By Martha Pskowski
This writing was partially funded by the Sander Thoenes Grant at Hampshire College.
The third annual International Seminar for Reflection and Analysis took place in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico over the New Year. Hosted at Cideci-Unitierra, a free university for the indigenous people of Chiapas, presenters and participants came together from all over Latin America and the world to learn about movements against neoliberalism and for self determination and human dignity. The reference point of the Seminar was the Zapatista movement, which emerged from the rainforest of Chiapas on January 1st 1994 to challenge the neoliberal development model of the Mexican state, and to this day maintains autonomous communities in the rainforest of Chiapas. Like the Zapatistas, Seminar presenters professed to work from “de abajo y de izquierda”- from below and to the left.
Several presenters represented U.S. social movements which have allied with counterparts in Latin America. Attending as a U.S. American, I was curious to learn about my own country from the perspectives of social movements in Latin America. By applying lessons of Latin American social movements to struggles in the U.S., the Seminar built an understanding of how global politics manifest differently around the world, but consistently have the worst effects for the disadvantaged and oppressed in society. Presenters urged collaboration and solidarity between movements in the global South and North.
One group of particular interest to me was Movimiento por Justicia del Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio), an East Harlem community organization. Justicia en el Barrio is an adherent to the Sexta Declaracion de la Selva Lacandona (Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle), and the Otra Campaña (Other Campaign). These two Zapatista initiatives unite social movements and community organizations around the world under shared principles of struggle against neoliberalism and for autonomy and rights for the most marginalized in society.
Juan of Justicia del Barrio spoke of their efforts to organize in East Harlem against “neoliberal displacement.” In East Harlem, they are struggling against being displaced by the high-end apartment buildings and rent increases, and failures of repair and harassment in their current apartments. This Latino community identifies the pressure they face to leave their neighborhood as connected to the struggles of campesino and indigenous groups in Latin America who are being displaced by dams, airports, mining and other projects in neoliberal development models. Justicia en el Barrio manifested this solidarity through actions in New York in support of the community San Salvador Atenco near Mexico City, where police forces killed two protesters and sexually assaulted dozens of women in 2006. Previously, residents of Atenco had successfully organized against displacement in the construction of a luxury airport.
Justicia del Barrio takes inspiration from the Zapatista encuentros (gatherings) to host their own in Harlem, building an “urban Zapatismo.” They call these “consultas” and gather both Justicia del Barrio members, and other New York residents to discuss the struggles most relevant to the community and how to address them.
As an organization composed primarily of Mexican migrants, Justicia del Barrio takes inspiration from Mexican social movements, but also recognizes their particular struggles in Harlem. They explore how urban organizations can apply the organizing principles and strategies of campesino and indigenous movements while remaining dedicated to their local situation.
Another Seminar presenter was Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party. Douglas spoke of the community programs of the Black Panthers, the police repression they faced, and the long struggles to free and support political prisoners. Like the Zapatistas, the Panthers created alternative social services to build autonomy in their communities. They also allied with other groups fighting for racial justice in the 1970s such as La Raza.
Douglas’s opening salvo, indicative of a Black Panther gathering, “All power to the people!” resonated again through the room in the Spanish translation: “¡Todo poder al pueblo!” His remarks demonstrated the power of what may seem like unlikely alliances to strengthen liberation movements worldwide. Global capitalism facilitates the movement of capital and goods around the world, yet the movement of people and ideas is increasingly restricted. By identifying borders, the criminalization of migration, and racial conflict, as tools of those in power to oppress, these groups are creating a new way of doing politics.
This transnational approach is not without it’s struggles: all these groups have faced police repression, unsuccessful campaigns, and estrangement from political parties. Douglas explained that the Black Panthers at a certain point turned to freeing political prisoners and could devote less to their community programs. Juan of Justicia del Barrio spoke of the difficulties of their transnationality. He apologized that other members of the organization, many undocumented immigrants, could not be present: coming across the border to Mexico would risk their livelihoods in the U.S.
Listening in South-Eastern Mexico, I found profound lessons from these social movements which would in my own country. The gaze from below and to the left revealed the connections and shared struggles which the nationalist orientation of U.S. politics, both on the right and on the left, often obscures. The Seminar and the transnational social movements in attendance, fight against this logic, a necessity to building the worlds they envision.