NNTV: “Hungry for Justice” Deploys Humor (and Food!) vs. Drug War
By Al Giordano
It’s no secret that the war on drugs has inflicted more pain, death and suffering on Mexico than any people should ever have to bear. Headlines daily proclaim the latest casualties – 50,000 human beings murdered by criminals, soldiers and police in less than five years – and yet the prohibitionist policy that causes the mayhem remains, so far, intact. The international media reports the same story over and over again in different configurations – a murder here, a mass grave there, another seizure of the South American cocaine that flows through Mexico toward the gringo’s nose (we are told that it breaks the previous record of last month’s record seizure, and await next month's even more triumphant claim), and a series of “cartel” bosses with comicbook villain names served up as if they, and not governments, are the real kingpins of this disaster – and yet very little attention is offered, comparatively, to the real story happening south of the US Border: That everyday Mexicans, especially the family members of these 50,000 dead, have organized themselves into a national movement over the past seven months to end the violence and the drug war that brings it.
For example, the poet and journalist Javier Sicilia – around whom this vibrant Mexican movement has risen up after the assassination of his son last March – is in Washington DC today, with other drug war victims, where he testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, documenting this tragedy, and not a single story has yet appeared in US wire services, daily newspapers, national TV or radio newscasts, about it. They have entire offices, news bureaus and paid reporters in Washington, but not a word is spoken.
International human rights and “press freedom” groups regularly put out press releases denouncing the latest murder or violation, and almost nobody pays them any mind either. Some activists do the same, but they can shout from every mountain about 50,000 dead, even in the country next-door, and the only response is typically the echo of one’s own voice across the barren canyon.
I have an idea of why that is. It is related to Robert J. Lifton’s theory of “psychic numbing” that he pioneered during the Cold War and its nuclear arms race. (Indeed, such numbing impeded and delayed movements to end the threat of nuclear war for decades: it took a citizen movement not against nuclear arms, but against nuclear power plants, in the late 1970s, to re-sensitize American public opinion to the overall atomic threat, creating the opening for the national nuclear weapons freeze movement of the 1980s; a movement that, if nothing else, convinced the people of the Soviet Union that most Americans didn't want to incinerate them with cruise missiles, and, once losing that fear, began to address their domestic grievances.)
Paul Slovic advanced Lifton’s ideas when he wrote about “genocide neglect”:
“Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem. Why does this occur?”
The same dynamic has numbed policy makers, media organizations and American public opinion alike to the wholesale violence of the drug war in Mexico. And yet if you know any activist or person who has tried to tell you about what is happening down south, you have likely heard them spout mainly the statistical body count and bloody horror stories from the latest headlines, to the point of being really, really annoying. Too many well-meaning people seem to think that if they just tell you how terrible something is that you will want to right that wrong and fix that injustice. Then they often berate you for not being as "caring" and "compassionate" a person as they. But think about it: when was the last time a statistic or a guilt-trip got you off your ass to do anything?
And this is one of the values of Javier Sicilia: one human being’s pain, and his ability to articulate it in words to which most humans can relate, has re-sensitized so much of the Mexican population so that it can begin to confront the drug war that is the source of so many of the evils it confronts every day. It has reduced the numbing. And from the story of one, well told, quickly came others: that of Julian LeBaron, of Teresa Carmona, of Maria Herrera and so many others whose individual stories break through the numbing that the activist-speak recitation of numbers could not touch.
We’ve reported each step of this movement in detail on these pages, stressing these individual human stories, but never from the perspective of merely denouncing that something awful has happened to them and their loved ones. Narco News reporters devote our labor, instead, to the stories of how people gather and organize to create justice where there is none. When reporters come to us proposing to write about, say, a political prisoner who recently went to jail, our response is “find the family members or friends or organizations that are campaigning to get him or her out of prison. Tell the reader how they are organizing. We’re not here to depress people! People are already depressed and it immobilizes them! Find the ray of hope in this story that helps us see that something can be and is being done to change the story.”
That’s because after so many years of doing this work we’ve learned that denouncing evil alone accomplishes nothing to fix any problem, and it in fact dulls and numbs and creates even more fear even among everyday people who may have thought about taking action, but feel too overwhelmed, or fearful, to do so. Lifton’s “psychic numbing” and Slovic’s concept of “genocide neglect” explain perfectly why 50,000 murders in Mexico produce a collective sigh or yawn (a non-response that also deepens the despair and numbness of public opinion about the drug war).
Sometimes a story of a terrible violence or injustice does crack through the numbing and arouses public response. Such was the case on December 22, 1997, when paramilitary soldiers assassinated 45 indigenous men, women, elders and children as they prayed in a church in the Mexican state of Chiapas. What made the Acteal story different than so many tragic cases of violence is that it was a community that had already begun to organize its own autonomy in how it farmed and worked, how it ate, how it educated its children, how it healed its ill, without accepting any money from the government. It was for this reason that its residents – already, in 1997, avowed practitioners of nonviolence – were massacred.
On September 15 of this year, the Caravan of Peace of family members of drug war victims stopped in Acteal. Authentic journalists Greg Berger and Marta Molina were there reporting it for Narco News. They returned inspired to tell the story of what they saw and heard. Molina wrote the story about it and, working with young audio technicians from the community, recorded everything that had happened. Berger videotaped. During the hours that the community awaited the caravan, they interviewed community members, and recorded the ceremonies and words when the caravan arrived. In subsequent days they caught up with LeBaron, Carmona, Herrera and other family members of drug war victims who had been there that night, who told compellingly of how meeting the people of Acteal had inspired and taught them about their own struggle.
The challenge then was to do something with the video and audio that would be seen by many people, to share the story beyond the “already converted,” to bring the story to people not already in the struggle. And online video has greater potential than text to accomplish that. Still, scores of videos have been produced about the peace caravans and protests of the Mexican movement, a lot of them repeat the "50,000 dead" script but tend to only circulate among those already involved in cause. I suggested to Greg that he resurrect one of the characters he has performed in other videos that have “gone viral” - that of a sympathetic, overly-earnest, but hapless North American activist in Mexico - precisely because he makes people laugh and entertained enough by a video so that reporting on life-and-death issues like the violence in Mexico might lessen the “drug war numbing” among viewers. And one of the best ways to get people to let their guard down is to make them laugh.
The result is “Hungry for Justice,” and in short time more than 6,000 viewers have now seen the Spanish version, many of whom are sharing it in their social networks, via email and word of mouth (which is how videos go viral: when somebody says, “hey, you gotta see THIS!” and it passes that way from person to person). The English version has, so far, about one-tenth as many viewers, perhaps because there is not yet a wide grassroots movement in the English speaking world to end the drug war violence in Mexico or in their own countries.
So, we’d like to try a little experiment. Today the English version has 705 viewers. Check it out, by clicking the “play” arrow, on the video atop this page, and then follow these easy and rapid suggestions:
You've seen the video? Good! Did you enjoy it? Did you learn something from it? Now - quick! - think of your friends, co-workers, family members, social networks and email lists that might also want to see this story, and have a few laughs about the character Greg plays – the gringo activist who tags along on Mexican protest caravans for the free food (believe me, we've met people like that!) and learns a powerful lesson when he gets to Acteal. And let’s see how many more English-language viewers we can bring to learn along with our silly gringo connoisseur of Mexican popular cuisine!
It’s also the story about organizing in a push-button culture where media and advertising program us to want immediate results in such an unrealistic hurry that many people become “activists” for a while only to burn out or despair or move on to something else – a danger right now for many “Occupy Wall Street” participants, just as it was for many Americans in the 2007-2008 Obama campaign who confused “yes, we can” with “yes, he can” and now they just pout instead of organize - when “the change” is slow to download.
The inspiring people of Acteal have struggled, now, for 14 years seeking justice for their dead, and still have not obtained it. But look at them! They’re joyous and optimistic in their struggle. They don’t give up. They keep coming and coming, training and bringing new generations up to carry the torch. They see how so much of Mexico is now coming around to their chosen path of nonviolence to bring profound, and not superficial, change. And, in 2011, they’re “fired up and ready to go.”
If after what they’ve suffered they don’t whine and throw tantrums, why should anyone who does have so many of the material advantages most of them don't have, like, say, a computer and Internet access?
And that’s another lesson we’ve learned by reporting alongside social movements, especially in indigenous Mexico: that lasting change requires lasting campaigns and a culture of resistance that infuses all aspects of daily life beyond any protest march or encampment. It’s a lesson we learned again this year from our friends in Egypt who continue dismantling a dictatorship months after they toppled the dictator and after they ended their occupation of Tahrir Square. An authentic struggle, once entered, is entered for life. It is not how we spend a summer vacation or a six month unemployment check. It is so much more than a march or a protest.
Anyway, I’d like to tell you more, but watching that video again just made me hungry. Consider this video food for thought...