Thursday, April 25, 2019
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Learning from the Zapatistas to fight the Fascists

I've been thinking since the weekend about how the Zapatistas would view the debate over violence by the Left today.


by Mark LeVine

I would never pretend to be an expert although I've studied them for twenty years and made several trips down there now. However, for what it's worth here's what I have seen, and come to believe based on numerous discussions with compass in the autonomous zones and intellectuals/activists who work with them (of course, they'd say that their way works for them; it's up to everyone to figure out their own way. But I do see their experiences as one example that can be followed, and that's the spirit of my comments).

1. Zapatistas are always extremely careful about the use of violence. 9 times out of 10, even when mass violence has been used against them, they respond non-violently, as we've seen after several massacres and even the murder of Sub Comandante Galeano. And even when paramilitaries constantly harass their roads and attack people, they hold their fire, literally. For them the use of violence is the waste of violence except in very specific and limited circumstances, so they are willing to absorb significant blows to maintain their integrity and strategic position. This strategy has prevailed from the launching of their first and really only full military-style assault on Jan. 1, 1994, after which they immediately declared a cease-fire and have rarely used arms since, certainly not offensively.

Indeed, my experience and my knowledge from talking to people who spend a lot of time working with the EZLN is that in Zapatista areas, except in times of full emergency/attack you almost never see a weapon of any sort, or anyone behaving militaristically. They are, for all intents and purposes, extremely pacifistic and non-violent, and indeed the whole philosophy is based on non-violence and love and creating solidarity among peoples. They are the snail--"slowly, but advancing" ("Lento, pero avanzo" it says on a mural outside the entrance to the Oventik Caracol).

They also know how to mobilize thousands of people in a very short time to demonstrate, come together, defend their lands, etc. if they want to march, they can do it very quickly and powerfully.

2. HOWEVER, the reason they can act like this is because everyone knows that that they have significant arms and are well trained and know how to and if necessary have no compunction about using them. the state has not simply gone in and ended this experiment in autonomy even though they can be a pain in the ass and constantly challenge it because they know they would be met with an insurgency that they have no hope of defeating or quashing without using so much violence that a huge share of the Mexican population and international community would oppose it.

Similarly, the paramilitaries know if they push too far, use too much violence, the Zapatistas are quite capable of hitting back with a lot of force, to the level that would force the state to step in. Moreover, the Zapatistas have amazing control over their huge swath of territory, and there's a reason why the narcos, human traffickers and the like more or less have to steer clear of Chiapas or tread very lightly. The EZLN does not put up with their territory being used for this kind of thing, and if you are strong enough to keep the narcos and human traffickers away, you are definitely not to be messed with.

3. So I think the emerging Left, AltLeft, Antifas or whatever we want to call us, should learn from the Zapatistas when it comes to violence, whether symbolic or actual. In my view they teach us to:

- Always use your voice and your feet--march, chant--before your fists and your weapons, which should be kept in reserve as a last resort. It is better to bring thousands together chanting together for their rights and for dignity for everyone than to have a few people using violence or disrupting other people's gatherings without a clear and positive visual and political narrative to offer in its place.

- Never give the impression of being undisciplined or acting irrationally, or using violence or the threat of violence that doesn't have a clear strategic purpose that is obvious to anyone who is watching it unfold. In that sense, what has become typical black bloc tactics of seemingly rampaging through areas, attacking property, etc. can often go against their strategic principles, imho, because it creates negative images and sentiments among the public without achieving a larger strategic purpose. Thus, for example shutting down Milo's appearance in Berkeley might have seemed like a victory but it ultimately energized the Right and gave them more energy to unify and attack us. There needs to be more creative and mobilized ways to protest and, if necessary, shut down inciters to violence and hatred.

- Get armed and trained, and make sure everyone knows that if push comes to shove, if the Right or the State is really willing to use violence against you, you are ready and able to defend yourself, and the cost to the other side will be so great that they will think twice about doing it. Think weapons don't matter? Why do you think the cops in Charlottesville were so hesitant to interfere against the White Nationalist/Nazi marchers? Because they were heavily armed, and once you start charging in with batons and riot gear against heavily armed people, things can go to Hell very quickly. Of course, a bunch of heavily armed black men protesting in a similar manner would probably have been met with a full-scale bloodbath, and that's why an armed movement needs to be interracial and white people have to be in the front. The Deacons of Defense, the self-defense/security group formed during the height of the Civil Rights movement, could be a good example for today. There was a 2003 movie with Forrest Whitaker that was pretty good and it's part of the history of the movement more people should be aware of.

I see the Redneck Revolt and other Left groups that have emerged that are trying to create highly trained, disciplined cadres of people who are willing to open carry, to be armed, to use whatever violence is necessary not to destroy or attack, but to defend themselves and people they are protecting, as perhaps the most important development in the Left since the anti-War movement two generations ago. Far more important than the Bernie phenomenon, which was only new at an organizational level, not at the level of ideas and policies (in fact, it's a watered down Leftwing politics at that).

- It is crucial to couple your willingness to organize militarily with a very well defined, thought-out and disciplined political ideology and discourse. Redneck Revolt has a clearly anti-capitalist discourse and has a target population (poor/working class whites, defending all progressive groups on the streets, etc.) that allows it to speak with clarity and know its tasks and keep its eye on the prize. This is precisely what has made the Zapatistas so successful. And according to Cornel West, this attitude is what saved he and other peaceful marchers this weekend from being crushed like bugs. So all respect to the defenders who kept them safe.

The difference between the US and Mexico is, of course, that the Zapatistas have always been clear that they're not trying to take over the Mexican state or get independence from it, both of which are impossible and would justify large-scale violence in return. Rather, they want autonomy and to inspire other Mexicans, and people around the world, to take control of their own affairs and build "another world that makes other worlds possible" from the ground up. It is very difficult to conceive of and engage in politics in the US, which has always been state-centric, in this manner. I think the Zapatista experience tells us to go slow, but we are quickly running out of time (at least the way we measure time; their perspective is 500 years...). They tell us to build anew in autonomous zones; such spaces are very difficult to create in a completely capitalized/monetized/commodified space of the US.

DIFFICULT, BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE. We need to fight Trump and the fascist state and its stormtroopers, but we also need to build our "alt" communities with love and solidarity from the ground up, creating spaces that are welcoming, ultimately, even to those who are blinded today by hate and lust for white power and violence. Ultimately, they are hurting too, and if we can create spaces that welcome then and recognize them, they will come to us drip by drip as the realities of their movements' failures and immorality becomes clearer.

These are just my views and to really understand what's happening in Chiapas please consider joining a local Chiapas/Zapatista solidarity/support community and join a delegation to Chiapas to see for yourself. Also, there are people with far deeper experience than I have with the EZLN who could no doubt critique and expand on my thoughts and I look forward to learning from them.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at Lund University.

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