By Al Giordano
Yesterday, multitudes took to the streets in more than 40 Mexican cities - and in protests by Mexicans and their friends at consulates and embassies in Europe, North America and South America - to demand an end to the violence wrought by the US-imposed "war on drugs."
What? You haven't heard about this? Or if you have heard something about it, did you know that it is the biggest news story in the Mexican media, on the front page of virtually every daily newspaper in the country?
A sea change has occurred in Mexican public opinion. The people have turned definitively against the use of the Mexican Army to combat against drug traffickers. The cry from every city square yesterday was for the Army to return to its barracks and go back to doing the job it was formed to do; protect Mexico from foreign invasion and provide human aid relief in case of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the Armed Forces, four years ago, to combat drug trafficking organizations, the violence between it and the competing narco organizations has led to a daily body count, widespread human rights abuses against civilians, and more than 40,000 deaths, so many of them of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and used by all sides in the armed conflict that still has no winners, that never will have any winner.
A fast moving series of events that began on March 28 have converged to usher Mexico into its very own "Arab spring." And it began just outside "the City of Eternal Spring," Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, about an hour south of Mexico City. Narco News has been covering these events for the past week (sadly, we are so far the only English-language media to do so at each step of the story, even as it has huge consequences for United States drug policy not only in Mexico but throughout the world and at home). On that date, in the town of Temixco, seven young men were assassinated. These were kids with jobs, who went to school, model kids, not criminals. And one of those kids, Juan Francisco Silvia, was the son of a nationally respected journalist and poet, Javier Sicilia, of Cuernavaca.
In a week, the soft spoken, increasingly beloved, intellectual has become the national vessel through which millions of voices now demand: End the war on drugs.
We translated Javier's Open Letter to Mexico's Politicians and Criminals this week, and penned what is our third editorial in eleven years to provide you with context and background to understand the magnitude of what he has unearthed. Yesterday we translated his statements calling for the legalization of drugs to restore peace and dignity to Mexico, and then we headed out to report the marches that this increasingly and deservedly beloved man called for to happen only days ago. We had reporters with Sicilia in his city of Cuernavaca, in Mexico City, and correspondents in numerous other Mexican and international locations, and over the course of the day I will be adding photos and more information about what happened to this page as updates.
Truth is that so much has happened in a day that processing it all tends to overwhelm. Last night, returning from the marches, ten reporters, photographers and video makers (all students or professors at the School of Authentic Journalism) met to compare notes. Everyone was so shaken - I mean that in the best possible way - by what we had seen and heard, and wanted to talk about it, to understand what exactly is happening here on the other side of the US border.
I was part of the team covering the demonstration in the capital, at which about 20,000 people came for the first ever demonstration against the war on drugs (there have been annual marijuana legalization marches in Mexico City for some time, but this was the first time a mass of people had convened to collapse the entire policy of the drug war, and the attendees were far more diverse). Here are some observations: A good half of the crowd looked like they had never attended a demonstration before. Couples, young and old, with homemade signs, many of which were versions of a popular piece of artwork that Mexican political cartoonists have caused to "go viral" on the Internet. Practicing the Debordian art of détournment, people added their own messages to it. Here is one example:
In Spanish, the plus sign ("+") translates as "mas," or "more." So to say "one plus one," you say "uno mas uno" (or "one, more one"). The original image - "No + (the red ink blot)" is immediately understood in Mexico as "No more blood." Everyday people added their own specific demands to this design, on placards, tee shirts, stickers, Xeroxed and photoshopped copies on letter paper. They called for no more deaths, injustice, impunity, corruption, police, and Calderón, among the related things they want no more of. The rage personalized on Calderón was particularly interesting, since many of these people were of the "middle class" demographic that constitute his electoral base. It's certain that a good number of people who came to this march had voted for Calderón in 2006 for president, but here they were, yesterday, chanting, "Out Calderón!" and "Urgent! Urgent! He Must Resign, the President!"
Many mothers and grandmothers carried signs they had made asking questions like, "If the children killed were named Calderón would you still want this war?" They marched next to businessmen in suits, Christian religious groups, punks with spiked hair, entire families with baby carriages, a few people walking their dogs, bicyclists, lesbians, gays, young office professionals with stylish printed placards, each of them unique, and small groups of three, four, five friends who told our reporters that they were not part of any organization or collective, but they had read about the march in the media or on Facebook and decided together to come out for it. I have reported on marches throughout Mexico for fourteen years and this was the first time I had seen so many of these kinds of people at a protest; regular people, who had they been walking without their signs on any given day on any corner wouldn't necessarily draw one's attention due to their sheer and pleasant normalcy.
That was about half of the march's attendees.
The other half were sectors of society that had obviously marched for causes before. I recognized many from the Zapatista Other Campaign and anti-electoral fraud protests of 2006. The electrical workers union brought a contingent of hundreds, the teacher's union, groups of professors or students from the universities in the city, indigenous campesinos, alternative media makers numbered over 100 among the ones I recognized, and there were about as many reporters and cameras from official news organizations. There were people peddling newspapers from every leftist "tendency" that exists: the marxist-leninists, the trotskyists, the anarchists, the maoists, even the stalinists. There were people, pushed by NGOs, who had marched "for more security" in the past and had interpreted that as "more police and prisons." But here they were answering don Javier's call to march against the war on drugs! The People's Front for Defense of the Land came from Atenco - I hugged Nacho del Valle, who was freed from prison almost a year ago - who had arrived with his neighbors at this march against violence with their machetes high in the air. In other lands it might seem paradoxical the sight of machete swords at what others called a "march for peace" but it caused absolutely no concern or fright among other attendees. In Mexico, it is well understood that people's self defense is a less violent alternative to corrupt police forces. And so they fit right in.
See, what has happened here is politically significant: those who have long had and voiced their grievances with "the evil government" of Calderón have intelligently latched on to the anti-war-on-drugs cause as their own, too, because they smartly percieve it as a "wedge issue" that encompasses the whole of national discontent and which could very possibly result in the toppling of an authoritarian president, "elected" only via well documented electoral fraud, with absolutely not a shred of moral authority among his own people. In just one week, humble and dignified Javier Sicilia has collected the free-floating moral authority that nobody else could credibly assume in this Failed State named Mexico and supplanted the napoleanic Calderón as the moral leader of a nation. A big reason that has happened is because, due to his columns over so many years, everybody knows that Sicilia dislikes political parties, has zero interest in running for political office, and serves as a kind of "anti-caudillo" figure at contrast with the strong swashbuckling machismo of so many previous political and revolutionary leaders that the public has grown uneasy with. This is not to say that "the Sicilian" who now puts order to "the mafias" is any kind of pushover at all. When he speaks of the need for criminals to return to their "codes of honor" and leave civilians alone, a guy named Giordano understands exactly what a guy named Sicilia is talking about: this is a man with guts and cunning, too, and one who knows his enemy, and his enemy's history.
Which brings us to what was actually an even more significant march yesterday, led by Sicilia in his city of Cuernavaca. The photo up above, the front page of El Diario de Morelos, tells 50,000 words, all of them voiced by someone who came to the protest there. Greg Berger, who teaches cinema at the state university in Cuernavaca, and the Narco News Team were there, too, and are currently banging out a viral video for NNTV on what happened - and what is still happening - there.
In a country where the Armed Forces inspire fear among everyday citizens (so much so that it is routine for a bar or restaurant to have a sign indicating that it will not serve people in uniform), more so in the past four years than ever before, it is not every day that 50,000 people - the largest march in the history of Cuernavaca, even of the entire state of Morelos - go to the gates of a military base and demand that the soldiers stay quarantined there. But that is exactly what happened. On a normal day, you can pass by that base and there are multiple gunmen in uniform stationed at watchposts, watching you and everybody else pass by. The military had the good sense to pull those troops back yesterday and there were few to be seen at all, according to our reporters. Then Javier Sicilia climbed atop a microbus and addressed the Armed Forces directly, with a nonviolent army at his back. There, he told them, "You have always been the custodians of peace for our nation. That's why we never want to see you again outside of your barracks." That just isn't ever said. Oh, wait. It just was, and for the multitude assembled, it was the reestablishment of the proper social order: that in a democracy, an army, if there is one, must be at service of the people. Four years of Calderón having reversed that order - he converted the people into mere pieces on the Army's chess board, objects to be pushed around, stopped, searched, invaded, molested and assassinated - has brought the public to its absolute limit.
Cuernavaca is now the unlikely epicenter of something of revolutionary potential: the reestablishment of the proper order of things in which a people rule its own country. It has been a bloody battlefield for four years (before that it was a tranquil flowered city with a strong pull on tourists who now no longer come there due to Calderón's War) but now it is a new kind of battlefield: a struggle to reconquer the terrain of daily life for every citizen, every family, block by block for every neighborhood. And nobody knows where this is going to go but I have an idea, and I will pose it with a question:
What happens when a neighborhood declares itself a military-free zone, and erects its own nonviolent checkpoints and barricades on traffic that enters it, with the goal of either keeping uniformed authorities out, or making them agree to the people's established rules before they enter? Very soon, Calderón, as commander of the Armed Forces, may have to answer this question. Does he repeat his arrogant history and engage the people themselves as enemy combatants, this time under the attention of the national media? And if he does, what will that spark in the next neighborhood over, in the city, in the state, in the entire country?
It is often said that the war on drugs has no clear enemy nor objectives. Javier Sicilia and the people of Cuernavaca - as well as the tens of thousands from throughout Mexico who marched in solidarity and for the same demands with them - have just called the bluff of the drug war. They have said, We know who the enemy is. It is us! And now we accept that fact and will deal with it accordingly, our way.
Kind reader, I would like you to think about that. It is important that you understand what is underway in Mexico, and especially in Cairovaca... oh, excuse me, I meant to say... Cuernavaca.
And in a little while I'll come back to this page and begin posting photos and reflections of yesterday's marches. But what you have just read, that is what makes this history.
And now for the updates...
5:13 p.m. The homemade sign in this placard at yesterday's march in Mexico City translates as: "Some fathers are poets. All children are poems."
Poets, writers (many journalists consider themselves one or the other or both), songwriters, screenwriters, really, artists of any sort, tend to identify with Javier Sicilia's tragic loss of a son. The Mexican painter Francisco Toledo led yesterday's march in Oaxaca city, and today the actor Edward James Olmos showed up in Cuernavaca to add his voice to the struggle. I ran into a poet friend of mine yesterday who has always told me he didn't like demonstrations or political organizations, but there he was. He looked almost embarrassed to have done so but at the same time he could not turn away. We can safely expect that the entire artistic and creative class of Mexico is in this fight, in one way or another, already. And that will help greatly in its creativity beyond the "same old, same old" slogans, images, icons and tactics that have slowed down other worthy but in the end not very creative struggles...
More to come...
5:37 p.m. Oh my, it seems this report has "gone viral" on the Internet and its social networks. If you would like to see more of this kind of reporting - we call it authentic journalism - then check out another essay we posted today from one of the talents we are training this year, Namees Arnous, of Cairo: An Authentic Journalist Speaks from a Free Egypt: "Let Me Tell You a Story about Media and Revolution."
Namees, along with other Egyptians and 80 journalists from 40 countries, will be with us soon in Mexico at the School of Authentic Journalism at a ten-day course that charges no tuition. We are already learning plenty from our colleagues who toppled Mubarak and finding many applications for their tactics and strategies on this side of the lake! Feel free to help that along; this project does all that it does mostly on small contributions from readers like you. Listen to Namees and do what she says!
Anyway, now back to our regularly scheduled programing...
Friday, 11:35 a.m. A group of university students in Cuernavaca had already been studying the use of viral video in the Egyptian revolution when recent events hit their own city. In a collaboration with our creative friends, Los Detonadores, they started a Facebook page, Todos Somos Juan Francisco Sicilia ("We Are All Juan Francisco Sicilia") in memory and tribute to the poet's son, of their city and generation, whose assassination began this fast-moving chain of events. It is modeled after a Facebook page in Egypt that they studied in sequence, from the page's first day of publication, named We Are All Kahled Said, through its growth to its present 100,000+ strong. The Egyptian page served as a clearing house for "viral video conversations" in which people would borrow from each others' videos (adding new music or ideas) to make new ones. And it helped create a collective vision of what resistance and revolution in Egypt might look like, long in advance of the January 25 protests. (And there happens to be real interesting news out of Cairo today, with a new mobilization on Tahrir Square to "purify" the government from the remnants of the regime, under the title of "Warning Friday: Revolution Still Alive.")
They and their friends have now collaborated on two viral videos from Cuernavaca. This first one is from the demonstrations on Wednesday in Cuernavaca and Mexico City, and includes don Javier's message to the Armed Forces to go back to their barracks:
The second one highlights the protests in solidarity with Cuernavaca around the world:
NNTV's video report on these events is in fast and furious production as I type (some of the same youngsters who did such fast and good work on these videos are also busy assisting in our Cuernavaca newsroom with that). Stay tuned!
By Al Giordano
The thirteenth of March already seems a lifetime ago. That’s when Egyptian journalist Namees Arnous (class of 2011, Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, you can read more about her and 40 other classmates here) guided Greg Berger and I on our first visit through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. The first thing we noticed was a group of thirty or so people gathered on the sidewalk in a heated political conversation. They had no banners or placards. It wasn’t a protest or even really a meeting. It was an impromptu debate of some kind, that made me think of Einstein’s proverbial Village Square.
“Before the revolution,” Namees explained, “it was illegal for five or more people to gather in one place. They would be arrested.”
It was exactly one month after the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak and in the following week we would meet and speak with dozens of participants in the historic civil resistance that brought the thirty-years-tyrant down. A month later, the resisters were coming to grips with what all successful revolutionaries have faced throughout history: that after the milestone of “the revolution,” a kind of permanent counterrevolution assembles to try to impose the old order anew. The triumph must then be defended.
Revolution is not a matter of a few tumultuous weeks of crescendo battle at the barricades, nor is it the glorious day of victory (although “the date” is to always be treasured, celebrated, remembered and never denied). The period between January 25 and February 13 of 2011 was, rather, the long and often painful labor to give birth to a new Egypt. And while the old Pharaoh has fled the castle, his lackeys and functionaries still occupy so many of its recesses. To borrow from another famous myth of those lands, the vestiges of the Pharaoh – the regime itself, or The State – now seek to kill the revolution in its infancy. This is what always happens. Truth is, authentic revolution never ends. And what we met and learned from was a critical mass of Egyptians from all walks of life, emboldened and ready to defend it with their all.
In a rooftop apartment a half block from Tahrir Square, and in other locations, the Narco News team set up shop for a week. There, we received community organizers, strategists, bloggers, journalists, unaffiliated people who slept on Tahrir Square during those tumultuous events, doctors who cared for the wounded there, video makers who filmed them (and who designed the series of viral videos that helped bring an unexpected multitude to Tahrir on January 25). On camera, we interviewed Muslims, Coptic Christians, atheists, secularists, leftists of every indole, liberals, and rank-and-file participants of diverse hue.
We asked every one of them a series of twelve questions, which began with this statement:
“We are conducting interviews with people who were involved and direct eyewitnesses to the resistance of January and February 2011 in Egypt that brought the fall of Mubarak. Our questions are about your own personal experience: what you personally saw, what you did, how you did it, the tactics, strategies and decisions you made, and how these events affected your daily life. Unlike many journalist interviews, we are not asking people to analyze ‘what other people did or saw.’ We ask you for your own lived experience, so that people in Mexico and everywhere else around the world who want to do the same things in their lands can see how it was done here. Your personal experience is important to them and to us so we can learn from it. So, please, we request that you answer the questions by telling of what you saw, heard and did during these historic events. Your story is very interesting to the world. And thank you for talking with us and our viewers in many languages!”
The questions ranged from how each individual spent the days leading up to January 25, what they did and experienced on that date, and then on other key dates of the resistance struggle. We asked about the tactical and strategic decisions that had to be made, how they were made, and why specific paths were chosen. We asked whether the January 27 shut down of the Internet hurt or helped the resistance (the answer was unanimous from each and every person, and the consensus may surprise the techno-evangelists who speak so carelessly of “Twitter Revolutions”). We also asked deeply personal questions about whether participating in “the revolution” changed how they see themselves, their life plans, and their relations with family, love, creed and State. The interviews went on and on (the shortest lasted 45 minutes) particularly because most people had so much to say.
One of our Arabic translators and collaborators, a Muslim woman, who had in recent months worked as a “fixer” (interpreter and guide) for other reporters, including from the New York Times and the Washington Post, told us: “We’ve never been asked these questions. The guys from the Times and the Post kept saying ‘we want to interview the leaders of the revolution.’ I told them, ‘We have no leaders.’ They said, ‘Try harder’!”
We were not seeking out “leaders” (those already extensively interviewed or featured by international media) although some of them sought us out when word hit the street that we were asking these kinds of questions. Typically, as one interview went overtime, the person scheduled for the next interview would appear, and it turned out, although these were by and large not “resistance celebrities” or known public figures, that almost everybody knew each other already, and greeted each other with the ecstatic hugs of soldiers who had won a war together. Most of them had met only in the last weeks on a square called Tahrir. They will never forget it, or each other, that is clear.
The collective sum of all their stories is now on video (we felt as if we were smuggling pure gold out of the country, with multiple copies on hidden back ups, hard drives, camera chips and drive sticks, knowing how certain forces of continuing State power have continued to arrest and torture resistance participants, including, recently, one foreign journalist whose throat was slashed defending her video footage appropriated from secret police vaults). The revolution had been “won” but yet it continues, as does the counterrevolution. Everyone we spoke with is painstakingly aware of that reality.
In the coming days and weeks, we have scores of hours of interviews to transcribe (most in the original Egyptian Arabic, but a few in English, too), translate, edit and produce in the form of ten- or fifteen-minute viral videos to be made available free to all on the Internet. And then, additionally, we will translate those videos into other languages, such as Spanish, where speakers are hungry for their content.
This is the closest we’ve ever come to finding something that might be akin to a manual for revolution, for civil resistance, for nonviolent action to topple a violent dictator and for continued struggle to bring the rest of the regime - and all "regime-think" on earth - down with him; a manual narrated not by scholars, academics or authors, but by the participants themselves!
It was also the time, a most special one for me in this life, that I was able to most intensely investigate what Vaneigem calls the study of “how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary moments,” and to do so at a moment when memories were still fresh and relatively unburdened by the sort of calcified myths that encase around historical events after they have become history.
What Berger and I and our Egyptian collaborators hope to create from this treasure is not aimed at any documentary film festival or any such nonsense or award. It will go directly to where it came from: the people, with permission, free of any charge or fee, for all to use the materials in their own struggles. Hopefully, we will have considerable parts of the videos ready for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism. To the extent we do not, we will press our fellow students and professors there into helping to finish them.
But wait. This incredible experience did not end at the Egyptian border...
Then, on March 19, we headed out of Cairo, taking a couple of new Egyptian friends with us to Madrid to help us lead a four-day workshop on Citizen Journalism and Civil Resistance. There, we shared journalism and media skills, tactics and strategies with 34 others, many of whom were much like us. Some were from lands currently deep in conflict – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen – and others were from other parts of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas. And this has led to more international collaborations already and the emboldening of the Civil Resistance Renaissance and the Authentic Journalism Renaissance. Vanegeim's "extreme revolutionary moment" has crossed international borders. What the Egyptians have accomplished is positively infectious for us all. I feel as if we now stand on the threshold of a global culture of civil resistance that no tyrant or State or multinational corporation (another kind of state power) will be able to contain for long.
As usual, I am reluctant to draw detailed conclusions so quickly as to what we heard, saw and lived during these ten or twelve extremely intense days and nights. It is still so new and fresh, and the participants properly narrate much of that anyway. It is a disease of developed world academics and journalists to too rapidly wrap a chaotic story of continuing push and shove with a tidy little bow and greeting card slogan.
Instead, I will follow our own request to the interviewees, for now, and try to speak from personal lived experience, to try and remember, write, and figure out what I saw, heard and lived, and how it might have changed me. It's the inverse of the Heisenberg Principle: it is also true that one can't study something intensely without also being changed by it. I am certain that it mutated me, in a way, to have breathed in it. I am not yet sure exactly how it did. But I am guessing that for the rest of my days I will return, whenever possible, to a Square called Tahrir, where the doors to a new and better future flung open and which now await the rest of the citizens of the world to pass through them.
By Al Giordano
As a student of rebellion and resistance, when people rise up I pay attention, study and try to learn as much as possible. Humans are at our most creative when we rebel and the moments when many do it all at once are the great engines of innovation, invention and evolution. Any man, woman or child of any age who participates in a grand and successful revolt is forever changed and liberated by the experience. He and she are no longer so easily enslaved or cowered by fear. Rebellions against injustice and tyranny are the single best catalyst through which people become our better selves and fulfill our most human of destinies.
For eighteen days in January and February 2011 the Egyptian people, especially its youths, treated the world to a lesson in civics. Their successful toppling of the thirty year dictator Hosni Mubarak was the very best kind of rebellion because it was disciplined, it was strategically and tactically executed, and the population understood that the justice and freedom it craved would not be found in bloody retribution against the sectors (most demonstrably in Egypt, the Armed Forces) that had propped up the regime, but in peeling those sectors’ support away from it.
A lot has been written and said during and since Mubarak’s fall about how the Egyptians did it, but having lived through other moments like it in other parts of the world I find most of the explanations unsatisfactory. I constantly return to a question raised by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem:
"By a strange oversight, no historian has ever taken the trouble to study how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary moments."
The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported. And yet most of the protagonists are still alive and able to tell it; time has not yet buried this human-made miracle under ancient ruins for the archeologists to uncover and play guessing games.
And so I begin this essay with an announcement: Narco News and our School of Authentic Journalism will send a team of journalists to Egypt in the coming weeks to find and report that living history. With documentary filmmaker Greg Berger and others, and the wise guidance and counsel of Egyptian authentic journalist Noha Atef, among others who have kept us very well informed throught these historic weeks, we will go to the homes of the organizers and those who broke the regime’s media blockade and record their story in their own words. As authentic journalists do, we will do our best to strip ourselves of any preconceptions, Western and other, about what happened, and instead let those who made it happen explain it to us, and through these pages, to you.
Instead of asking the questions that every media organization is asking them, we will ask the questions that community organizers, students of civil resistance, strategists, tacticians and aspiring revolutionaries everywhere want to know: How did you do it? And how can we do it in our own lands, too?
It was that same thirst to know and understand how successful movements and their change agents make history that led me, fourteen years ago, to the rebel indigenous lands of Chiapas, Mexico, which led to a much longer period of study, and forced me to learn new languages and ways of doing things that, until I saw and experienced them, were alien to my New Yorker upbringing. That same admiration for grassroots movements, in April 2002, led us to be the first English-language publication (and, in fact, one of the first in Spanish) to report that international media claims that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had “resigned” were false, that instead a military coup d’etat was underway and he had been kidnapped. And we reported the popular movement that overturned that coup in three days and, as best we could from a distance, how it happened. Weeks later I was in Caracas, talking with the people in the neighborhoods, and especially the pioneers of its community radio and television and alternative media who broke the information blockade and mobilized the public that April, and also spent a total of twelve hours in the company of President Chávez, who I consider a very smart man, listening carefully to his analysis of what had happened.
That same need to understand how change is made has brought me, over the years, to the coca growing lands of Bolivia, the gigantic cities of Brazil, and, in the summer of 2009, to most states in the country of Honduras which was suffering – and continues to be plagued by the consequences of – a bloody coup d’etat. We have reported on the social movements from all 31 Mexican states and its capital. We have reported on successful movements and also those that have not yet succeeded, and have seen the details of what strategies and tactics more often bring victory, and which more often keep peoples mired in defeat. When other media, including “alternative media,” have pointed their cameras and microphones up above, at the heads of state and the machinations of those in power during periods of popular revolt and change, Narco News has instead gone to the streets and country roads where the people struggle from below, and provided their voices and wisdom a larger audience than they otherwise would have had for their grievances, dreams and the lessons of their unique experience.
For the past fourteen years, events in Latin America have dominated my interest, ignited my passions, and those two motives have always guided my journalism. For much of 2008, when a community organizing renaissance began anew in the United States (a process still underway, as we watch events unfold in Madison, Wisconsin), with the help of our readers, I went to study and report it: In Nevada, in Texas, in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and offered my findings to gatherings of community organizers at universities in the aforementioned Madison and in Chicago, as well as via these pages.
Now comes Northern Africa where the hands of thousands write new chapters in the history of human resistance against imposition and dictatorship. The people of Egypt, I suspect, have changed everything in the global equation and in one fell swoop have sent the nation-states and their leaders scrambling to understand how the old geopolitical map, still so soiled by the Cold War hangover, is useless to them now. It was the revolt by Tunisians and toppling of their authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that ricocheted into the hearts and minds of Egyptians, who have now inspired civil resistances in Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere, most grippingly at this moment in Libya.
Events in Libya today are the straw that is breaking the old geopolitical camel’s back, and just as Egypt is placing new realities on the imperial capital of Washington DC, Libya presents a wake up call for the rival capitals whose leaders place themselves in resistance to US imposed hegemony.
The name of Muammar al-Gaddafi is spelled many ways around the world (Khadafi, Qaddafi, etcetera) but today – at this moment when so many of its more than six million citizens are in open revolt against his rule - it is spelled D-E-S-P-O-T. And that brings a lot of sadness as he culminates his betrayal of all the original hope and promise of the Green Revolution he led in 1969, which the author Hakim Bey once described as fusing philosophical underpinnings of “anarco-syndicalism” with “Sufi mysticism” and held out the possibility of an authentically “radical Islam.”
But let’s face reality: Gaddafi’s Green Revolution mutated into something far more sinister, and what is left is anything but revolutionary.
As Vishay Prashad wrote yesterday in Counterpunch:
"Little of the luster of 1969 remains with the old man. He is a caricature of the aged revolutionary. We are far from the 'revolutionary instigator' whose watchword was 'the masses take command of their destiny and their wealth.' The game will be up when the military tilts its support..."
Yesterday, I watched Gaddafi’s seventy-minute long televised speech, a rambling, manic rant that no observer could reasonably interpret as anything other than the self-destruction of a once great young man, now a senile, vicious and mentally unstable old fool.
Amy Davidson, senior editor of The New Yorker, watched it, too. Gaddafi’s speech was as mortifying and Looney Tunes as she, too, observed:
To watch the speech Muammar Qaddafi gave today is to feel very frightened for Libya. It is not simply that he talked about killing and love in one breath—“purifying their tribes” by executing protesters being something that “those who love Muammar Qaddafi” should do—or that he swore never to leave a post he denied having; denied that he had ordered any shootings after days of automatic gunfire (but said, “When I do, everything will burn”); called protesters drug-taking “rats” who Libyans should “attack in their lairs” (elsewhere, he called them “cats”); took out his “Green Book” and made a show of reading it, like a cross between Ophelia and Captain Queeg, as he mused about betrayal and glory, martyrdom and “masters in Washington and London,” his grandfather and Libya’s grand reputation; or that, when he finished speaking, he extended his hand to a supporter for a kiss. It was all of those things, adding up to the suspicion that a great many lives are in the hands of a man who may be not only megalomaniacal and deluded but actually deranged.
If you have been monitoring the international media for hard facts (and proof of them) about what is actually happening in Libya, you have probably spent many hours, as we have, tuned in to the Pan-Arabic TV news network Al Jazeera, which has also been so important recently as a source on news from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and throughout Arab lands. There, incontrovertible proof, images and eyewitness testimony have documented the scale of the atrocity that Gaddafi is committing against his country’s own citizens: the deployment of military soldiers and paramilitary mercenaries with orders to shoot at protesters, the burning alive of soldiers who refused to do so, the use of military jets to strafe the crowds under a rain of bullet fire (as Juan Cole points out, this is eerily reminiscent of Mussolini’s 1930s aerial bombardments of Libya to impose a “Roman Peace” upon its people).
And so it is especially disheartening to see and hear some of the heroic and historic leaders of revolutionary Latin America praise Gaddafi (Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega went so far as to claim that Gaddafi “is again waging a great battle”) at this moment when Libyan dictator behaves like Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Carlos Andres Perez and every other despicable war criminal and dictator the Western Hemisphere has suffered and which Boliviarian América rose up to topple.
While it is true that in better days Gaddafi aided and supported revolutionary movements in Latin America, these are movements which have not hesitated to dispose of their own traitors from within and so it is sadly astounding to witness the acrobatics with which some leaders (and their State owned media, I will get to that in a moment) are evidently obfuscating and clumsily attempting to defend, or at least provide a smokescreen of cover for, Gaddafi’s indefensible actions at present.
More wily and clever than Ortega’s bombastic show of solidarity with Gaddafi – and thus, more disappointing, because he should know better – was Fidel Castro’s column yesterday, in which he argued:
“One can be in agreement with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kind of news, especially through the mass media. We shall have to wait the time needed to discover precisely how much is truth or lies, or a mix of the events, of all kinds, which, in the midst of chaos, have been taking place in Libya.”
Of course, to the extent that it has been difficult to get the true facts out of Libya is almost entirely a consequence of Gaddafi’s own actions: he has shut down the Internet, cell phones and land lines, banned foreign journalists, and done everything a tyrant can do to prevent the sifting of Castro’s “truth or lies.” And yet Gaddafi’s own words are clear as day: A call for his supporters to go house by house and kill any citizen who dissents, “attack their lairs,” he said... the crazed exaltation of “purifying the tribes” and the promise that “everything will burn.” That his words have been made real by bloody actions on a massive scale has been meticulously documented on Al Jazeera, on YouTube and in testimony from Libyans who escaped across the border as well as that of military and diplomatic officials who have defected. Castro’s call to “wait and see” at an hour of moral crisis is a call for consent and complicity with genocide.
Somewhat less skillful, on Castro’s part, has been his ham-handed attempt to shift the attention from the atrocity underway to a hypothetical one: His statement that, “the United States is totally unconcerned about peace in Libya and will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, possibly in a matter of hours or a few days.”
First of all, what could NATO possibly do to the Libyan people that Gaddafi isn’t already doing?
Second of all, the rapid rate at which Gaddafi’s own military officers, diplomats, even his Interior Minister, have defected and sided with the protesters, as well as the total control the resistance has assumed of the nation’s second most important city of Benghazi, the defection of tribal leaders who control many of the oil producing lands of the south, all these events indicate that it is not NATO or foreign powers that will most quickly dispose of the despot, but the very people he has governed for 42 years.
The popular rejection of Gaddafi this week has not been led by the imperialist West (which, since 2001, has worked in harmony with Gaddafi after he joined harmoniously with George W. Bush’s “war on terror”), but, rather, by Libyans. And the Libyan people have now been joined by all of Pan-Arabia. Yesterday, the League of Arab Nations (Kuwait, Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Jordan, UAE, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Dijibouti, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Mauritania, Comoros & Somalia) kicked Gaddafi’s representative out of their meetings and suspended Libya from the organization, calling on him to cease the violent repression of demonstrators. And while it is true that many of these states are essentially US allies and clients, it is more the rumbling in their own streets by the regional Pan-Arabic movement toward freedom that has them sweating and so eager to divorce themselves from Gaddafi’s crimes. The proverbial “Arab Street,” suddenly awake and on the move, is speaking through them. And their distancing from Libya’s go-down-in-flames response to rebellion portends well for movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere that are following Tunisian and Egyptian footsteps today because it indicates that other heads of state and dictators are learning that absolute repression of the kind attempted by Mubarak in Egypt, and even more severely by Gaddafi in Libya, isn’t going to save their asses or their regimes. Notably, some are now bending over backwards to make concessions to pro-democracy movements in their lands, and a great regional awakening marches on.
Perhaps reading these words, kind reader, you have found some of the information new or useful. Much of it has also been reported by Al Jazeera from an Arab perspective. And, as in Egypt just days ago (yes, it seems like an eternity already), the Gaddafi regime is blaming the messengers:
At a news conference in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, on Tuesday, a government spokesman said: "We used to respect our brothers in Qatar, but the brothers in Qatar directed Al Jazeera to incitement and to spread lies. They directed hired Libyan and Egyptian sheiks that have Qatari citizenship and high monthly salaries to start this conspiracy."
This is exactly how the Honduran coup regime and that of Iranian president Mamoud Ahmedinejad responded to civil resistances in their countries in 2009: blame the media. The Honduran coup rulers shut down the Internet, deported reporters from TeleSur, and to this day it remains the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, assassinating them at a faster pace than in tyrannies twenty times its size. The Iranian regime did the same: shut off the Internet and deported reporters from BBC Persia.
Which brings us to the sticky matter of TeleSur, the six-year-old TV network based in Venezuela, funded largely by that government and, to a lesser extent, by those of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay. On its first day of broadcasting, I wrote an essay, Welcome TeleSur to the Struggle to Light Up the Skies. There had been so much distortion by the Commercial Media, internationally and in Latin America, of events down here that I and many others eagerly grasped on to TeleSur and held out the hand of friendship and alliance.
Six years later, TeleSur is widely considered among much of the Latin American left to be a colossal flop and a predictable formulaic bore, a project so steeped in its own bureaucracy and conflicting loyalties that it is an understatement to say it “has not lived up to its potential.” In the past year, it has participated in the demonization of the historic indigenous movements in Latin America, absurdly attempting to tag the continent’s original peoples as imperialist agents of the United States, largely based on the McCarthyist falsehoods of one of its commentators, the North American lawyer Eva Golinger. If you have not read about what occurred last October to cause a massive grassroots backlash from so much of the Latin American left against TeleSur’s shoddy “journalism,” this story, by Narco News reporters Fernando Leon and Erin Rosa, is illuminating, to say the least.
But it is the Pan-Arabian resistance that has shaken the wheels off of TeleSur altogether. While citizen journalists in Libya courageously break the information blockade to post videos on YouTube and elsewhere to show the carnage wrought by the death throes of the Gaddafi regime, while Al Jazeera and other international media document beyond a reasonable doubt the war crimes it is committing, TeleSur has treated its viewers to a total cover-up and whitewashed version of events in Libya. It has served as a clownish propaganda vehicle for the embattled Libyan dictator.
The version of events fed to TeleSur viewers portrays Gaddafi pronouncing “I am a revolutionary,” and repeats his claims that “extremist groups are paying the demonstrators” against him without a shred of irony or proof. It portrays the dictator as defending the country of Libya from “the insults that have been made agains the Libyan people in recent days.” The subheds alone demonstrate TeleSur’s spin: “Youths receive money from extremist groups,” and, “I will fight to the last drop of my blood” and “Following the Constitution,” and “Solid Libya.”
Of course, TeleSur gave top billing to Castro’s claim of a “plan by the US for NATO to invade Libya.” Libyan demonstrators are portrayed as pillaging and burning everything in sight (“furious hordes,” a general is quoted as describing them) and that “there are no police, nor Army, nor security forces” to be found.
Not a word about the multiple massacres by Gaddafi’s troops, who according to TeleSur, contrary to repressing the people, are not even present, nor the aerial attacks by military planes on the crowds. TeleSur has reported nothing about the defections by military, diplomatic and tribal pillars of support for the regime. In sum, TeleSur is feeding a total falsehood to its viewers and calling it “news.”
Meanwhile, the self proclaimed gringa “novia de Venezuela” (that’s from her own website masthead, you can’t make this stuff up!), Eva Golinger, who accompanied Chávez to Libya, Iran, Russia and Belarus last November, complained yesterday on her Twitter feed: “Look, I’ve never defended Gaddafi! To the contrary, I am analyzing the causes of the terrible situation that is happening in Libya. I don’t know why they say that.”
Golly gee, ya think maybe the recent NY Times profile on Golinger (in which she vainly granted an interview to the known golpista reporter Simon Romero only to act surprised later on when it wasn’t as flattering as she had hoped: “The article makes me sound like some kind of propaganda queen for the Venezuelan government,” she doth protested too much) might have something to do with that impression? Here is an interesting passage from the puff-piece-gone-awry:
In October, she accompanied Mr. Chávez on a seven-country tour that included visits with Venezuelan allies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. “Chávez presented me as his defender to Ahmadinejad,” said Ms. Golinger, describing the Iranian leader as “gentle” after giving him her book at a dinner.
She came away from the trip with her own appreciation of other Venezuelan allies like President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, who is often called Europe’s last dictator.
After meeting Mr. Lukashenko in person, she described him as “really nice.” As for Belarus itself, she said its Western critics were mistaken because it is “not a dictatorship.” Rather, she said, “It is socialism.” She praised a Belarussian agricultural town she visited. “People seemed really into their communal work and stuff like that,” she said.
To be fair, Golinger wasn’t quoted as saying anything, pro or con, about her State sponsored visit to Gaddafi’s Libya. She did call the Iranian dictator “gentle” and the Belarusian despot “really nice,” without offering a shred of criticism of the tyrannical behavior of the regimes of any of the countries she visited. A journalist-of-the-state simply does not do that if one wants to be invited on future junkets.
And that’s the point. At an hour of moral crisis it is not enough to issue smug denials that one has never defended an evil if one is not also vocally denouncing and resisting it while it is happening.
Interestingly, Venezuelan President Chávez – who recently made news sleeping in a tent that Gaddafi had gifted to him on the recent trip to Libya – has remained absolutely silent on the matter since the Libyan resistance rose up in recent days.
But I know something about how big news organizations function in their dysfunction, and TeleSur is very similar to CNN or Fox News or any other cable news network in its operating principles. I’ve had first hand dealings with various TeleSur employees and freelancers and, like their counterparts in commercial media, they live in constant, abject fear of getting “the call from Caracas” (their words) or angering their superiors. TeleSur is a viper’s nest for anyone employed there, filled with bullying middle managers and cut throat colleagues who covet each other’s jobs, with an often absent upper level management (right now TeleSur chief Andrés Izarra is virtually AWOL as he serves the dual function of Venezuela’s cabinet level Minister of Information and Communications). Many frustrated journalists throughout the hemisphere come to us for counsel when they have problems with their bureaucracies, and we’ve heard enough stories from TeleSur journalists to recognize their plight as so similar to those of corporate media employees.
So it’s not really clear if TeleSur is behaving this week as chief American propagandist for Gaddafi because a line has been handed down, or because in a dysfunctional absence of any line its panicked employees are overcompensating based on what they see as Venezuela’s geopolitical alliances. The news organization also suffers an increasing tendency that corrupts all the beautiful and good accomplishments of the Bolivarian revolution by attempting to make the news overly about one head of state and his allied heads of state rather than about an organized people. But I sense that fear plays a huge role in how previously good journalists have turned themselves into propaganda monkeys for war crimes in Libya today.
What is strangest about TeleSur’s astonishing fictionalization of the Libyan crisis is that the news organization has an existing agreement with Al Jazeera in which each network may use the video footage of the other. But none of the strongest images or reports by Al Jazeera from Libya have made it past the cutting room floor in Caracas this week.
TeleSur has thus converted into a worst-case scenario that plays into the cartoon caricature version of the Bolivarian revolution painted by its worst enemies and the bloody coup mongers of the imperial right. The damage they are doing to the cause of the Venezuelan people, a majority of whom built the Bolivarian revolution, is immeasurable. It features circus clowns like Golinger spewing half-baked conspiracy theories (her latest: that “it’s sad but reality, that what happened in Egypt was prepared in USA laboratories”). Did you catch that? Now she is defaming the Egyptian resistance and its participants who toppled a thirty-year US-propped regime as, somehow, agents of US imperialism! It’s the same exact script she used against the indigenous of Ecuador when they opposed multinational oil and mining companies imposed on them by that country’s government.
Well, this is why authentic journalists have to go to the source – in Egypt or Honduras or anywhere else where competing media try to impose their spin on events from afar – to interview the people on the ground who make history, instead of those who merely wash, spin and dry it. I look forward to reporting to you what the heroic Egyptian resistance organizers have to say about this attempt to portray them as dupes of a foreign power. But mostly, I look forward to learning the real history of the resistance that now gives birth to many resistances.
The Cold War ended twenty years ago but its vestiges have guided too many of right and left alike in a hackneyed obsession with a supposed geopolitical map. Rebellions against their enemies are portrayed as good but rebellions against their allies are defamed as the manipulations of foreign powers.
I personally have never viewed being of the left as adhering to such a geopolitical map, in which the atrocities by autocrats – be they named Gaddafi or Ahmedinejad or Mugabe or Lukashenko or Putin – are considered “gentle” or “nice” or acceptable in any way simply because they position themselves (often as mere acts of theater) as opposed to US imperialism. Likewise, I reject the vision of those on the right, who apologize and cover up for any crime against humanity if it is seen as serving US or Western interests, and in truth most of my reporting for 14 years abroad has aimed my pen and keypad directly at those US-sponsored hypocrisies and injustices, and I imagine that I will continue to do so for the rest of my years. Being on the left, to me, means that one favors freedom, justice (economic and political), human rights, authentic democracy, and full powers of assembly and speech for all, in every land, at every moment. Rebellion and resistance against all tyranny, no matter what flag it raises, is the single greatest expression of what makes us human. It is the engine of evolution of our species. And when it is done strategically, nonviolently, with discipline and creativity, it makes the greatest works of art this world has ever seen.
Here and now, on the eve of the springtime of 2011, what is, in a way, similar to the Prague Spring moment of 1968, which revealed the Czechoslovakian’s people’s yearning to be free and exposed the worst authoritarian and imperial tendencies of the former Soviet Union, we are witnesses (and hopefully participants) of this masterpiece of humanity which I will call The Civil Resistance Renaissance.
Our work, as authentic journalists, in documenting and telling its story – and training others of talent and conscience who seek to do the same - has only just begun.
Update 3:14 p.m. Friday, February 25: A little more than a day after we published this story, TeleSur has published its first honest story in a week from Libya, from the resistance-controlled city of Benghazi:
"Here, the people fill the streets celebrating freedom from the government of Gaddafi. What can be seen in the streets is a new country, a country that doesn't recognize the government, where the people themselves have organized committees, are cleaning the streets, the food is gratis, the people distribute the food, they send free medical attention, and have increased their military control. On all sides are people with guns, but peace reins...
"It should be remembered that this is a country where previously very few foreign journalists entered and their uprising was done without those journalsits present, with very little communication, and the faced a ferocious repression. They have shown us terrible photos and images that we would never be able to show on television of bullet ridden bodies. The people here say that hundreds of people died last Saturday and Sunday, but they resisted, they continue fighting and at this moment they are in control of the city."
It may also be of interest to our readers that the reporter, Reed Lindsay, is a 2003 graduate of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, and we have received information from other TeleSur journalists that there is a strong debate within that news organization at present over its coverage of Libya, perhaps unprecedented in the network's six years in that journalists within the channel - the workers of the station - have strongly objected to the simulation and dishonesty that plagued TeleSur's Libya coverage up until now. As with the larger Bolivarian revolution, there are many, many people of conscience who see human rights and resistance as higher priorities than geopolitical alliances, so things have taken an interesting turn, to say the least. Let's hope to see more of it.
Update #2, 6:24 p.m. Friday, February 25: The saga thickens, and this is probably going to have some impact on the network's headquarters in Caracas. While the TeleSur team in rebel-held Benghazi reported that it can do its work freely among friendly crowds, the network's crew in the regime-held capital of Tripoli, TeleSur has just reported, was arrested twice today by regime forces, a crew member was beaten, a camera was seized, and during one of the arrests they were dragged out of a vehicle with Venezuelan embassy diplomatic plates. Developing...
By Al Giordano
By Al Giordano
From September 2007 to August 2009 I crossposted 26 of my stories to The Huffington Post, mostly about US politics. Most of those stories were cheerfully featured by HuffPo editors on their publication's front page. But, as time went on, I grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated, and with my sense that it was pandering to panic and poutrage in order to boost hit counts, and so I lost interest in posting there anymore.
Well, now we can see why HuffPo went in that direction.
After reading media accounts last night that Arianna Huffington had sold her online publication to America Online (AOL) for $315 million US dollars, I woke up thinking, "oh, my... and now an association with the mega-corporation AOL is going to be imposed on me?"
Not so fast.
This morning I dug up my old HuffPo password and logged in to the control panel, where I was greeted with this breathless spin:
EXCITING NEWS - The Huffington Post has been acquired by AOL, instantly creating one of the biggest media companies in the world, with global, national, and local reach -- combining original reporting, opinion, video, social engagement and community, and leveraged across every platform, including the web, mobile, and tablets. Our bloggers have always been a very big part of HuffPost's identity - and will continue to be a very big part of who we are. The HuffPost blog team will continue to operate as it always has. Thank you for being such a vital part of the HuffPost family - which has suddenly gotten a whole lot bigger.
(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield - Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)
By Al Giordano
This is the week when we've been poring over completed applications for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism that will convene in May in Mexico City. Applications for those 40 scholarships were due last Sunday, and very soon we'll be contacting the scholarship recipients and introducing them to all of you.
This year we received an unprecedented number of applications from "the other hemisphere," particularly from Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. And some of those folks will indeed be coming to Mexico in May. But with civil resistances rocking the Mediterranean in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the demand among journalists, independent media and video makers, bloggers and communicators to better understand the strategic dynamics of social movements, and to advance their skills at doing authentic journalism, is so great that we've added a four-day workshop coming up in March in Madrid, specifically for colleagues reporting in that region. And since we can't bring so many superb colleagues to the Mexican mountain, we've decided to move the Mexican mountain closer to them!
The support and partnership of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict has made our first European workshop on Citizen Journalism and Civil Resistance possible, to be held March 20 to 23 in Madrid. Applications are due on Monday, January 31 (and these applications are shorter than the extensive School of Authentic Journalism application). You're invited to apply whether or not you have already applied for the j-school (being accepted for one does not preclude being invited to both). So don't be shy. And maybe we'll see you in March, in Madrid...
Hope to see you there.