Mexico Rising: Follow the Yellow Brick Road

The waves of “Occupy Wall Street” that have swept over the U.S. this Autumn (“The American Fall”) provoked me to dig out and post articles I wrote five years ago from the first occupation of this millenium. In 2006, gigantic waves of protest swept over Mexico following the theft of the national election, culminating in a massive occupation of the main commercial areas of Mexico City that went on for months. Some of the marches involved 2 million people in Mexico City.

By Mitchel Cohen
(all photos by Mitchel Cohen & Cathryn Swan)

(Mexico City — July 30, 2006) The sea of yellow swept through the veins of Mexico City en route to the Zocalo (central square) on Sunday, the platelets returning to the heart. Yellow for clean elections; amarillo for democracy, as manifest in the candidacy of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who believes that his populist electoral victory in the presidential election three weeks ago was stolen from him and the working class and poor of Mexico who voted for him.

Unlike John Kerry, Obrador — the former mayor of Mexico City — did not disappoint the 2 million people who completely filled the Zocalo and avenues in every direction for block after block. He has presented

Part of the colorful crowd of 2 million marching

evidence of fraud at 70,000 polling places to the Supreme Court. And, as his voice echoed from loudspeakers everywhere, he called on his supporters to remain in the Zocalo (after apologizing to the thousands of street vendors who would be inconvenienced by the occupation), setting up dozens of large white tents — one for each Mexican state — for the occupyers to organize themselves and expand the protests.

It was impossible to get to the giant zocalo until long after the rally had ended and the round-the-clock vigil had commenced with cultural festivities. Three members of the Brooklyn Greens — myself, Cathryn Swan and Robert Gold — along with Mexican comrades who helped with the translation, found a shady corner a few blocks away and listened to the crowd’s cheers as Obrador announced the occupation of the central square.

Obrador’s having been mayor of Mexico City allows certain amenities to the thousands of occupyers: toilets are plentiful; arrests are minimal; local police are all smiles and supportive of the protests despite the negative media barrage that batters Obrador and his working class base on a daily basis.

Army of Toilets available to Occupyers.

Lining up for purified drinking water at Occupation

Police Officer guards truck bringing valuable water to occupyers.

Long lines for water at sunrise

Dawn over tent city -- new world meets the old

Earlier, we inched our way down Avenida Juarez, where artists had hung dozens of dramatic paintings and historic quotations about the need for democracy. A few days ago, right wing vandals slashed a number of the artworks, each around 12 feet wide. When the artists returned to repair them, they found that hundreds of people had already shown up to defend the art and people from the neighborhoods had carefully stitched each tattered canvas back together, rendering them even more dramatic.

Rightwingers slashed the artwork that lined the main boulevard. Local people rallied to defend their art, and carefully stitched the pieces back together (here, supplemented by a band-aid).

All over Mexico City, Felipe Calderon -- George W. Bush's candidate -- is villified and parodied by taking the first few letters of his first and last name and combining them into "F-E-C-A-L", as in the sign, above.


Obrador speaking to Occupyers inside the giant tents.

While the amarillo waves washed down the streets, many focused not on Obrador himself but on the need for free elections, real democracy, an end to the corruption of all of the institutional political parties. Obrador has become the symbol of that movement, that hope. Not that he will be able to solve the momentous problems Mexico faces, particularly in the face of International Monetary Fund and U.S. economic pressures (which are intense). But, they feel that at least Obrador is honest and will clean house.

It remains to be seen how this movement for democracy will play out.

Zapatista Booth.

The Zapatistas, for instance, were critical of Obrador as a candidate but many EZLN supporters were evident in the crowd demanding free elections and supporting the movement.We stopped at one EZLN tent in which Zapatista supporters displayed pictures of numerous political prisoners in Mexico and raised funds for their defense.

Other tents contained literature from scores of political organizations, and giant banners sweated their slogans in the hot Mexican sun. One political party even hung huge pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin across one section of the plaza, and elsewhere anarchist symbols and sentiments were much in evidence.

I can only wonder what would have happened in the U.S. had John Kerry or Al Gore called for protests and occupations of public spaces across the United States over the presidential elections that had been stolen from them. Would the world look very different today had they done so?

The swiftness by which both Gore and Kerry abandoned those who voted for them — those who thought they were voting against war and for civil liberties and the environment — becomes even more despicable when contrasted with the opposite approach being taken today in Mexico and the possibilities being opened up by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the working class and the poor. Even the military has become more questioning of its support for the history of scandalous electoral fraud in Mexico.

Police Officer guarding a government building. Taken from behind the fence. Note that he's reading the political page of "La Jornada," the newspaper of the Left in Mexico.

A revolution is brewing in Mexico, one that for now is non-violent, powerful, and visible everywhere. Can the movement be co-opted? Will Obrador betray his base? The Zapatistas understand that the revolution proceeds on many fronts, with the electoral itself being the least of them. (But with protests against the stealing of the election registering huge.) As of this Sunday, the revolution has taken a giant step forward. What will happen tomorrow is anyone’s guess. But, for now, these are very exciting times, and the hopes of a huge swath of humanity rides on the ability of the Mexican people to reclaim liberty, not only for themselves but for the rest of us as well.


All women-cops huddle at protest (Affinity Group?).

Police with plexi-glass shields.

TUES AUG 1, 2006 — You wouldn’t believe how great it is here, for now, in Mexico City.

Thousands of campesinos are occupying the zocalo and are branching out to various targets. Today several hundred are blockading the central Mexican Bank, and it is closed down.

Occupyers at Bank of Mexico shut down central Bank.

I’ve been taking a gazillion pictures for Z mag, Counterpunch and elsewhere, and have surprisingly met a couple of NY friends who have snuck down here too. We were interviewed in the rightwing newspaper Excelsior, which will be out tomorrow with our pictures and words.

The traffic is going crazy. I’ve seen many instances of road rage, as campesinos’ horse-drawn carts are starting to clog the streets.

Horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars, vendors and of course "occupyers" all meet at main intersections in Mexico City. Traffic is a nightmare even when it is not being intentionally blocked.

The local police have been extremely friendly (unlike NYC) but not so the National police. The whole center of the city is in chaos …. Artists are bursting out everywhere, there’s a sign-up sheet to perform on the main stage with full band back-up. Woodstock comes to Mexico …..

Literally millions of dollars are pumped into this movement by Obrador … where is it coming from? The literally hundreds of tents that completely cover several miles (literally) of avenues. Music all night long, around 8,000 people last night building platforms to sleep on, children’s areas, etc. Democracy in action.

Complete media blackout on TV here, except for la Jornada.


AUGUST 3, 2006

Check out my article on Mexico City in Counterpunch ….

Cathryn and I just met with the owner of a terrific organic market and restaurant in Coyacun section of Mexico City — near Leon Trotsky’s  and Frida Kahlo’s houses.

The roof is made of solar panels (not mounted ON the roof —  they ARE the roof), and they feed electricity back into the grid. We are in the process of linking the owner, Bensi (who is from Venezuela), up with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, where Yolanda is organizing women’s cooperatives who weave baskets and grow organic cactus (Nopales, the healthiest thing in the world to eat, and invisible in the northeast U.S.) as they wait years for their husbands to return from picking crops in the U.S., and Attahuelpa is working with indigenous communities on pesticides and other serious environmental problems (such as the arsenic-poisoned water).

I am sad to be leaving here in a few days, so much to do … and everyone here is so very friendly, supportive, and feeling positive ….


Memorial for Slain students in 1968

AUGUST 6, 2006 — Cathryn and I visited the site in Mexico City where a number of anti-war students were murdered in 1968. Needless to say, as I was 19-years-old at that time and head-over-heals immersed in the anti-war and liberation movements, this was a very strange and very moving experience.

The plaza itself was a large barren “nothing”, at the foot of a 400 year-old church, and the remnants of the fort where indigenous people held off Coronado and his troops in the 1500’s, who were attempting to subjugate them.

At one end of the broken-tiled plaza stood a simple stone with the names and ages of the 1968ers who were murdered. Two couples were making out at its base. I wrote a note in memory of the students at Kent State, Jackson State and Mexico City, and somehow pushed it between two large stone blocks. As we were leaving, other pilgrims from Italy arrived and meditated on the significance of all those who have given their lives — actually, whose lives have been stolen — in the cause of peace and anti-imperialism.

The weird part had to do with the Soviet-style architecture that surrounds the entire area, giant drab cement ice-cube trays so jarring when framed against the glorious Spanish colonial architecture that abounds here.

When we returned to our friend Elina’s and Cuauhtemoc’s house for dinner,

Cauhotemac, Cathryn & Elina

we learned that the top election court here decided not to do a full review of all the ballots, but only a sample of 10 percent, which means the occupation of the City’s center is continuing. We just returned from the mile-long tented avenue, where hundreds of people staffed tables and were singing, talking politics and poetry even as late as 1 a.m. when we left.

Sunday morning at 11 a.m. Lopez Obrador will be again addressing the tens of thousands of people in the Zocalo, and we will know at that time what further actions will be taken, and whether the occupation will be terminated or continued.

After Obrador's speech, Javier, Elina and Cathryn (and I!) decide it's time for dessert!



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