U.S. Eyes on Oaxaca

This October 27th marks the first anniversary of the assassination of New York-based Indymedia photojournalist Brad Will by Oaxaca Mexico police under the thumb of a corrupt and tyrannical governor. Will was gunned down just outside Oaxaca City while filming a pitched battle between supporters of Governor Ulises Ruiz and members of the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO.) Brad Will, 36 at the time of the killing, was the only American among 26 victims shot by Ruiz’s police and paramilitary operatives during protests in that state in 2006. No one has been held accountable for any one of these murders.

A year after Brad’s death, those who killed him are walking the streets. No charges have ever been filed against them despite graphic evidence of their culpability. Photos of the five cops firing their weapons at Will appeared in major Mexican newspapers the day after the killing and Brad, true to his profession, never let go of his camera as he inadvertently filmed his own murder.

Indeed, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and 25 other member newspapers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies published a startling photograph of his killers on their collective front pages this past August 8th along with a 5000-word investigative report probing the circumstances of this independent journalist’s death.

Yet, although there have been repeated public denunciation of the killing by such international human rights watchdogs as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Organization of American States’ InterAmerican Human Rights Commission, neither the Mexican government nor, more pertinently, the U.S. State Department feel moved to demand justice for Brad Will. The case now molders in the cold case file and despite street protests on both sides of the border, a barrage of e-mails to both governments demanding a thorough investigation of the murder, and even a visit to Oaxaca by his bereaved family, no authority has been animated to revisit this travesty.

The failure of the U.S. government to demand accountability from Mexican president Felipe Calderon and Governor Ruiz is appalling. During this past year, the U.S. embassy in Mexico City under the direction of George Bush crony Tony Garza has been conspicuously silent about Will’s killing. In fact, the embassy’s only response to this murder since last October 27th has been to warn U.S. tourists about visiting Oaxaca. On the night Brad was killed, Garza used the opportunity to condemn the popular movement in Oaxaca, thereby green lighting then-Mexican president Vicente Fox to send in federal troops to crush the rebellion.

Brad Will was one of 20 journalists working in Mexico to have been killed or disappeared since 2000. According to a count kept by Reporters Without Borders, 81 journalists were killed worldwide in 2006. Murdering the messenger continues to be the modus operandi of repressive governments and their security forces.

Brad Will did not work for the New York Times. He was an independent voice on the frontline of social protest in Latin America and he paid a terrible price for his valiant and necessary reportage. In Mexico and further south, when those who work for social change are so martyred, we do not concede their deaths because their work is always with us. A year after his as-yet unresolved murder, Brad Will is still present.

“Brad Will–Presente!”

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The epoch struggle between dissident teachers and their allies in the popular movement against the corrupt and tyrannical governor of Oaxaca, Mexico’s most indigenous state, has endured for the past 18 months now. Hundreds have been arrested and beaten and 26 activists murdered by police and paramilitary death squads controlled by Governor Ulises Ruiz, including U.S. IndyMedia photojournalist Brad Will.

Will was not the only U.S. journalist/videographer working in Oaxaca during this prolonged and heroic struggle. Documentary maker Jill Freidberg risked life and limb to record the day-to-day triumphs and tragedies of the popular movement, filming demonstrations and meetings, interviews and the weather-beaten faces of those who stood on the barricades against the tyrannical governor.

Now Freidberg, who previously shot one acclaimed documentary in Oaxaca, “Un Granito de Arena” (“A Grain of Sand”), is traveling the U.S. with the first feature length film on the epoch struggle in that southern Mexican state, “Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad”(“A Little Bit of So Much Truth”.) New York City showings are set for Nov. 1st at St, Marks on the Bowery where Brad Will was memorialized after his tragic killing last fall, and at the NYU Silver Center on November 2nd and the Cantar Film Center 36 East 8th Street Nov. 7th.

“A Little Bit of So Much Truth” tells the story of the ups and downs of a pirate radio station set up by dissident teachers and eventually knocked off the air by Ruiz’s police. Several successor stations replaced “Radio Planton” and when they too were shut down, activists led by women took over the state television station to broadcast “a little bit of all the truth”

Freidberg has zeroed in on pirate radio before. Her celebrated “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”, the story of the historic 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, documents the founding of the Indymedia movement. Coincidentally, Brad Will, who was also at the Seattle WTO protests, was Indymedia’s first martyr.

Recently, Freidberg discussed the making of her latest documentary with me.

How did you get to Oaxaca from “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”? Tell me a little about how the demos in Seattle got you on this road?

The 1999 demos in Seattle were a turning point in collaborative independent media. It was the birthplace and testing ground for Indymedia. It was also what enabled us to make This is What Democracy Looks Like…through out work with the Seattle independent media center, we brought together footage from over 100 activist videographers who were in the streets when the WTO came to town. That was unprecedented.

Making and distributing This is What Democracy Looks Like confirmed for me that it is possible to make documentaries that expose injustice without contributing to people’s sense of despair and disempowerment; that it’s possible to make documentaries that expose injustice through stories of resistance and that contribute to dialogue and to mobilizing efforts.

So when I decided a film was needed about the impacts of neoliberal education reform, I decided to approach that issue through a story of resistance. And that put me on the path to Oaxaca….to the heart of the democratic teachers movement in Mexico, where I made the film Granito de Arena.

I understand you have been filming dissident teachers in Oaxaca for several years–why was the struggle of the maestros of Section 22 important and how did this work give you a perspective for filming events in Oaxaca during 2006?

I wanted to make a film that would be useful to educators who are confronting the impacts of neoliberal education reform (privatization of public education, standardized testing, etc); a film that could expose those injustices through stories of resistance. And the story of the teachers’ movement in Oaxaca was a classic warts-and-all example of public schoolteachers in struggle. There was the early history of the movement, when the teachers were capturing the country’s imagination with their courage, creativity, and organization. There was the more recent history, where the movement had actually declared itself in crisis because it had started losing popular support, had become more and more corrupt, and had failed to adapt its tactics. And there were current examples of teachers within the movement who were trying to confront that crisis by seeking out new ways of mobilizing, new ways of thinking about their movement and its relationship to all the other communities in struggle in Oaxaca. When I was making Granito de Arena, (“A Grain of Sand”) a lot of teachers were asking: what can the teachers do to be in struggle WITH the people of Oaxaca, as opposed to just trying to get the Oaxacan people to support and understand the teachers’ movement. A year after I finished the film, the teachers found themselves in exactly that situation….they were in the streets WITH the people of Oaxaca.

Why did you choose to focus on Radio Planton? The importance of pirate radio in the struggle? And in other struggles in Mexico and Latin America?

When I was filming for Granito de Arena, some of the teachers who were rethinking the teachers movement were discussing the possibility of creating a radio station. It would be a radio station that was created with the political and economic support of the Section 22 (the teacher union Local in Oaxaca), but that would be a radio station for and by anyone who wanted to participate. When I took Granito de Arena to Oaxaca, in May of 2005, to premiere the film during the teachers’ annual strike, they went on the air for the first time with Radio Planton. In the following year, I worked closely with the station, and what I saw was a radio station that became a space for many different communities; a space where people could feel comfortable producing programs in their indigenous languages; programs about sexual diversity; programs produced for and by children, programs produced by women discussing very delicate topics like reproductive rights and domestic violence. Radio Planton was also a training ground. Many of the people whose voices were heard on the occupied radio stations, during the uprising of 2006, got their first radio experience at Radio Planton.

I believe Radio Planton played a critical role in giving voice to the social discontent in Oaxaca, and I believe the attack on the teachers strike, in June of 2006, was in large part, an attempt to silence those voices.

When the popular movement first took shape, in Oaxaca, in 2006, I thought I was just filming a little epilogue for Granito de Arena. But when the movement started taking over radio and television stations, I knew it would be another film entirely. That’s when I decided to make Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad (A Little Bit of So Much Truth). And I chose to focus on the movement’s use of the media, throughout the Oaxaca struggle, for two reasons.

What happened in Oaxaca could not have happened the way it did, were it not for the movement having radio and television stations under its control. The spontaneous, broad-based organizing that happened was possible BECAUSE everyone was listening to, and talking on, the occupied radio stations. And the movement’s control of radio and television stations allowed a social movement, for the first time in history, to successfully counter the mainstream media’s attempts to criminalize the movement.

Social movements around the world can learn some very important lessons from the media phenomenon that emerged in Oaxaca. I think a lot of social movements are still stuck in trying to shape their “message” so they can be legitimized by the mainstream media. I also think we spend a lot of time wondering why more people aren’t politically active (why doesn’t the US have a powerful anti-war movement, for example), when the truth is that people cannot take political action when they don’t have enough information to even form an opinion. Without a diversity of community media, large-scale political mobilization ain’t gonna happen. What happened in Oaxaca can bring a lot to that discussion.

The film does an excellent job of putting Oaxaca in the context of 2006, one of the most turbulent years in recent Mexican memory. How does Oaxaca fit in? What does Oaxaca mean to the rest of Mexico?

The Mexican people have completely lost faith in the country’s institutions (electoral, judicial, financial, etc). That came to a head in 2006. And Oaxaca is a classic example of that national discontent. It’s a state that has been ruled by the PRI for almost eighty years straight; a state that has suffered the economic, cultural, and social injustices of the “perfect dictatorship.” But because of Oaxaca’s indigenous nature, it’s also a state with concrete, historic experience in popular government. Not only has the state successfully toppled four governors (prior to their current attempts to unseat governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz), but it’s the only state in the country where communities are legally allowed to practice consensus-based, indigenous governance through community assembly. Oaxaca’s refusal to accept bad government, and its experiment in alternative, popular government, was in many ways a manifestation of the social discontent brewing on a national scale.

The Oaxacan movement’s take-over and use of media outlets also resonated nationally, because the country saw how the mainstream media “fabricated consent” prior to the presidential elections…criminalizing social movements so people would vote their fear. And the country saw how the mainstream media then legitimized an illegitimate president-elect, following the massive electoral fraud that handed power to Felipe Calderon.

So when Oaxaca exploded in a popular uprising last year, it captured the rage and hope of Mexicans across the country who want to see profound change in Mexico.

Sadly, Oaxaca also became an example for the rest of the country of how the new administration will respond to non-violent social movements…with a brutality and impunity even worse than what we’ve seen from previous administrations.

What about being an internationalista in the middle of the action? With Ulises’s pirate station howling about “kill all the gringos carrying cameras”? Do you think Brad Will was singled out for execution? How did you come through unscathed? Or did you?

Right-wing, pro-government elements in Oaxaca used a very xenophobic discourse, claiming that the popular movement in Oaxaca wasn’t Oaxacan at all; that it was outsiders who were stirring up trouble in their state. That made working in Oaxaca especially difficult. Being a foreigner became a hazard rather than an advantage. And Oaxaca was basically in a media war…the movement with its radio and television stations against the media outlets in the hands of the state. That made independent journalists a target. For the ruling class in Oaxaca, this was the first time they saw the power of independent media. This was the first time that they heard of Indymedia, for example. And it scared them.

We’ll never know if Brad Will was singled out. I don’t think he was singled out in advance, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in the moment, the para-militaries targeted him because he had a camera in his hand.

I was collaborating very closely with Oaxacan media collective Mal de Ojo TV. That meant that, as things got more dangerous, we rarely went out to film alone. We were always in a group, watching each others’ backs.

So yes, I came out physically unscathed. But I think it would be impossible for anyone to come out emotionally unscathed. When the full repression was unleashed between October and December, it was unleashed against everyone and anyone, and that fear and horror and worry is hard to shake off. I still carry a lot of anxiety with me, mostly worrying about the safety of people who are very close to me, some of whom did not escape the repression.

Tell me about the title–does anyone have the whole truth?

No one has the whole truth, but lots of voices have lots of little pieces of the truth. The more voices, the more truth. The title comes directly from a statement made by one of the women who took over the state television station. She said: “We just wanted to disseminate a little bit of so much truth.”

Fans and enemies of JOHN ROSS are cordially invited to “Eye On Mexico”, a benefit to buy the author a new eye, set for New College, 777 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District Friday, Nov. 16th from 7 to 9 PM. Excerpts from Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film, also titled “Eye On Mexico”, will be shown on the big screen. Write johnross@igc.org if you have further informatio






JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org