By Al Giordano
In memory of School of Authentic Journalism professor José Mirtenbaum (1948-2011)
South of Mexico City, at 2,700 meters above sea level, is a rural town named San Miguel Topilejo. While technically part of the Federal District known as Mexico City, in its borough of Tlalpan, the 26,000 residents of Topilejo live in a forgotten town, too often abandoned by the municipal government that doesn’t provide the most basic of services (sanitation, water, education, etcetera) at the level it does for the more urban zones of this megalopolis.
Last May, Topilejo, for one night, became the campground for hundreds of participants in a march for peace and against the drug war led by poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, who, weeks earlier, had lost his son to the violence that has claimed, now, more than 50,000 Mexican lives in five years. The locals – many of whom are descendants of the Nahuatl indigenous ethnicity (known as Aztecs in the English-speaking world), some of whom still speak the ancient tongue – prepared tamales, beans, coffee and sandwiches for the walkers on their way to Mexico City from Cuernavaca, Morelos.
Towns like Topilejo don’t see many visitors, and they exist all over Mexico. They do not appear in the Lonely Planet guides for backpacking tourists. They are invisible to the mass media. So the arrival of hundreds of people from other towns and cities marks a significant moment in the daily life of residents, who then get to know their guests, and vice versa, through conversation and breaking bread and tortillas.
In towns like this throughout the country, efforts come and go to improve the life of the community, often they are led by the Catholic church when a liberation theologian is assigned to the local parish, but they are typically met with either indifference or violent repression and a fatigue sets in among the population, a sense of resignation, an apathy borne of the conclusion that nothing can be made to happen. Many men in the community, including fathers of young children, finding no work to support their families, leave like so many other millions of Mexicans to seek employment in the United States or in Mexico’s urban centers. This trend has accelerated since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lowered the value of the food crops traditionally grown on rural Mexican lands to the extreme where former farms now lay dormant.
Single mothers raise many of the children, who, if lucky, live among extended families; grandmothers, aunts, cousins and older siblings. Many others are abandoned to fate and extreme poverty, where organized crime is happy to press them into service as either providers or consumers of illegal substances.
In other words, Topilejo is a mirror for how so many tens of millions of Mexicans live, unnoticed by governments and media unless and until a bloody massacre or spectacular violence plagues their territory.
The story told in the video, above – filmed and produced impressively on the road, edited in buses and cars on a laptop, by Narco News TV director Greg Berger, in less than two days – is a different one than ever gets told about places like Topilejo. It is a story narrated by the town’s residents about their own accomplishment in recent weeks. It is the story of one of the small victories that has the tendency to inspire, empower and lead to greater triumphs and advances.
It is a story of community organizing; that is, a story about what the people of a town – any town, every town – always could have done for itself if it had only believed in the power of its people to organize and win.
In the video, the townspeople credit the May visit by Sicilia and the marchers with inspiring them to act to force the Mexico City government to comply with a promise to construct a free university in Topilejo for local youths. The promise went unanswered for many years and the locals simply shrugged their shoulders out of the belief that the promises of authorities are almost always broken and nothing can be done about it anyway.
But between May 7 – when Sicilia’s march arrived in Topilejo – and September 9 – when the poet returned, this time, with a bus Caravan of Peace on its way to the Guatemalan border – the townspeople had already achieved that the university will now be constructed, and they invited Sicilia to cut the ribbon at the inaugural ceremony for classrooms that had already been constructed and equipped with desks and chairs and such.
Truth is, neither Sicilia nor the May marchers nor the September caravanistas did anything directly, to our knowledge, to make the university possible. Yet the townspeople in the video credit the movement with a victory that is, properly, their own.
Some might say that this is because the appearance of Mexico’s first walk for peace last May gave them hope. I would correct that, rather, it removed enough of their despair and immobilizing pain to create a space for the people to do for themselves what they – what every town and neighborhood – can do for itself when motivated to do so.
This story, to our knowledge – ten days after it happened – still has not been reported by any other media, not the official press, nor the “alternative media,” many of which had correspondents on the three press buses that attended this September 9 event in this previously forgotten town. See, it’s not a “sexy” story. It doesn’t suggest higher television ratings nor does it fit into the turgid discourse of the “activist press” with its own ideological axes to grind. Rural, indigenous, Mexico is invisible to everyone, it seems, if it does not don a ski-mask. Not even if that corner of rural Mexico is part of Mexico City, where so many of the aforementioned players live only a short trek from it.
What is interesting about this story to us, and the reason we report it to you, is that it suggests what can be made to happen in every Mexican town and neighborhood when the punishing despair wrought by violence is even briefly wiped away. And this is one of the “secret histories” of these caravans by Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims, as they pass through Topilejo and so many other towns and neighborhoods like it. It is the alchemical, contagious, power of a different way to fight. Some call it nonviolence. Others call it civil resistance. Whatever one calls this strategy, it is very different than that which previous movements in this vast country have deployed.
(Narco News correspondent Marta Molina has just published a story about similar alchemical dynamics when the caravan passed last week through another region: Nonviolent Struggle Arrives in the Lands of Guerrero, Mexico: 20,000 March in Acapulco with Javier Sicilia and Drug War Victims, September 14, 2011, Narco News.)
Unlike the long history of aspiring “vanguard” movements – electoral and non-electoral alike – including of the Mexican left, that too often have treated rank-and-file Mexicans as pieces on a chess board to be “mobilized” according to a centralized plan, Sicilia and the movement he inspired seek to treat the peoples of communities like Topilejo as equals with the same capacity to think and do for themselves as the drug war victims and he are, in recent months, trying to do for themselves. It is enough to show up and simply listen, share a meal, exchange ideas (and to the horror of some doctrinaire “activists,” a hug or, gasp, a kiss!) and create a space where everyone can more easily think for themselves – outside the screeching noise machines of media and ideology alike – about their community’s problems and possible solutions. (It was during the May march’s pass through Topilejo that I quoted a friend who said, while there, “It was like watching what we all hoped the Other Campaign of 2006 would become.” Those words now seem prophetic.)
Another truth is that not even everybody who boards the buses on these caravans understands this process of community organizing and how it can be made to happen. Many are learning, some more rapidly than others, or “get” that something different is happening that they want to learn. Still others resist the process of listening, choosing instead to tag along on these ventures because they are the protest du jour or the only circus in town (I’ll be writing more about this phenomenon later in a story about the caravan’s cross through the state of Oaxaca). Some come along to inflict their tired old chants and slogans or the banners with the names of their political organizations into the news photo and video of the caravans. Others see their activism in alternative media as a career move toward gaining the attention of grant-givers, documentary festival prize-givers, or freelance gigs publishing in the national and international media. But they’re the sideshow, so much so they don’t even see the bigger story happening right underneath their noses, not even in communities where impoverished peoples share what little food they have with the traveling visitors who pass through for a night, or an afternoon, or an hour.
One of the emergent roles of Sicilia and the family members of drug war victims who have been trekking through Mexican territory in recent months is that of catalyst; an ingredient that is added to another collection of ingredients that changes the chemical make-up of their union and then moves on, leaving behind something different than it first encountered.
This – according to the testimony of the local residents in this video – is what happened in Topilejo. The visit by a movement four months ago inspired them to do something for themselves, something called community organizing. And while some might view the mere construction of a free university in an abandoned town as insufficient a victory in a land that many observe needs a full-scale revolution or transformation on a national scale, it is a victory nonetheless. And no larger victory ever happened without small triumphs along the path that inspired and built momentum toward even greater change. That’s what community organizing is and does. And now, via Narco News TV, in San Miguel Topilejo, that forgotten rural appendage to the gigantic city of Mexico… you are there.
Applications now available for a Three-Day Session, October 21-23, in New York
By Al Giordano
The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict today announce 24 scholarships for our October 21-23 workshop on Organizing Journalism & Civil Resistance. The session is open to independent journalists and media makers (print, online and video) who report on social movements and seek to be better at it.
Applications can be received via email by writing to NYWorkshop2011@narconews.com and are due by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.
This workshop offers training in the use of video and written and online media to help journalists and media makers report more effectively on social movements, civil resistance, nonviolent campaigns and community organizing so that the messages of those movements can cut through the clouds of mass media confusion. There are many common errors and presumptions through which even sympathetic media makers too often harm such movements. This workshop is also to test some new curriculum for the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism that seeks to inoculate against such media missteps, as well as to share vital reporting skills and increase participants’ knowledge of the strategic and tactical dynamics of social movements.
The event is free to accepted applicants: No tuition will be charged. In addition to training on reporting and writing news stories and making online video and media “go viral,” we’ve assembled an experienced team of organizers, authentic journalists and change makers to seek to answer this question:
From the Arab Spring to Mexico’s unprecedented nonviolent movement to end the drug war that surfaced in 2011, civil resistance is succeeding in countries with extreme state repression and poverty moreso than it is in North America. Why is that? And what can be done to bring the renaissances of civil resistance and authentic journalism to North America, where theoretically there are more freedoms, tools and resources available to aspiring change agents?
In North America, there is so much “activism,” so much “blogging,” so many “protests” and “marches,” and yet our friends in other lands are winning historic battles while few North American movements are making any progress at all.
We believe that the media – not just the big commercial and state-owned media that the public already mistrusts, but also too many in the “blogosphere,” “social media,” and sympathetic “alternative” media that do not understand the strategic dynamics of how movements win and lose – has a lot to do with why so many North American movements fail to achieve the change they seek. “The problem of media” is now the problem of everyone that wants to defend or change our communities and our world. Some of the challenges are easily solved by learning and understanding the common mistakes that well-meaning media-makers and journalists make in reporting movements, and through improvement of our technical skills. Other questions remain unanswered, so we will consult, together, with some unparalleled minds and hands that have won and lost political battles already and learned plenty from the experience. More than just a training session, this workshop will serve as a kind of three-day “think tank” to seek to break further ground in untying the knot with which media inhibits the realization of authentic democracy.
Here are the confirmed participants in this workshop:
Egyptian viral video maker, musician and blogger, Aalam used various pseudonyms over the past six years to create a multi-faceted guerrilla media campaign – both on and offline – to “create a culture of resistance” in his country. When video director Greg Berger and I traveled to Cairo weeks after the Egyptian revolution to interview the unheralded organizers and media makers that in our view were most responsible for the January 25 revolution and February 11 fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak, we were blown away by the coherence and strategic thinking of this 40-year-old revolutionary. We thought our own experience at making video and media “go viral” was advanced, but were humbled to meet and interview Aalam, one who had already thought through and implemented techniques we had never heard of in the Western Hemisphere. What’s more, he speaks good English, making his message especially accessible in North America.
A requirement for all applicants to this workshop is to watch three short videos – you will be asked about them on the application form – the first, less than 15 minutes in length, narrated by Aalam:
Four days after we returned from Cairo to Mexico, a new civil resistance broke out there to end the war on drugs. Thanks to so much of what we learned from Aalam and other organizers of the revolution, we were able, at Narco News, to jump in quickly to report that movement more effectively in ways that helped it to grow and strengthen. Now we’re bringing Aalam to the media capital of the world, New York City, where we hope he can inspire and train us to topple a dictator named Media.
Julian seemed to come out of nowhere when in April he arrived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, like a cavalry to the aid of the nascent movement to stop the war on drugs inspired by poet and journalist Javier Sicilia, who on March 27 lost his son to the prohibition-imposed violence. LeBaron, a homebuilder in the border state of Chihuahua, had already lost two family members to kidnappers and his community mounted a nonviolent movement against organized crime. Accompanying Sicilia and other family members of drug war victims in marches and caravans throughout the country, LeBaron – an attentive reader and student of successful nonviolent movements throughout the world – quickly emerged as a key strategist and inspiring public speaker for a movement that has gone national in five months.
This Friday, the Narco News Team will join LeBaron, Sicilia and the rest to report on their ten-day Caravan of the South through Chiapas to the Guatemalan border. A month later, we’ll be in New York with Julian to share these experiences and the lessons learned. The workshop will feature a plenary session during which Catalan journalist Marta Molina - who has reported extensively on this growing Mexican movement – will lead an interview with LeBaron, with an emphasis on strategy, tactics and how movements relate to and make their own media. Like Aalam and our other presenters, Julian will also participate in the workgroups, meals, and other sessions of the workshop.
The Rev. Jim Lawson organized the 1960 Nashville sit-ins that inspired the national civil rights movement. His friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., called him “the leading strategist and theorist of nonviolence in the world.” As a professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism he has inspired and trained young media makers from Egypt to Mexico on the difference between organizing and activism and why the former is paramount to winning movements. In a lifetime of organizing, reporting and traveling in many lands, I have not known any person who is still alive that has the knowledge, wisdom, street smarts and organizing experience that Jim brings to any table. In any discussion on movements and media, Jim has the tendency to identify and articulate the “big question” that needs to be asked and that raises the level of the conversation to the strategic and tactical level that all movements and media makers aspire to reach. I never stop learning from Jim. I want others to learn from his experience, too.
For a glimpse of Jim’s message, history and why any aspiring change agent would jump at the chance to learn from him, please watch this video (less than nine minutes long) from the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula:
We’ll also be joined by four experienced North American community organizers who will demonstrate what organizing is and help us understand how to better seek out, identify, and report on organizing campaigns that so often fly under the radar of the media. And we’ll be asking them to help us better know how to organize ourselves as authentic journalists and media makers, too.
Paulina has worked for over 15 years leading organizing campaigns to expand worker rights, immigrant rights, and the rights of low income and underrepresented communities of color. Her work includes coordinating the ‘Dreams Across America’ cross-country train trip in the final push for the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill to provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Paulina also worked with students and community leaders to organize and take part in civil disobedience protests in Los Angeles against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB1070. In her work with UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel and food service workers, she played a lead campaign role in the successful Santa Monica hotel organizing and living wage campaigns and the LAX Century Blvd. hotel worker living wage campaign. Paulina is Executive Director of SAJE, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. SAJE is an LA-based economic justice, community development, and popular education center building a powerful voice for residents of South Central Los Angeles. Under her leadership, SAJE launched an organizing campaign against powerful developer G.H. Palmer that resulted in a groundbreaking Community Benefits Agreement that provides South LA residents with health services, jobs, affordable housing, and small business development--all desperately needed in that historically underserved community.
Renny Cushing (left) in Mexico City with Javier Sicilia, May 2010. Photo DR 2010 Marta Molina.
When Renny’s native town of Seabrook, New Hampshire, was threatened by the construction of two nuclear power plants in the 1970s, he co-founded the Clamshell Alliance and helped it grow into a mass movement based on local community organizing (“it was like social networking,” he told the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, “but without the Internet”), intensive training of participants, and a sequenced campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that made opposition to nuclear power a national cause, and one that halted the orders for new nuclear power plants ever since. (Since the March nuclear disasters in Japan, the global anti-nuclear movement has emerged anew.) After the 1988 murder of his father, Renny began organizing others into an international movement now called Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, opposed to capital punishment. Last May he teamed up with Javier Sicilia, Julian LeBaron and Mexican family members of murder victims at a Mexico City press conference to announce the participation of US-based organizations in solidarity with the Mexican movement, which began in 2011 taking many of the steps that Renny started years ago. On a personal note, when I was a teenaged community organizer in the Clamshell Alliance, Renny was an inspiration, model and teacher who helped draw me out as an organizer. Now, as a professor of the School of Authentic Journalism, and in the rest of his work, he does the same for a new generation.
Johanna Lawrenson (far right) during a plenary session of the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism with (right to left) telephone workers union organizer Marco Vasquez and Narco News correspondents Fernando Leon and Mercedes Osuna. Photo DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Johanna is a native New Yorker who organized alongside her husband, the late Abbie Hoffman, for the last 15 years of his life. She founded and led the successful movement in upstate New York and Canada to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from dredging the St. Lawrence River for winter navigation. In my younger years, Johanna and Abbie often invited me to tag along and put me to work as a community organizer in various locales where they taught me how to fight nonviolently and how to win. They were, many know and others do not, pioneers in the martial arts of using the media’s own power and strength against it. Johanna and Abbie were my primary inspirations for founding the School of Authentic Journalism. They put so much time and labor into training and teaching a 20-something me from their one-of-a-kind organizing experience that at a certain age I began to feel duty-bound to similarly invest in the next generations and keep passing the torch. We’ve brought Johanna to the j-school before. Now we’re bringing the j-school to Johanna!
Philippe has been organizing citizen-based nonviolent action campaigns in the province of Québec, Canada, since the early 1980's. He's currently organizing the One-Generation Moratorium Campaign to stop shale gas development from ruining the St-Lawrence River valley. As part of this campaign, Philippe and friends organized a walk over 700 km that galvanized public opposition such that over 10,000 people walked the streets of Montreal last spring, and forced the Quebec government to announce a full stop to drilling and fracking operations until further notice. Plans for mass civil disobedience are currently under way to make sure it stays that way, for at least twenty years.
Over nearly thirty years of organizing, Philippe and his incrementally improved strategizing skills helped bring along such victories as: Forcing the Canadian government to bring Maher Arar back home in what has become a cause célèbre of US rendition that forced Canada to compensate Mr. Arar for $10.5 million (2003); Scuttling the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) by forcing the publication of secret negotiating documents through mass civil disobedience (2001); Putting a stop to uranium illegally stolen from Namibia by then Apartheid South Africa from transiting through the Port of Montreal (1986); Discrediting and ending Canada's largest Arms' Dealers Trade Show in Ottawa (1989), and; Forcing Bata shoes to divest from South Africa (1985).
We first met Philippe in 2009 when he came to our workshop on “The Organizing of the President” at the Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts. It will be great to collaborate with him anew.
Jack Duvall, Hardy Merriman and Althea Middleton-Detzner
We’ll also be joined by some of our friends from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), our partners in this NY workshop, a nonprofit foundation that became much more widely known this year after the world took notice of how the strategies of civil resistance it promotes were adopted, adapted and utilized in Egypt and other Arab countries.
Jack DuVall, ICNC's director, produced and co-authored the PBS series, “A Force More Powerful,” distributed in Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, English, Farsi, French, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Mandarin, Nepali, Pashto, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese, and which found its way to places like LeBaron, Chihuahua, in Mexico, and Cairo, Egypt, among people seeking to organize successful civil resistances and movements. Jack is a human encyclopedia on international civil resistance movements, their histories, strategies and tactics.
Hardy Merriman has worked in the field of strategic nonviolent conflict with organizations such as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (where is currently a senior advisor) and Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution. He writes and presents about nonviolent conflict for organizers, scholars, journalists, members of NGOs and other practitioners. When Hardy was professor at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism we found that for every problem or challenge a movement faced during our discussions, he had total recall of similar situation that had inflicted other movements in another part of the world and the creative tactics utilized by those who overcame them and succeeded in their goals.
Althea Middleton-Detzner is educational advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, musician (I stole that photo with the violin from her Facebook page), creative writer, and Spanish speaker who has worked with war refugees in Colombia, environmental defenders in Ecuador and spoke on nonviolent civil resistance in 2009 in Belize at the convention of the Organization of Afro Central Americans (ONECA, in its Spanish initials). She was also a member of the women's soccer team at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and is currently a grad student at the Fletcher International Institute at Tufts University in Massachusetts. A creative thinker and doer, Althea will be part of this event's workgroup on Theater of Resistance (more on that in a moment).
Together with the team of authentic journalists you are about to meet, and the two dozen participants accepted for this workshop, we will return to the question above: How to struggle and win in North America, and how to report such struggles, and what we can learn from victorious civil resistances around the world about how they did it.
Like a TV commercial for kitchen gadgets – unusual ones that, say, might help a movement, a resistance or even a revolution succeed – I’m tempted to say, “But wait! There’s more!”
We’ll also be in NYC with a guerrilla media SWAT Team from the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, including these valued colleagues:
The School of Authentic Journalism Team in NYC
Greg Berger (far left) and Milena Velis (far right) direct the viral video workgroup at the 2011
School of Authentic Journalism in Morelos, Mexico. DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Milena Velis, School of Authentic Journalism graduate (2010) and professor (2011) is an organizer of Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project, one of the few North American projects to which we in the authentic journalism renaissance can relate, because it organizes from below to make its own media rather than engage in the kind of “activism” that merely seeks big media attention (those kinds of projects, we observe, devolve around the dictates of the commercial media and are rendered impotent by them).
This video (less than five minutes long), produced at the 2010 school, introduces the Media Mobilizing Project as of 18 months ago (Milena has many impressive updates to deliver on its journey since then) and is the third required video for applicants to these scholarships:
We especially encourage applicants who have the will to do similar “from below” media organizing in New York, or bring your already existing authentic media projects to such a venture in a town that we believe is ripe for its own version of the MMP, albeit with New Yorker personality and flair. If you apply for this scholarship, make sure to note that in your application.
Greg Berger – known also for the “Gringoyo” character he plays in many of his short films – is a Manhattan (Stuyvesant Town) native, now with 13 years living and working in Mexico making video alongside social movements. He came to our attention through his documentaries on the struggle of the town of Atenco that stopped an international airport and his 2003 classic “Gringothon.” Greg is a 2004 graduate of the school and has been co-director of its video program ever since. In recent years, Greg concluded that the Documentary Industrial Complex dependent on film festivals and awards is a dead-end venture for people who really want to make effective change using video, especially now that the “viral video” capacity online makes it possible to reach so many more viewers. His recent works such as Spring Breakers Without Borders (75,000+ views in English and Spanish) and Jodido Mexico (267,000+ views in Spanish alone) are examples of how viral video strategies create more bang for far fewer bucks to inform, report, and galvanize resistance movements. (Anyone who thinks outrageous humor and parody isn’t “politically correct” should not apply for this scholarship: ‘Nuff Said.) Greg is also co-producer of our series of videos on The Daily Life of Egypt’s Revolution and co-produced with us and others Javier Sicilia’s first video communiqué in Mexico last April, which quickly drew more than 16,000 viewers in Spanish and English and helped to launch a movement in its first days.
Mariana Simoes at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Mérida, Yucatán, México. DR 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Mariana Simoes, Brazilian journalist, organizer and student at Sarah Lawrence College, graduated from the School of Authentic Journalism in 2010 and returned as a professor of investigative journalism in 2011. A superb writer and investigator, she wrote what I consider to be the definitive profile and history of the life of the father of the Authentic Journalism Renaissance, Mexican newspaperman Mario Menéndez. At the New York workshop, Mariana will lead, with yours truly, our presentation on “How to Write a News Story,” as well as participate in the workgroup on media and community organizing.
Quetzal Belmont teaches camera work to Edwin Alvarez at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism in Mérida, Yucatán, México. DR 2010 Jill Freidberg.
Quetzal Belmont, graduate of the 2004 school and professor in 2010, is a Mexico City video producer and also a recognized performance artist who is one of our house experts on what we call the Theater of Resistance (also a topic for one of the workgroups in NY), a term that more directly means that movements, and media about them, must never be boring and always be fun (something our Egyptian colleagues have reiterated this year in how they created and continue their own revolution).
Marta Molina interviews Javier Sicilia. DR 2011 Terri Bennett.
Marta Molina, of Barcelona and currently reporting from Mexico, has worked and reported alongside civil resistances extensively in her native Catalonia, in Palestine and in Brazil. Fluent in more languages than most of us will ever learn, Marta is also an experienced trainer in nonviolent civil disobedience and a first-rate strategist and tactician. Last May she reported Pilgrimage to the Sources of Javier Sicilia: The Poet Who Is Shaking Mexico. (I’ve known Javier for more than a decade, and I have yet to see a better, more complete and honest profile that provides a clue as to how this “accidental leader” was, in fact, more prepared than almost anyone to inspire a mass movement before tragic events thrust that role upon him.) This will be her first presentation in New York. She is also a student of Situationist theory and praxis. If you don’t know that term, you will after attending this workshop.
Some additional School of Authentic Journalism graduates will attend as presenters-in-training as part of their preparation to teach at the upcoming School of Authentic Journalism, March 21-31, 2012, in Mexico.
Finally, I’ll be there, too. I’m the cat-herder of this oft-nomadic authentic journalism movement, and as with Greg, New York is my hometown. Quite separately we both headed south of the border in the 1990s feeling a bit, ahem, displaced by what had occurred in our homeland, and especially how the media industry has stripped away so much of what we loved about the city and has handed over its territory of daily life to forces that oppose everything good and decent about it. But, with apologies to Robert Hunter, “don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart.” The secret history and present of the Big Apple remains to be mined and alchemized into a future return to the best of its story.
If you, too, dream that New York shall rise again (that credo may apply to every town, really), and that solving “the problem of media” is a key to getting there, then this workshop may well be for you. If you feel an affinity for the presenters introduced here, the mission of authentic journalism, the goal of more effective civil resistance and reporting of it, and a harmony with our work, we hope you apply.
I’d also like to add a few words, based on our experience of trial-and-error at the School of Authentic Journalism, on what kind of folks, we've learned, should not apply for this scholarship: If you view journalism as a “career” or follow the “freelance imperative” of molding stories and pitches to impress editors in order to get published in official or commercial media (we don’t rule out participants who have worked or work in mainstream media – we’re not opposed to earning a living – but we do filter out those who believe media’s own hype about “objectivity” and similar fish stories), then this Bud’s not for you. We also reject the hubris of too many reporters – themselves inexperienced at organizing social movements – who seem to think that after a few weeks of reporting they are somehow qualified or competent critics of how people organize themselves from below. Those people unwittingly get entire convoys blown up, yet feel no remorse because they think “It’s just part of the job.” Likewise, if you believe that reporting or making media about movements in ways that seek to help, and never, ever hurt, those movements makes one any less of a journalist than one who claims to be “objective,” this workshop is not for you either.
In sum, if you think you already know it all, have little to learn, but view a workshop like this more as an excellent opportunity to “make contacts” to further your career and reach, or as an audition in being an “edgy reporter” to later trampoline into big media stardom, you’re not going to enjoy this workshop at all, I promise you that.
This project is about scouting, recruiting and training those of us who can work in teams, in and alongside movements, to level a media playing field that is already tilted against them (and us, who report from below). This workshop is for those of us who still think we have plenty to learn, much more than we have to teach, and that includes those of us who are professors and presenters. The word “movement” means just that: If we’re not on the move and constantly evolving and improving, we don’t rise to that description at all.
The three-day training session – based on the curriculum of the ten-day School of Authentic Journalism and on the extensive work of ICNC promoting strategic understanding of civil resistance – charges no tuition. Scholarship recipients will be provided materials and meals during its sessions, free of charge, but will not be provided with lodging. The workshop is therefore for people from the New York metropolitan area or for applicants from elsewhere that express their commitment and ability to sponsor (or have their organization support) their own travel to and lodging in New York City.
Participants will learn from media makers experienced in reporting and documenting social movements, civil resistance, community organizing and nonviolent action campaigns, as well as experienced organizers from Egypt, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Europe and the US. The sessions will include:
- The Strategic Dynamics of Civil Resistance
- Egypt’s Grassroots Media that Built a Culture of Resistance
- How to Write a News Story
- Making Video and News “Go Viral”
- The Story of Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project
- Mexico’s Movement Against the War on Drugs
- Designing Movements and Media to Win
- Community Organizing and Reporting About It
- Reporting Under State and Corporate Repression
- Bringing the Civil Resistance Success Story to North America
As well as workgroup sessions on these themes:
- Community Organizing Among Media Makers
- Advanced Civil Resistance and How to Present It
- Theater of Resistance: Unleashing the Creativity of the People
That’s a lot for two-and-a-half days, isn’t it? So, yes, it is an intensive workshop with a strict clock but also with time to get to know each other, too, during meals and breaks and, optionally, into the later evenings in the city that never sleeps. However, since we are doing this workshop in just one language (English), it’s the equivalent of five days of our bilingual School of Authentic Journalism program, where everything gets consecutively translated in Spanish, too.
Scholarship recipients must agree to attend all sessions of the workshop, from Friday, October 21 at 5 p.m. to Sunday October 23 at 6 p.m. Like the Mexico-based School of Authentic Journalism, the workshop is intensive and participants will be chosen based on previous work and what the application reveals about which applicants are most likely to apply what is learned to making media and journalism that reports effectively alongside social movements. Some participants, based on their work and participation during these sessions, may be invited to the March 2012 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico.
The workshop is open to applicants of any age, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation or political tendency. You do not need a university degree to be accepted for this workshop. Different from the bilingual School of Authentic Journalism program, the New York sessions – and applications for this scholarship - will be in English. The emphasis is on written journalism (print and online) and production of viral video for the Internet.
To request an application – due Wednesday, September 21 at 11:59 p.m. ET (yes, that’s just two weeks away!) – send an email to NYWorkshop2011@narconews.com
Recent human events from Egypt to Mexico and elsewhere have demonstrated that movements that make their own media enjoy greater chances of success than those that rely on the commercial or state media to tell their stories. Now we will bring the lessons learned to the media capital of the world, New York, where things can also be made to happen.
By Al Giordano
At present, the Narco News Advance Team is in the Mexican Southeast, preparing our coverage of the upcoming second stage of the Caravan of Solace and the movement against the drug war inspired by Javier Sicilia. From September 8 to 18 we’ll be accompanying Sicilia and other family members of drug war victims and martyrs through the states of Morelos, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, crossing the border into Guatemala – where Sicilia tells Narco News he plans to offer an apology to the people of Central America for the maltreatment of their immigrants in Mexican territory – then through Zapatista territory, and the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Puebla, the state of Mexico and, finally, in Mexico City. These are lands from where we’ve reported extensively for the past 14 years (11 of them via Narco News) and we can report to you already that there is a palpable excitement among many of the movements in the Mexican South for this upcoming visit, including yesterday’s communiqué from Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos reiterating “total support” for Sicilia and the movement (a statement that ought to be humbling to some who have accomplished far less yet who behave as more-radical-than-thou armchair critics of the world’s first ever mass movement to end the war on drugs).
Meanwhile, our second video in a series about the Egyptian revolution – narrated by those who helped make it happen – is now ready, and, in a way, it is precisely relevant to some of the discussions and debates in and around Mexico about whether Sicilia and his allies should collaborate, speak with, (in the most extreme silliness, whether they should “kiss” or “hug”), people with whom they openly disagree. This question was already answered only seven months ago this week in Egypt! And now you can see and hear how it happened, on video. Perhaps it is also relevant to debates and discussions and unanswered questions in your own land, too…
How many news stories, essays, videos and other reports have you seen about the Egyptian Revolution that “began,” according to many breathless reports, on January 25 of this year and culminated in the February 11 resignation of the three-decade dictator Hosni Mubarak? And how many of those reports spoke in fearsome terms about an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood as if it were some monolithic force aspiring to impose an Iran-style theocracy on the country?
Especially while the revolution was going through those key moments, so many pundits warned that if Mubarak were to be removed then the Muslim Brotherhood would take over and bring something even worse. But when School of Authentic Journalism professor Greg Berger and I traveled to Cairo a month after Mubarak was driven from power, and teamed up there with Joe Rizk and other new friends and colleagues to interview, on video, the young people who helped organize that revolution, we gained a completely different perspective on the Muslim Brotherhood, in good part thanks to meeting Mohammad Abbas, the 26-year-old organizer who emerged from that organization and who narrates this video, above, part II in our series on The Daily Life of Egypt’s Revolution.
(If you missed Part I, narrated, in English, by Aalam Wassef, you’ll want to see that, too: Especially if you are a video or media maker, journalist or blogger with dreams of reporting or inspiring fundamental change in your own land: Egypt: How We Did It When the Media Would Not. In addition to everything else it teaches, Part I serves as an excellent guide to how to make your videos or media “go viral” and speak with far more people than you might otherwise reach. For example, if you are putting videos or blog entries online and only getting a few hundred viewers, you're doing something wrong; Aalam explains how, in Egypt, it was done right.)
The interview with Abbas, in Part I of this series, illuminates many untold stories from Tahrir Square and the meetings and community organizing behind the revolution. Perhaps most importantly, Abbas speaks of his own personal experience – our questions focused heavily on getting these talented young organizers to talk in the first person about what they saw, heard, felt and thought during these historic events – as a Muslim who, for the first time, found himself working closely with Christians, secular leftists and others who were not part of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom in fact feared its members, and vice versa.
In so much of the developed world (and increasingly “gringotized” or “globalized” movements in the developing world), too much of “activism” has been reduced to seeking out the differences in opinion or culture between people and excluding others based on those divisions: secularists vs. religious people, believers in one god vs. believers in another, and “identity politics” that exclude people of different classes, genders, races, creeds, tendencies and orientations. What Abbas and everyone else we interviewed in Egypt concluded based on their experience organizing a successful revolution (successful, in that it took gigantic leaps forward and continues working today to concretize and advance its gains, because authentic revolutions are not romantic moments in time but permanent works-in-construction), was that the revolution became one only because they dropped their prejudices and fears and learned how to overcome their differences to work together on the goals they shared: the toppling of a dictator, and continuing into the present, the defeat of dictatorship itself.
Abbas speaks glowingly of how the youth of his organizations – politically considered to be on the religious right of his country’s political spectrum – came together with socialists and other radicals and what he learned from them. He talks of his newfound friendship with Coptic Christian organizer Sally Moore, and how they now speak daily and playfully scold each other if one is late in calling on any given day.
This video also shows the evolution of Abbas and many of his colleagues who, after the revolution, set off from the Muslim Brotherhood mothership to form their own new political force in Egyptian politics, laying waste to all the fears and lies that the Brotherhood would be some monolithic dominant force in a more democratic Egypt.
This video presents the story of a revolution within the revolution. And isn’t that always the case with nonviolent revolutions? That the change that occurs is not just up above with the faces and names of those in power, but is also, most profoundly and permanently, in the way that the participants see themselves and act having experienced the most historic of societal changes together.
We went to Egypt, as I’ve mentioned here previously, taking up the goal as expressed in 1963 by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, who said: "By a strange oversight, no historian has ever taken the trouble to study how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary moments."
The aftermath of Egypt's revolution finally offered us the opportunity to do just that.
Mohammed Abbas, like Aalam Wassef in Part I of this series, tells us all something about how he and others actually lived during the most extreme of revolutionary moments, and how the revolution, far from being just something external and impersonal for the history books, shook and changed its participants as well.
There are those who say that one cannot change the world unless and until one change’s one’s self. There is a kernel of truth in that, but only if acted upon together with its correlative truth: That one cannot change himself or herself without also immersing one’s self in the moment with others, listening to, learning from, and working together with them. It is there, and only there, that we discover the greater truth about ourselves. The human being is not a nation-state with borders, visas to be stamped and immigration officials to wall itself away from all that is outside of it. This video tells the news story of the Egyptian revolution from the organizer’s perspective of one of the key revolutionaries, but it also tells the story of the revolutionary himself, someone not unlike you or me, born into one culture and set of circumstances, who became more himself by opening himself up to those who come from other cultures and circumstances. Multiply Mohammad Abbas’ story several million times, and there you have the real story of what can be made to happen in an entire nation even under the most repressive of regimes or otherwise difficult circumstances.
By Al Giordano
This is, first, to thank the hundreds of readers who contributed (and the matching support from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict) to make the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, May 11 to 21 in Mexico, possible, and also to report back to you all on some of what was made to happen.
There, 40 scholars and 39 professors met for ten days in May to teach and learn from each other both the skills of doing authentic journalism – investigation, writing, video production and use of the Internet – and also to deepen our understanding, as journalists, of the strategic dynamics of social movements, civil resistance, nonviolent conflicts and community organizing. We heard from movement organizers, analysts and strategists including Javier Sicilia (Mexico), Janet Cherry (South Africa), Oscar Olivera (Bolivia), Noha Atef (Egypt), Renny Cushing (US), Maria Rosas (Mexico), Stephen Zunes (US), Ivan Marovic (Serbia), Namees Arnous (Egypt), Joe Rizk (Egypt), Mercedes Osuna (Mexico), Jack DuVall (US), and Johanna Lawrenson (US), among others, as well as experienced authentic journalists including Natalia Viana, Greg Berger, Bill Conroy, Milena Velis, Richard Bell and many more. In addition to learning, everybody did real work.
We haven’t yet finished editing all the videos and articles to come out of the 2011 school, in part because shortly after it was scheduled to conclude, eleven participants stuck around in Mexico to accompany and report on the Caravan of Solace against the war on drugs from Cuernavaca to Ciudad Juárez, June 4 to 12, as well as other actions by that movement in Morelos and Mexico City. That was, likewise, made possible by your support.
From that work came forty news stories – all of them translated in English and in Spanish – and, so far, two videos (the one, above, “Barrel of Laughs,” uses time release video of Tanzanian political cartoonist Nathan Mpangala - of the class of 2011 - providing visuals of the narration of Serbian revolutionary Ivan Marovic on the development of “dilemma actions” by a movement to weaken authoritarian power; it also provides an example of the importance of humor to successful movements).
So much of what occurs at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism is intangible; after all, how does one measure learning, knowledge and experience? Lasting friendships and collaborations were formed, and this project now counts with even more skilled collaborators across the globe. Add to that what is quantifiable – work that is published, read, viewed, and redistributed by a virtual army of readers, journalists, twitterers and social networkers – and the written work alone that your support made possible (really, 80 news stories in two languages) comes out to a lot of bang for very frugal bucks. Not even included in the list below are a dozen groundbreaking investigative reports by Bill Conroy, and other Narco News stories produced outside of Mexico during these same months; this list includes only the reporting at the school and after it, in Mexico, made possible by the School and everyone who supported it.
And so I’m reporting back to you, this time not to ask you for contributions, but simply, and sincerely, to thank each and every one of you who has supported this project, and to let you see the measurable results of your support, so much of which is infused with the immeasurable energy of how your supported has changed and improved lives, journalism, and the movements that we report. You are all co-authors of these stories… And we have only just begun to write!
By Arzu Geybullayeva, May 18
By Katie Walsh, May 19
By Kanya Almeida, May 19
By Alex Elgee, May 20
By Tadeu Breda, May 22
By Lucero Mendizábal, May 22
By Candice Vallantin, May 23
By Greg Berger, Al Giordano & Joe Rizk, May 24
By Tadeu Breda, May 25
By Alphonce Shiundu, May 25
By Alphonce Shiundu, May 25
By Henry Taksier, May 26
By Aoife Allen, May 26
By Sandra Vi Sanchez, May 26
By Tyler Stringfellow, May 26
By Henry Taksier, May 26
By Terri Bennett, May 27
By Irene Caselli, May 27
By Javier Sicilia, Transcribed by Henry Taksier, June 1
By Marta Molina, June 1
By Antonio Cervantes, Translated by Al Giordano, June 2
By Erin Rosa, June 6
By Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 6
By Julian LeBaron, Transcribed and translated by Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 6
By Candice Vallantin, June 7
By Julian LeBaron and Antonio Cervantes, Transcribed and translated by Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 10
By Ingrid Morris, June 10
By Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 10
By Julian LeBaron and Antonio Cervantes, Transcribed and translated by Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 12, 2011
By Julian LeBaron and Antonio Cervantes, Transcribed and translated by Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 14
By Julian LeBaron and Antonio Cervantes, Transcribed and translated by Marta Molina and Al Giordano, June 16
By Al Giordano, June 16
By Marta Molina, June 16
By Viral Video Workgroup, School of Authentic Journalism, June 17
By Carolina Corral, June 17
By Investigative Journalism Workgroup, School of Authentic Journalism, July 5
By Erin Rosa, July 6
By Hanna Nikkanen, July 11
By Erin Rosa, July 13
By Javier Sicilia, Translated by Erin Rosa
By Al Giordano, August 2
By Julian LeBaron and Antonio Cervantes, Translated by Erin Rosa
I confess that this isn't even all of them. From the School we still have stories by Clarice Mishel Boddin and Joe Rizk to finish editing, and another by Aldo Orellana yet to be translated to English. (If I've forgotten any others, someone will surely remind me now.) And most of the videos started at the School, of course, take even more time to complete, and we'll be releasing those works in the coming weeks and months as we complete them.
And! Coming soon to this page... the announcement of the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism, dates, the list of who will be teaching, and the application form with which all can apply.
Update: Now we've got the 41st story up...
By Aldo Orellana López, August 4
By Al Giordano
It’s been more than two months since I’ve posted here at The Field. Between finishing and premiering the first of our video series about the Egyptian revolution as told by its own participants (I'll post that here and tell you more about it in the coming days), receiving the 78 participants of the ten-day School of Authentic Journalism in May, editing their stories and videos ever since, with two weeks in June reporting on the road for 3,000 kilometers with Javier Sicilia and the Caravan of Solace against the drug war in 11 Mexican states and El Paso, Texas, then gathering for a week in Boston with many of the world’s foremost strategists and organizers of nonviolent civil resistances, among other pressing matters, the only media to which I’ve paid especially close attention - not having had much time to be a media consumer of late - has been the NFL Network and the daily back-and-forth of the National Football League’s lockout of players which has finally come to a happy ending after more than 130 days.
You don’t have to be obsessed with, or even like, American football to get that this was a most important story, one that marks the largest victory by labor on a national scale in the United States in a long time, and therefore carries lessons for all workers and others who organize to improve their lives. There is a superb analysis of all that the players won in The Nation today by Dave Zirin which explains some of the basics, and then I’ll fill in some other interesting details, and also invite you to participate in a project that rappels off this organizing victory as a way to create more of them.
“What the NFLPA has done is the equivalent of the Bad News Bears squeaking out a victory against the 1927 New York Yankees… It’s workers, in an age of austerity, beating back the bosses and showing that solidarity is the only way to win.
“When the lockout began, NFL’s owners had, in their judgment, and frankly mine as well, every possible advantage. They had a promise from their television partners of four billion dollars in ‘lockout insurance’ even if the games didn’t air. They had a workforce with a career shelf-life of 3.4 years, understandably skittish about missing a single paycheck. And most critically, they had what they thought was overwhelming public opinion. After all, in past labor disputes, fans sided against those who ‘get paid to play a game.’ Owners wanted more money and longer seasons and approached negotiations with an arrogance that would shame a Murdoch spawn.
“I remember talking to NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith at the start of this process, and hearing his optimism in the face of these odds, as he spoke of the bravery of workers in Wisconsin and the people of Egypt who he said were inspiring him to fight the good fight. He mentioned the books he was reading like the classic Civil Rights history Parting the Waters: America in the King Years by Taylor Branch. I remember smiling politely at De Smith and thinking, ‘This guy is going to get creamed.’
“I was very wrong…”
First, nice to hear from a journalist who can admit that his skepticism about an organized movement was overwrought. That ought to be a requirement for everybody who works in media. It turns out – once again – that those who carefully study and learn from the successful struggles of others do indeed have a good track record of winning their own.
Read the whole thing, and you’ll see the significant victories the players won. I would opine that one of the most important advances came at the beginning of the conflict, in that this movement would not allow itself to be defined by others and instead defined itself: rather than letting the media call it a “strike” by players, the NFL Players Association set to work defining the conflict as a “lockout,” putting the responsibility squarely where it belonged, on the owners, some of whom stewed in resentment since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement also won great advances for the players.
When the lockout began, the NFLPA withdrew itself from the legal status of a union, a step that allowed individual players to file lawsuits against the NFL for unfair practices. Some of the biggest star quarterbacks in the league – New England Patriot Tom Brady, Indianapolis Colt Peyton Manning and New Orleans Saint Drew Brees – were among the ten plaintiffs. When, last week, the owners voted to end the lockout, something which required a settlement of pending lawsuits, including what was known as the Brady suit, a couple of the plaintiffs (or, more properly, their agents) – San Diego Charger wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Patriot offensive lineman Logan Mankins – made noises of trying to extract personal demands for more money on their own contracts as a condition for signing on to the settlement, all hell broke loose: Other players throughout the league used their Twitter accounts (and, through them, the media) to rhetorically kick their asses back in line with the solidarity of the movement. Unity was reestablished, and this great victory was won.
I hope that the participants in the struggle write some good books about it, telling us about the strategic and tactical decisions they made at each step of the 19-week conflict, because I’m certain that the lessons learned can be applied not only to other union struggles but to all organized movements everywhere. Just as the NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith studied the strategy and tactics of Martin Luther King and drew inspiration from movements from Cairo to Madison, others will now be able to apply this battle to their own.
Now, not everybody made out as well as the players. A series of small businesses outside the NFL dedicated to the sport of fantasy football – played by 35 million people, based on the scores, yardage and other results by individual NFL players – were severely hurt by the lockout. At least one magazine went out of business. Online sites that analyze and rank players for fantasy football teams had to cut staff and many will be offering only scaled down services this year, these are also economic casualties of the NFL owners greedy gambit. In other words, a vacuum has formed, at least somewhat, when it comes to that related sport that everyday fans play at home.
Like nature, I happen to abhor a vacuum. I’m also, like many of you, an obsessive football fan, and a student of the strategies and organizing methods by head coaches who manage young and often rambunctious talent (it’s really not that different than, say, directing a School of Authentic Journalism). And so therefore, it is my great pleasure to announce today The Field’s latest innovation in the kind of low dollar fundraising that Narco News and The Fund for Authentic Journalism has pioneered over the past 11 years.
Today I invite my fellow and sister fantasy football addicts to join me in making our addiction work for a worthy cause: the world’s first-ever Fantasy Football-a-thon, to benefit The Fund for Authentic Journalism. For this venture – because I know that not all Field Hands necessarily come here looking for analysis about what happens on the football field – I’ve started a new blog exclusively for all things NFL and to report on this new fantasy league we’re forming: The Authentic League.
There, you can find out what this “Fantasy-Football-a-thon” is all about, and see if it is something you might also have fun playing while astounding your fans – and many other readers - with your own fantasy football prowess. And even if you play in different leagues, I’ll be offering my own analysis throughout the upcoming preseason and season because, after all, projecting sporting results is not really all that different from predicting primary and election results, something that I’ve done pretty well at over the years.
Basically, I decided that if I am going to have an obsession with something as silly to many people as a professional sport, I might as well make it count for something good while doing it, while also bringing the good news of the Authentic Journalism Renaissance to a potential 35 million fantasy football players and other NFL fans out there.
It’s an experiment that might or might not work (that’s what an “experiment” is), but as we say in the game, it has a “high upside” with, really, no risk, because this is what I would be doing in a tiny ten-team fantasy football league this autumn anyway even if we didn’t make it public.
None of this means I’m going to disappear as a journalist, political reporter and analyst of social movements, strategies and tactics. All that will still be going on here, just as it did during the 2010 football season. And we’ll also be announcing soon the dates and application process for the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism and, additionally, a three-day workshop in the New York City area this October, a kind of “mini-j-school” for journalists and communicators that report on civil resistance and community organizing. Stay tuned for all of that.
But meanwhile, I know that many of you, like me, are really, really ready for some football. See you over at The Authentic League, which we’ll update y’all here at The Field from time to time on the part that interests you; how this experiment might make possible even more reporting and authentic journalism on these pages about the struggles and conflicts that you come here to read about. Prepare for the kick-off!
By Al Giordano
“I'm learning to walk again/Can't you see I've waited long enough/Where do I begin?”
- from Walk, by the Foo Fighters (from the 2011 motion picture, Thor)
MEXICO CITY, MAY 7, 2011: What began on Thursday as a few hundred silent walkers heading out from the city of Cuernavaca today entered the metropolis of Mexico City thousands strong. At the entrance to Insurgentes Avenue they stopped and an organizer with a bullhorn provided instructions to the marchers, more in the voice of a Broadway theater director than of a political speechmaker:
“Parents of our dead, to the front of the march, behind the black banner that says, ‘We Have Had It Up to Here. Stop the War!’”
And in perfect choreography, Mexico’s most renowned father of one of the 40,000 drug war martyrs in the past four years, took a step back and other parents, with the black banner, stepped forward. A woman with an olive tree, a young girl, and a man with the Mexican flag then took their places five steps in front of the banner. Youths from Cuernavaca placed the security rope five steps in front of them, and the photo was painted by thousands of feet and hands working in unison.
Behind the family members of the dead from Felipe Calderón’s war on the Mexican people, more than 150 indigenous, religious, environmental, student, neighborhood and civic organizations and union locals took their places with their respective banners. Rank and file people unaffiliated with any group found their places in between. The retro-guard of more youths firmed up the security rope at the rear of the march – about a half-kilometer behind the snake of a width of two traffic lanes – and everything was ready. The youth with the bullhorn then instructed the vehicles leading the caravan twenty steps ahead of it to begin moving again, as what seemed like hundreds of photographers, TV cameras and reporters preserved the scene for history.
Your reporter, for 14 years, has covered protest marches from top to bottom of the Mexican Republic. They voiced many grievances on many issues but after a while they all began to sound and look alike: the same chants, the same slogans, the same iconic images of Zapata and Villa and Che Guevara often with artillery in hand… Groups and factions trying to outshout each other with their chants specific to their causes, and a kind of nervous combination of both fear and hostility toward the police, and vice versa. For those citizens not involved in those struggles, some found such marches frightening. Many youths called them boring and uncool. The lack of public response and support tended to make many of those movements feel more alienated, and alienation leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to frustration, and frustration leads to poor strategic and tactical choices. And thus, while they have long been large in size, protests in Mexico have tended to not achieve their goals. Movements have come and gone, made stabs at garnering greater support, then disappeared out of view again, their ranks diminished by the four horsemen of failure: alienation, paranoia, frustration and poor strategy.
Today felt different. Today was measurably, objectively, not the same. The loudest thing about this march was its contemplative silence and the applause and response it provoked from men, women, children, elderly folks, who came out of their homes and stores to stop and watch it pass by.
Through the relatively wealthy southern section of the city known as Tlalpan, local women had set up neat tables abundant with sandwiches, water, fruit, soda and more. “Are journalists welcome to a water?” I asked. Yes, they smiled in unison. Have an orange, too. Have a sandwich. Have two! They seemed almost crestfallen that all I wanted was a bottle of water.
Your correspondent had walked some kilometers already and sat down at the base of a statue of an animal, a couple meters above street level, to sip the water, watch the entire march walk by, and scribble into my notepad. Javier’s section of the march streamed by and Jean Robert, the tall white-maned senior citizen and intellectual who had walked three score kilometers from Cuernavaca, shouted to me, “do you know what that monument is, Giordano? It’s the monument of the street dog!” Ah, my patron saint!
Every human exchange we witnessed (this from the half dozen Narco News correspondents filming and reporting the events at this corner today, others are downtown and in Chiapas reporting related stories) seemed to have contained a degree of mirth, of humor, of hope. They had walked in from the provinces and were taking the capital. (And just as the 1994 communiquéby the Zapatistas of Chiapas pledged that on their way to take the capital they would stop to eat quesadillas in the town of Tres Marias, this silent march had complied with that promise, too.)
A friend who was with the March in the rural town of Topilejo last night reported, “It was like watching what we all hoped the Other Campaign of 2006 would become.” And in a sense it is the logical continuation of that worthy effort to unite all the social forces of the country, “from below and to the left,” to unravel the violent dictatorship that calls itself a democracy with endorsement from Washington and its obedient English-language media cadres.
Narco News will have more reports today and this weekend from different corners of the Republic, including from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, where thousands of indigenous Zapatistas responded to Javier’s call with their own silent march to stop the war.
This section of Insurgentes Avenue includes white overhead walkway bridges for pedestrians to cross and avoid the highway-velocity traffic that normally pummels through it. Today, each of those bridges was adorned with banners in solidarity with the march and its cause, many signed by Tlalpan neighborhood groups, and people who climbed them for an aerial view of the march applauding and flashing V signs at the walkers down below.
Transit police in neon-yellow uniforms flanked the left side of the march as a human barrier between it and the city’s big red electric Metro Buses that came speeding through every ten minutes or so. In between those moments, women from the neighborhood ran out handing sandwiches and water bottles to the police, too, who gladly accepted them. One uniformed officer interviewed by an Australian National TV News camera today, said, “I support this march. This is about what all Mexicans want.”
During each of the walk’s rest stops, Javier retreats to the passenger seat of a vehicle parked in a shady spot, takes a sip of soda or a bite of a cookie, and is besieged by reporters seeking interviews. (A scene from yesterday, with a high-heeled big media star using too much make-up: TV AZTECA REPORTER: “Javier, what has happened on the march?” JAVIER, shrugging his shoulders, smiling: “Nothing.”) Today, as the cameras mobbed around him as if in the Pinball Wizard scene from the rock opera, Tommy, trying to get interviews, something exclusive, trying to see him, feel him, touch him, Javier reached into the back of the truck and held out an offering between two halves of a bread roll. “Would any of you,” he said, “like a sandwich?” And next thing they are too busy eating sandwiches to bother him with questions.
Javier Sicilia and his merry band (they kind of do conjure up images of Robin Hood and company) walking into the big city from Morelos may very well stop the drug war. They are harnessing a public opinion that has existed for a long time but no one had given voice or form to it. I’m a believer. We’ve been documenting and reporting everything they’ve done and will keep on doing so and see it all the way through. But I observe they are doing something else, maybe something even bigger than that once-thought impossible policy change, as well. They are teaching us how to walk again: Another way to fight. Not with polarization and sloganeering, but with creativity and fun, with a warm heart and a cool head. Heaven knows that if anyone has a right to rant and rail and shout and pound his fist into the air, it is he who lost his son so cruelly so few weeks ago. But here he is, today, in the nation’s capital, handing out sandwiches to reporters and to cops, giving them, too, a shot at redemption, to learn to walk again.
(Photo DR 2011 Alejandro Meléndez.)