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The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly

Kristin Bricker
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Direct Democracy
Review of The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly by Nancy Davies
Narco News Books, 2007

For five months a little corner of the globe called Oaxaca was free. A non-violent movement rose up, deposed the local tyrannical government, and replaced it with a popular assembly—all without firing a single shot.

What happened in Oaxaca in 2006 and how the APPO's continuing struggle plays out is crucial to revolutionary anticapitalists everywhere because it is an example of what could be. Governments have more firepower than those “below and to the left” could ever hope for, and still Oaxacans managed to take their lives back from a brutally repressive regime for five months. The People Decide tells how they did it, armed only with sticks, stones, the occasional Molotov cocktail, and a participatory decision-making process.

While the corporate media chased street battles, Davies followed the real story: how a striking teachers' encampment transformed into a popular assembly that governed much of the state by direct democracy. Her articles are republished as they ran in Narco News during the uprising, giving the reader the feeling of being there as it happened.

Declaring that “no leader is ever going to solve our problems,” the APPO encouraged the formation of popular assemblies at all levels of society: neighborhoods, street blocks, unions, and towns. The assemblies function by indigenous “uses and customs,” traditional consensus-based governing mechanisms. As with the Zapatistas, leaders govern by obeying the will of the people. Any leader who fails to do so is quickly removed, as has happened to a few APPO members.

Above all, the APPO is a lesson in solidarity. Whereas after four days of struggle in Seattle during the WTO protests some leaders and spokespeople of various organizations publicly denounced one another's tactics, the APPO stands strong and has never taken the focus off of its goals, no matter how ugly the situation has become. The assembly consistently declares its solidarity with Oaxacans in the struggle, its dedication to continue its civil and peaceful struggle, and its condemnation of violent police and paramilitary attacks against them. It also counts every disappeared, murdered, and arrested person and never allows them to be forgotten.

For such a diverse organization, it's amazing that the APPO never devolved into splitting hairs over the definition of a “peaceful” struggle, an obsession over tactics that is divisive and often distracts from social movements' true aims. While young people filled bottles to make Molotov cocktails and old ladies piled stones into shopping carts to defend against police and paramilitary attacks, the APPO has never threatened violence against its enemies and therefore is not an armed struggle. On the contrary, it has practiced commendable restraint in the face of disappearances, torture, and murder. However, adherents are not afraid to defend themselves and their barricades. When discussing violence in Oaxaca, the APPO always condemns the heavily-armed police and paramilitaries' disproportionately violent responses to peaceful APPO marches.

Election day

Davies argues that APPO participants are united not by issues but by methods, by their desire to replace corrupt hierarchical governing structures with traditional face-to-face democratic assemblies that existed long before colonialism and capitalism forced themselves upon Oaxaca. In this sense, the APPO represents a significant threat to neoliberalism globally. After all, if the hierarchical governing structures that maintain capitalists' control over people and natural resources can be defeated and replaced by truly democratic assemblies in one state, why not the rest of the world?

Alternative media has played an essential role in Oaxaca, which is why some of the most critical battles between APPO supporters and the police and paramilitaries have occurred at independent media centers. When the teachers' radio station Radio Planton was lost to a police attack, students took over their university radio station to keep the struggle on the airwaves. APPO members used it to broadcast meet-up points for marches, it was the best source of rumor control, and it coordinated transportation services after the governor shut down public transport.

On election day in Oaxaca, people called Radio Universidad with reports of election fraud. In response, crowds quickly surrounded the contested polling places, effectively preventing attempted ballot-stuffing by state police and refusing to allow ballots to leave until observers from all parties were present. Rather than attempting to influence the elections (the APPO rejects electoral politics), they used the fraud as a rallying cry and a show of strength so that Gov. Ruiz could not deliver his promised million votes to his party's presidential candidate.

The APPO's struggle should be carefully studied and fiercely defended because of its global ramifications. As George Salzman states in the Appendix, “The form of the struggle and the form of organizing social the key that the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca and the APPO offer the world. It is not a struggle for power over others, but one to end power relationships."