by his bases of support in Chiapas, and that he alone, with his dangerous Svengali-like powers, has taken the EZLN and everybody related off on a different path. You almost suggest that he has betrayed the very principles of Zapatismo. That’s not the story to which we’ve been eyewitnesses and have been reporting nonstop on the road for five months going on six. That scenario is imagined, a fantasy, a theory without substantiation.
John, you’ve been busy finishing a book. On various articles you’ve published during this time, in the author’s description you said “don’t bother me, I’m busy finishing a book.” Maybe I should have bothered you, taken you out to a blues club and offered these views then, over a cerveza or two. That priority has also meant that you haven’t seen that much of the Other Campaign out in the provinces, not since January when you were in Chiapas, and more recently at some events in Mexico City. And that’s – here I go again – your autonomous decision. And I respect it. And I’m not going to “pull rank” and imply that you are any less an adherent than I or others on this team are. We’ll all face the same firing squad together. But you make representations that simply do not reflect the reality of what all of us that have traveled the south and center of the country in this Other Journalism road team have experienced and witnessed. Our experience along the Other Campaign trail is legitimate. Our reporting of it has been impeccably honest. And it leads us to very opposite conclusions.
In any case, I’m really anxious to get to your next question, about Stalin, because it’s a good one to help me explain better this concept of absolute autonomy, and a few other “core principles” – as well as strategic imperatives – behind our views on it…
John: Why does Delegate Zero say nothing about the portraits of Joe Stalin that now appear at every meeting? Was not the goal of the Other Campaign to build a horizontal left from the bottom, the mirror opposite of Stalinist totalitarianism?
Al: I wrote about the Stalin poster – carried by one organization (not the EZLN) that adheres to the Other Campaign in that recent netwar piece. I think it’s an interesting question that you pose. But let me begin with a reflection.
Not being a child of the 1960s, I was formed by the punk generation of the 1970s, specifically in New York where it attained some of its earliest manifestations. There, an artist by the name of Arturo Vega was the “design director” for the musical group, The Ramones. This was before they had recorded an album. What Bob Dylan was to part of your generation, those punks were to part of mine. And Vega – who was a member of another musical group, a duo, named Suicide – had an apartment where the members of the Ramones lived. And he made his art there.
One day Vega put up an entire wall of day-glo swastikas – very much in the style of, say, the 60s peace-and-love day-glo artist Peter Maxx – and then he’d sit back and watch people’s reactions when they walked in and saw his provocative artwork. And people’s reactions left him howling with a prankster’s glee. He later shared his reflections with Legs McNiel and Gillian McCain for their oral history of punk, Please Kill Me (1996, Grove Press).
Reviewing that book in the Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement, I made an argument that I’ll make again here:
Oversocialized leftists have long argued against negation as a tool to change the world: “Sure, you’re disrupting things,” they say, “but what’s your program?” The punk program *was* disruption. Punk codified the art of “not-niceness.” Artist Arturo Vega painted day-glo swastikas that decorated the Ramones’ apartment. He considered the paintings, “a closet Nazi detector,” exposing those who most loudly objected as repressing their own authoritarian tendencies (“I always thought that to conquer evil,” he says, “you have to make love to it”).
And when, during the meetings in the jungle last summer, I saw that poster of Stalin (alongside others of Marx, Engels, and Lenin) and saw the members of the Communist Party of Mexico, flanking it, gleefully, as if putting up a transgressive poster was akin to having just won the revolution, I had “an Arturo Vega punk rock moment” in the jungle.
At first it bothered me, to see it there, just like I still wince when I see a swastika and have to remind myself of the Arturo Vega Doctrine, or, for that matter, when I catch a whiff of anything “New Age” (which seems to me one of the most Puritan fundamentalisms of our era; we all have our pet peeves, no?), and that was the first clue to look deeper. When speech bothers me, I try to look at my own reactions and not at the speech (or the poster, or image, or whatever form of speech it is) because, really, words and images – contrary to the oversocialist leftist view of the developed world and the creatures it deforms us to be – don’t hurt anybody. And as an anarcho-syndicalist, of a Makhnovshchina tendency (which is to say, sworn enemies of Stalinism, not that most people care what tendency any of us subscribe to, but I’ll disclose it for those that do), I really had to think hard about the implications of that Stalin poster.
So there it was: that evil, beady-eyed, Stalin poster glaring at us all somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, like a scene out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another adherent came by with a petition to have it taken down. That was the first clue for me: that something like a poster would drive one adherent to want to censor another adherent’s expression. And I thought, “Aha! There was the hidden face of Stalinism in the Other Campaign!” It was not in a poster, but in the urge to banish it to Siberia. The urge to purge is a, if not the, defining characteristic of Stalinism.
I said to the compañero, “nothing stops you from putting up an anti-Stalin poster next to it,” declining to sign his petition. As a free-speech absolutist, I began to think of the whole hullabaloo differently. And I began to look at those Communist Party members as a kind of punk rocker, putting up what they considered to be the most transgressive or “radical” gesture, and like Arturo Vega, watching the reactions as the people walked in. They were definitely getting a kick out of it. And that seemed more, well, anarchist than Stalinist, that spirit of mischievousness. It was their version of a Whoopee Cushion under the seats of the humorless.
Then, when they brought that poster along the Other Campaign trail, and started putting it up wherever Marcos appeared, I had to think about it some more, this time from a propaganda perspective, because Stalin’s mug is not exactly a turn-on for many good people. And of course all the rest of us with other political tendencies got talking among ourselves about it. The Marxist-Leninists of the Party of Mexican Communists – a different group than that of the CP with the Stalin poster, an organization that decidedly rejects Stalinism – and the Trotskyites, the anarchists, the punks, the pacifists, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the human rights NGO types, the alternative media geeks (your compadre Hermann Bellinghausen says that the Caravan is like Noah’s Ark because there are at least two from every tendency) and everybody – except for the grand majority of folks without a stated “tendency” – was talkin’ about that poster.
Simultaneously we began to get to know these “Stalinists,” share meals with them, talk with them, and it became clear that these folks were no threat to any of us. They had senses of humor. When stuff needed to be organized in a hurry, they were really good at it. They worked well together as a team. We could tease them about El Gran Pepe. And they could tease us about being motley anarchos or punks or whatever. And over time they showed by example what Marcos meant when he said, “take your place in the Other Campaign, maintain it and defend it.” Because, man, they really had to defend that move from a lot of people who wanted to remove their poster or purge them altogether. It was openly debated at the September 16 plenary session in the jungle, but the overwhelming majority of adherents considered the debate to be a divisive sideshow. There was no groundswell for banning the speech of another. So, as far as a great many in the Other Campaign is concerned, the proposal to censor was a non-starter nine months ago. And now, wherever that Stalin poster goes, black anarchist A-flags are shadowing it: two conflicting ideologies finding common ground in the Other Campaign and getting along with each other toward a greater shared goal. I find that encouraging, not discouraging.
Fast-forward to Atenco, May 4: Two of those compañeros with the Stalin poster that I had gotten to know in so many stops along the road – Bertín and Pedro – went to prison. And we fought just as hard to get them out as everybody else. And I was proud to know them on May 28 when they burned their prison uniforms in public.
The problem with the oversocialized left is that it preaches tolerance to level of fetish for “identity groups” (that is, the classifications of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, etcetera) but shows zero tolerance for, gasp, differences of opinion. The pacifists want us to renounce revolutionary violence and even confrontation, and the militants want us to renounce pacifism and even nonviolence. The anarchists want to purge the commies and the commies want to put Whoopee Cushions under the seats of the anarchists. And the hippies hate the punks and the punks loathe the hippies and there’s an army of kids coming up behind us that see hippies and punks as fogies (and they’re right, as youth tends to be about the previous generations), but they’re still willing to work alongside us in the Other Campaign. Never mind the historic backstabbing and turf-wars that went on – before the Other Campaign – between alternative media organizations: that’s mostly over now. And heaven help you if you’re just a normal person that hasn’t staked out any political tendency but knows that injustice is wrong and that you simply believe in democracy, freedom and justice. The left is paralyzed by this mutual intolerance all the time.
The Other Campaign has put a stop to that, not by “banning” or “censoring” or “purging” people, but by providing a better, more attractive, path of unity. And with the co-existence of all these disparate tendencies, alongside of so many “normal people,” too, on the caravan has proved that it can be done. Hermann is right. The Other Campaign is the new Noah’s Ark. It is getting us through the flood. And when the rain stops, we’ll be able to live with each other – and collaborate – in ways that few of us thought possible before the ship left port.
As for Marcos’ decision to “say nothing” (your words) about it, ask him. I repeat, it was already debated in an assembly of thousands of adherents, and there was little support for censoring anybody’s expressions or tendencies in the Other Campaign. I’ve said plenty about it but clearly my conclusions are different than yours. I’m not bothered by a poster: So purge me, too. And those who seem overly bothered seem to me like Mrs. Teasdale when confronted by another Marx named Groucho. And my own anarchist, anti-Stalinist principles – I haven’t forgotten them or changed my mind about the failures of Stalinism – cause me to defend speech even when I disagree with it. And on the flip side, I kind of get an Arturo Vega kick out of watching various supposed anti-authoritarians indulge their own censorious Stalinist impulses in the name of anti-Stalinism. We’re in a process of self-education, all of us, in this thing, too. So, you sat on that Whoopee Cushion. Big deal. Brush yourself off and get back into the fight. And if you still feel that strongly about it, bring your own anti-Stalin poster to the next event instead of asking Marcos or somebody else to do it for you. That, too, is the Other Campaign.
John: Why were several adherents who attended the June 10th rally in the Zocalo in memoriam of Ollin Alexis expelled from the meeting? Were they “porras” as a handful of General Strike Council members insisted?
Al: I’ve heard nothing about the event you describe. I wasn’t there. Maybe you were. But my journalists’ mind asks: What do you mean that people were “expelled” from the Zocalo? How does somebody get “expelled” from a public park, the most public in all of Mexico? Did, like, the Other Campaign call the police? I doubt it.
Now, maybe someone said he wouldn’t speak if they were present – that’s happened before along the Other Campaign trail (Elena Poinatowska of the non-other campaign being the only one to complain about it publicly) – but that’s everybody’s right, not to speak in front of someone they don’t want to speak to. There have been moments in my blues concerts when I’ve stopped the concert because somebody that I didn’t want to sing for walked in, and waited until they left before resuming. Perhaps you’ve seen similar things occur in poetry readings. That’s everyone’s prerogative as a public person: silence as a right. But I very much doubt that anyone was expelled from the Zocalo. I’d be interested in reading your account of it if they were. But it doesn’t pass the reality test, not the way you’ve described it.
John: Wasn’t the Other Campaign supposed to be inclusive?
Al: I think what I’ve just described, regarding inclusion of even the Stalinists, proves that it is.
But let’s not place an over-value on inclusiveness. We’ve all paid the price of letting someone who is either power hungry or emotionally unstable or perhaps a provocateur enter our projects or our lives. To make room to include some, there often has to be exclusion of those who would derail a project. And to make room for the inclusion of the Other Campaign – anti-capitalist and to the left – there has been a marked exclusion of militants, candidates and officials from electoral political parties. At this stage in the process – in the heat of the Mexican presidential campaign – that makes sense to me.
Those hooked into the electoral clock – 13 days and ticking down – are in a frenzy, obsessed with only one thing, one vote, on one date. ¡Uta Madre! Even the Patricia Mercado supporters – your real spoilers this year – are insufferable about it. Once they enter a room, nothing else is allowed to happen, they’re so zealous about it. This “Noah’s Ark” that is the Other Campaign would never have been achieved if those people had been around, jerking us again and again toward the electoral imperative, which, for all its religious fervor, will be over in less than two weeks. Noah didn’t invite two of the smallpox species onto the boat either. And that’s the day – the end of an election and the beginning of “what comes next” – when I think that many who have dismissed the Other Campaign, or viewed it as a joke, will begin to understand it, really, for the first time. Because the electoral blinders will, finally, be off and the false hopes that many have in what happens up above will begin to crash on the reefs of realpolitique.
John: Is the PRD really happy about Ollin Alexis’s death as Delegate Zero asserts? Is the PRD really as bad as the PAN and the PRI? Is worse better?
Al: You’re asking me, again, to speak for someone else, this time for the political parties. A political party can’t be happy or unhappy about anything. Only individuals can be happy or unhappy. I’m sure there are members of each party that are saddened by it and others that are gloating over it. And I’m unsure of the exact citation on your claim of what Marcos said, since we’ve translated virtually everything he’s said on the matter of Alexis, and don’t recall such a quote. But maybe he did say such a thing. I repeat: you’re a poet. If you don’t like another poet’s poem, write a better one. There’s not much you can do about anybody else’s words. And it’s an unworthy goal to try and censor anybody else.
One question I can answer: I don’t believe worse is better. I don’t believe things have to get worse to create the objective conditions for revolution. Things are bad enough already. We don’t need any more impetus to revolt. Nor do I believe that the Other Campaign is trying to provoke an openly rightwing party to win the presidency of Mexico, as some in the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) mistakenly say. Something else is going on down below and on a different clock.
What I can say is that I’ve served my time in the prison of looking above. I did it for years as a political reporter in the United States. And I’ve done it in Latin America. When Lula da Silva was elected in Brazil I went down there to live, hoping to witness and be part of a great leap forward. But it didn’t happen, did it? And Lula was a bona fide leftist! That was a hard lesson.
The Other Campaign has been very clear: How to vote or whether to vote is a personal decision. It hasn’t wanted militants of any of the parties involved with La Otra – that’s not new, it was announced from the first day – and, in my observation, that’s been a smart call. It has to make sure that people who will be outside of the government – anti-capitalist and to the left – are organized together to confront any administration of any party, left, right, or center, when it takes office.
I also don’t believe that elections, in Mexico or in the United States are fair or free, or even close to authentic democracy. In the US, I believe Gore won the popular and electoral vote in 2000 and that Kerry won the Electoral College vote in 2004 and that the evidences of fraud have been well documented, although not in the Commercial Media. And I agree that things are worse because Bush is in the White House for everyone on earth and that his defeat would have been preferable. But computer fraud is easy to do and hard to detect. I believe we’ve seen examples of it in recent years. And what’s to stop them from doing it in Mexico, where you can’t even have poll watchers counting the votes at each polling place? All this talk about “how much the vote counting safeguards have evolved in Mexico, blah, blah, blah,” is bullshit. If you can’t count the damn votes at the polling place you can’t guarantee against computer fraud, a la 1988.
Furthermore, I believe that money and the cost of media make such “elections” unfair from the starting gate. They’re a sick joke. The decision over the presidency of Mexico will be made up above, as it was six years ago when the Empire bet on Fox.
And if those above decide it should be Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the “center-leftist,” they would have good reasons, from their own interests, to do so. Because if, conversely, they decide it will be the rightist Felipe Calderon of the PAN (National Action Party) a lot of people aren’t going to swallow it, the collective memory of fraud that you wrote so well about the other day and the revolt could uncloak maybe as soon as July 3. And I still don’t discount a scenario where the system pops out Roberto Madrazo and the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) as the supposed winner. But the system can buy more time with Lopez Obrador than it can with the others. It’s a risk for the system because there’s still the chance, albeit small, that Lopez Obrador will surprise us, as Chávez has in Venezuela, and maybe do some big things right. The only way he would be able to do that is if there were a grassroots movement outside of his government to push him, like what occurs in Venezuela and what might occur in Bolivia; we’ll see. Once again, it all comes back to the need for the Other Campaign.
So, John, pretend it is now July 3rd. If Lopez Obrador is declared the winner, who will push that government from below and to the left? You will need the Other Campaign. And if Calderon is declared the winner: who will lead the charge to call out its illegitimacy? You will need the Other Campaign. And if the Jack-in-the-Box lid springs open and – surprise! – Madrazo is smiling up at you, oy, you’ll really need the Other Campaign then. Elections are fleeting things; like the World Cup, it will all be over soon. Who has thought about what comes next? Many of the adherents to Other Campaign have done so to a degree that I don’t think any of the candidates or parties have accomplished.
John: Why does the alternative press say nothing about all of this? Isn’t it the role of the alternative press to be critical?
Al: It seems to me that we’re having this discussion right now. The fact remains I don’t share your views. I obviously disagree with many of your statements of “fact” and I’ve offered the exculpatory evidence above. Much of what you’ve claimed is, to me, on the level of unsubstantiated supposition and guessing. And although others have said similar things, they’ve mainly been either corporate media or anonymous whiners on the Internet, and there’s no use conducting a debate with pseudonyms. But this is good: John and Al having a conversation in public, with our names attached. It means we’re accountable for what we say and it makes us more honest in saying it. And hopefully it means that if one of us demonstrates, with facts, that the other is in error, the other of us will adjust his position accordingly.
There are many different kinds of “alternative” media. At Narco News we don’t describe ourselves that with that word. “Alternative to what?” In the United States, the “alternative media” is big businesses. And it doesn’t even humor anti-capitalist struggle, as it did 30 years ago, much less report on it. We prefer the term “authentic journalism” because we are not reacting to them, or to the mainstream media. We are just doing what we think is right. To us, all those simulators up above are the “alternative” – they literally invent an alternative reality and then impose it on everyone else – whereas we try to report the reality we live, in struggle from below.
And as real people, as human beings who choose to do journalism, we don’t check our humanity at the door and assume a distant “objective” stance (as if that were even possible). We don’t even try. We don’t consider it a worthy goal. We’re a class of workers that is abused mainly by the private sector, not by State censorship, but by the gag order of the New State, which is the Media. It preaches freedom as it daily silences speech; more accurately, it drowns out truthful speech under an ocean of lies. I don’t need to tell you this. You know what it’s like out there. It’s awful. And often, the “alternative press” is the worst abuser of labor. And so we have our own struggle. And in allying ourselves with the struggles of other workers, of farmers, of all the other sectors in the Other Campaign, we are doing what we think is best for everyone, but also for ourselves.
The Sixth Declaration was attractive to us because it is anti-capitalist and to the left, and, to us, that means taking back the means of production. As media workers, that means taking back the airwaves, the printing presses, the distribution networks, or destroying the ones that exist and making a space for everyone in society to construct new ones. Its not that we want to become the new directors of Televisa or the next New York Times correspondents in Latin America, any more than the Zapatistas want to be congressmen or that Zapata wanted to be president. No. It’s that we are destroying the convocatory power of Televisa, the New York Times and all the others, we are “toppling” their credibility and people’s belief in them, as we build something else, something “other,” ourselves. For six years, Narco News has been a subject in that fight, and as individuals even longer.
So when we’ve seen that the Zapatistas – a majority of them farmers – took back the farmlands from the plantation owners and the workers own their own jobs again, and that they’ve held that ground for twelve years, we look at how that recipe can be applied to journalism. And when we read in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle that it’s time for every sector to do this, we answered the call from our own place in all this. And our method of being part of this cause – not separate from it, not up on some Olympus on high masturbating with the “intellectuals,” but part of it – has been to do what we do: journalism, but as part of something greater than journalism. And we disclose our bias. So what’s the beef?
To speak of “the alternative press” as if it is some monolith is very mistaken. Before the Other Campaign began, few of us could agree on lunch. But among those who have entered it, as we have, we’ve seen other projects like Radio Pacheco, like the two Indymedias in Mexico and Chiapas, like Radio KeHuelga, and Radio Sabotaje, and others grow as we have. We’ve seen some interesting upstart projects too on the local and regional level, or nationally such as the Palabras de La Otra magazine. It turns out that none of these projects – although some acted like it in the past – were ever competing for the same spaces or the same personnel. That each, through its adherence to the Other Campaign, has found an ever-expanding pool of like-minded folks that are comfortable with each different style (and it’s obvious that the styles between each of these projects are very different from one another). And each has also expanded its public reach. When Marcos commented, in February, that, “the alternative media has merely just used the Other Campaign as its backstage,” I think he “got it” in a big way. He meant it in the most positive sense. That La Otra is a space for many different kinds of worthy projects to grow and prosper; well, not financially, but in all the other important ways.
So, how you define your job as “alternative media” may well be different than from how I define mine, or how other members of our team define theirs. La Otra has room for all of us in all our hues. But I don’t tell you how to do your job. And I sure don’t let anybody tell me how to do mine. I’ve fought too hard to win this freedom to let it go now.
Despite so many differences, we do look for ways to collaborate. You send us articles. We publish them. Our network of readers distributes them and draws attention to them. You read what other colleagues here publish and we read yours and “a bigger truth” comes from the combination. I don’t want John Ross to be like me. And I sure don’t want to be forced to be like anybody else. And that’s also the spirit of the Otra. The Zapatistas, the other organizations and individuals, have “got it.” They don’t want either of us, or anybody else, to be like them. We all agree that we want freedom for ourselves and we want freedom for everybody else. And we realize that we only win this freedom if everybody wins it. And so we struggle together and build “one big fight” which resonates well with the old IWW credo of “One Big Union.”
It think that “the left” in the United States is particularly confused on this point in a way that the Mexican left increasingly is not: so many of our paisanos want to tell everyone else what they should be doing. But hegemonic activism doesn’t work. It doesn’t advance any struggle or cause. I really can’t wait for La Otra to hit the border because, yes, we’re going to jump over at that point, if not physically then at least in terms of seeing whether a blueprint for a better mousetrap comes out of the cross-pollination of movements on each side of the border. There is great interest in the Other Campaign up the North. It’s on our radar in a bigger way than I think it is for most. We’ve heard from so many readers up there that are planning to come to the bi-national meetings when they happen in Tijuana and Juarez. When it comes to fruition, would you like a reminder card about your prediction that the Other Campaign was already “all but wrecked” and “in attrition” in June 2006?
John: Is the shameless cheerleading of the alternative press a condition of accompanying the Other Campaign?
Al: Days before the launch of the Other Campaign tour, on December 26 of last year, came a communiqué out of the Lacandon Jungle in which Marcos asked the local organizing organizations throughout Mexico to “give preferential treatment to the compañeros of the ‘other’ that ‘cover’ this tour, since these alternative media are at a disadvantage in the face of the mass media, and if this is the ‘other,’ well, we ought to be ‘other’ in the aspect of communication…”
Yet, despite its clarity, it took various weeks of the Caravan being on the road for that ethic to sink in. There were early efforts – in Chiapas, in Yucatán, in Oaxaca – by some local organizers to place themselves as gatekeepers in ways that inhibited the spirit of the communiqué. I remember one meeting in which a local organizer told us we couldn’t film “on orders from Marcos.” We passed a note to the EZLN’s Equipo de Apoyo (support team) and five minutes later one of its members came out and told the guy, in front of a bunch of people, that no such statement had been made. And we all turned on our cameras. But we had to fight for it; nicely, politely, but it was a fight. In other places, like Quintana Roo, the local organizers grasped the ethic right away and made it possible for all of us to do our jobs. That was wonderful. It was there that the new and better mousetrap was built, by people we’d never met before, like the late Julio Macossay and the youths at Rincón Rupestre, some of whom then joined the caravan. When the Other Campaign left Chiapas and entered Chetumal it was as if a long cloud of gatekeeper abuses had finally lifted. And, basically, after a few bumps in Oaxaca, the situation has been consistently good. But you had a brush with that old vice in Chiapas, right? I remember that. Your next question refers to it…
John: If all media is invited to cover the Other Campaign as Delegate Zero communicated January 1st, why am I barred from press conferences?
Al: You can’t honestly speak of “press conferences,” plural. There has only been one “press conference” during the entire five-and-a-half months of the Other Campaign, on its third day, and the way it went down, I imagine, has everything to do with why there haven’t been more.
I wasn’t there. You were. And you denounced it afterwards. And I supported you very forcefully, as you know, but in my own style of doing it without turning what I considered an internal matter into a public denouncement. I think we agree on those facts.
The first problem was “how do you define who is alternative media and who is not?” There is, for example, our friend Hermann Bellinghausen. He works for a commercial newspaper, La Jornada. But his reporting is “below and to the left.” Now, you went to those meetings in Palenque, I think it was January 3 or 4, and signed the press list as being from, as I recall, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a commercial alternative weekly newspaper owned by another good friend, Bruce Brugmann. Suddenly, Marcos called a press conference, and a list of alternative media present was read as the list of invitees. And you weren’t on it. And Hermann was. And so, clearly, there wasn’t consistency in the standards applied. Maybe if you had signed the list as “Narco News” instead – you had already signed on with the Other Journalism – you would have gotten in. Or maybe not: it was early, and the process of sweeping out old vices had only just begun. Whoever was making the list probably just had never heard of the Bay Guardian. Sometimes we all tend to read too much into a situation and interpret an impersonal blunder or ignorance as an intended personal sleight. I really don’t think that’s what happened there.
That was one problem: If you are going to give a press conference just for “alternative media,” how do you decide who gets in and who doesn’t? It’s a very difficult call. And you know that I protested it, because you have a copy of the private emails I sent supporting you to you-know-who. But I protested it privately. Is that what you mean by “shameless cheerleading”? That when I have an internal complaint I file it internally? If so, I plead guilty, and proudly so: I think another problem in social movements is when one faction tries to fight with another through the media, alternative or mainstream. You’ll notice that on Narco News we don’t report about internecine disputes in social movements unless they’ve already taken on a public component through other media or occurred in a public forum. But we’re never the ones to break a story that says so-and-so is fighting with so-and-so about such-and-such. We do report about debates over philosophy, strategy and tactics. But we don’t consider personality conflicts or the inevitable logistical problems (such as who got invited to a press conference) to be “news,” because there is nothing “new” about it.
A case in point: In Yucatán state, last December and January, there had been a bitter division between various organizations inside the Other Campaign prior to Marcos’ arrival. They were divisions that were, in some cases, thirty years old. The dispute was over where in the state Marcos would go during his three days in the state: it was a dispute about something that really mattered. Both sides petitioned him to mediate it, and he said no, you guys work it out. One of the groups then went to the Diario de Yucatán to air its dispute publicly. Another, on the same side of the dispute – the artisans from the Chichen Itza archeological zone – chose not to air its complaint publicly and kept advocating its position privately: they wanted Marcos to visit the ruins and bring attention to their cause. Later, Marcos arrived in Yucatán, saw what was really going on, and decided there to break the script and go to Chichen Itza. It was an historic moment for the Other Campaign because it was when he started to see that there were vices in local committees, and gate-keeping mentality, and he chose to crash down the gates.
There, when he spoke, he thanked the Chichen Itza artisans for not airing their complaint through the media. He, like us, seems to believe that a movement does better when it doesn’t involve the enemy (the media) in internal disputes. And his presence indicated that the artisans of Chichen Itza had won their argument by waging it as they had: internally.
In a movement, that’s how it ought to be done. Otherwise, one just gives fuel to the counter-insurgency efforts of the mass media, to divide and conquer, to distort, to turn small things into big things and cloud out what really are the important things. And since we are adherents and part of this movement, we fight internal battles internally and save our public ammunition for the stuff that really is news.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have open discussions, like this one, that are sincere efforts to flesh out philosophical, strategic and tactical visions, and to try to agree at least on what the facts are: from there sprouts (sometimes) a movement’s evolution and advance. And it’s amazing what can happen between diverse tendencies when suddenly they can at least come to agree on the facts. That’s the first step to unity. And then there are some tactical questions, on which we can disagree, but still advance together. In a way, that’s what we’ve been doing in spite of these disagreements. Likewise, if you think I’m working with an inaccurate roadmap, I invite you to correct or argue otherwise, either by sending me a response to be published here or by taking advantage of your account in The Narcosphere. It’s not as if I’m getting or taking the last word on any of this
I don’t consider it my job to be lecturing any other adherent organization – including the EZLN – as to how it should do its job. We are not some elite “press” that is on the outside of or above a cause. We are a media organization that is adherent to it. If you want to call that “shameless cheerleading” that’s your prerogative. But you know that I frequently voice my criticisms and complaints privately to anyone I wish. (If anything, the complaint about me is that I do it too much and too passionately, and people get their feelings hurt). That I don’t do it publicly at the moment when it happens, I think, has a lot to do with getting those grievances redressed and with successfully correcting the wrongs. And this doesn’t tell anybody else they have to do things the same way or hush up about anything. It’s simply one autonomous stance in a movement where other ways of doing things also coexist.
In any case, you ought to know that there is no policy “banning” you from “press conferences.” And your extrapolation of one incident into what you term now as an ongoing policy lacks the journalistic rigor that more often marks your work.
But there’s another point that I think has even more weight as to why there haven’t been more “press conferences” for the “alternative media,” and I don’t think it has to do with the surmountable problem of who gets in and who does not. It’s that, in general, the “alternative media” doesn’t yet know how to make use of a press conference and in other ways is still taking baby steps toward what it can and will become. That press conference in Palenque was called, I believe, in part to demonstrate the Other Campaign’s preference for alternative media. It was there that Marcos said that the alternative media would be “the spinal column of the first phase of the Other Campaign” and urged us not to disappoint the Otra by fading away. That first and only press conference came a week after his December 26 communiqué, when he urged “the consolidation of the different alternative communication projects that exist below and to the left in Mexico.” The idea was that somehow all the alternative media projects could consolidate into something bigger.
But the proposal for “consolidation” went against the grain of the decentralized, autonomous spirit of La Otra. And the fact that it didn’t happen proves my point that the Other Campaign really is a collective venture. One adherent organization – the EZLN – proposed (I stress, proposed; it didn’t order anyone to do anything) that the various adherent media organizations consolidate. But the various adherent media organizations did not show any enthusiasm for that proposal and just kept doing their own thing, us included. Within a few weeks, the EZLN and its spokesman adjusted its position, accepted the reality of counting with different media organizations with very different styles, and began to shine the light on those specific media organizations that were working on the most daily basis to cover the Otra. It put links to some of us on its website. It mentioned specific alternative media organizations in a recent communiqué. And the most active adherent media organizations all seem to be pretty happy with this arrangement. It preserves each of our respective autonomies and freedom to advance our projects exactly how we want to advance them. There didn’t have to be any meeting, any group process, any vote called, or any consensus reached. The voting was made through the work that was done by the working class within this movement: “the doers.”
That, to me, is the only truly collective process: one in which those who actually do the work determine what happens on the shop floor. To paraphrase Zapata: the movement belongs to he and she that work it.
“Group process” and empty rhetoric about “collective decision-making” have been wielded as undemocratic swords by the “upper classes” of social movements: those educated and sedentary persons – often the paid staff – with ability to travel, with the time and the inclination to attend meetings at the expense of getting the hard work done where their struggles are fought, on the ground. It’s a major problem for movements inside the United States. The last thing that the Other Campaign needs, in my opinion, is a process of gringotization of its group processes. To the contrary, those who believe that “collectivity” only exists in a meeting room have much more to learn from the Other Campaign.
And, really, John: neither of us are “meetings people.” You’re a poet. I’m a musician. We also happen to be journalists. Do you really want to turn the Other Campaign into an endless series of meetings and assemblies and processes to arrive at “decisions” (that tend to come only when too few people are left standing in the room to implement them)? I somehow doubt that you do. And I’m sure you wouldn’t like the results.
I hope that once this election up above is over, in less than two weeks, that you find your way back to a place you find comfortable in the Other Campaign, one that lets John be John, and that you maintain it, and that you defend it. I do think that after July 2, everything will be much clearer then.
John Ross’ Making Another World Possible – Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books this October.
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