Learning from the Zapatistas – a Report

Taking the Zapatista uprising as an example Jorge DS explained what we can learn from the their use of narrative and rhetoric in making social change. Jerry Afriyie (Nederland Wordt Beter/KOZP) and Harriet Bergman (Code Rood) reflected on their own experiences in the Netherlands. This is a report by a member of the audience of the event: Constructing narratives for change / Learning from the Zapatistas

Jorge: Started organizing on Dutch-Mexican solidarity issues 2.5y ago when the Mexican president came to visit the Netherlands. The SMX Collective started organizing protests and researched if they could sue Rabobank for money laundering of Mexican drug cartels.

Jerry: founded Nederland Wordt Beter as an answer to the racism that he faces in the Netherlands. Police violence, racism in schools are a few examples of issues that need to be addressed in the Netherlands.

Harriet: part of artist collective Fossil Free Culture an civil disobedience climate organisation Code Rood. Both work towards obstructing the fossil fuel industry as much as possible, and to normalise civil disobedience.

Jorge: The Zapatistas became famous when they declared war against the state of Mexico 25 years ago. They have three main pillars. The first one is fire, or arms struggle, as they had an armed confrontation with the army that lasted for 12 days. The second one is words/autonomy, as they always tried to have autonomy of their narrative. Not striving for some big far away ideal, but having a clear story about how this impacts their own lives. The third pillar is organisation. They have always been anti authority, and making sure that everyone can contribute to their organisation. They have always had some internal contradictions that they’ve also showed. The most clear one perhaps is that they have to fight with arms for peace, another example is that they had to cover their faces to be seen. They never claimed to have one big answer for a big problem, but they question smaller things. Words matter, how we frame things and how we say things matter. Discourse can discriminate and destroy, but can also set a tone, create possibilities.

Mexico had the chance to enter a trade agreement with the US (North American Free Trade Agreement – NAFTA). The discourse was that this would make a first world country out of Mexico. There was only one problem, they had to change the constitution which resulted in the campesinos (farmers) becoming illegal squatters on their own land. That was the reason to start the war. So why a war declaration, and not just a press release? A war creates an opportunity for other international organisations to respond to it, it can not just be dismissed as a minor rebellion. A legal aspect of it is that the state would not just be denying human rights, but also committing war crimes. They had clear demands: they wanted health care, freedom, democracy. The first reaction of the civil society of Mexico was to take the streets and protest: for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. This put some pressure on the government. Regardless the government discarded this is a takeover of outsiders who instructed the indigenous people, and that they were professionals of violence. They had a really strong response that showed that this system of oppression is not really helpful for everyone, and that they just wanted a piece of land to grow food to fill their stomachs.

Merel: How do you use narrative in your campaigns?

Harriet: In both the struggle of the Zapatistas and the struggle against climate change, it’s a complicated story but not difficult. People die, that sucks, it should stop. People find it hard to engage with a narrative that is difficult. So more information is not always helpful to broaden a movement. How do you transform from a local struggle into a big movement? An inspiring movement can spark more protests.

Jerry: when you engage in a social movement, you need to have a story to tell. It is not about being right, being right is only for yourself. If the truth would have set us free, we would have been free a long time ago. We can ask for a better world, but do we know what we ask for? What does that look like? Do we really want that? What is interesting about the Zapatistas is what their job is. Their accomplishments will be known, will be written in history books, but what did they have to do? If we look at Zwarte Piet is Racisme, we need more words, less arms. Since the people that we are fighting, are our mothers, our brothers, our sisters and the oppressive ideas that are in their minds.

What can the Zapatistas offer to the world? It is not a ready made model, it is more like a mirror. You cannot copy paste their struggle and just pick up arms and go to The Hague tomorrow. You can learn from their mistakes, but you have to look at your own situation.

Merel: How do you talk to different audiences?

Jorge: You have to identify what you have in common with different audiences and exploit that. Have in mind that your communication is not one way, but it is a dialogue. Yet always have control over your narrative; it is easy bend your ideals to try to please the press.

Harriet: Identify what you want to communicate, as often the communication gets stuck on ‘this is a problem’. For Code Rood for instance this meant that since you are fully struggling for climate justice, you also support other anti-racist movements. They supported Kick Out Zwarte Piet on their social media, even though this disengaged local Groninger people who mainly care about the safety of their house.

Jerry: be true to yourself and always have the same narrative. I don’t have a different message for black people and for white people. Like whether you’re rich or poor, you understand that I want to eat today. That’s something human everyone can understand. Maybe you want your house to be clean, but if someone else’s house is on fire you can understand that you don’t want your house to be on fire.

The Dutch government is making laws with Kick Out Zwarte Piet in mind, the movement is seen as a terrorist movement. The only black freedom fighter that is accepted is a dead one. So the only protest that will be seen as peaceful, is one where I am dead. So to be mentioned as a terrorist is actually a compliment. I don’t need to say I’m not a terrorist, because I am not. If you look at my actions you can see that I’m not.

Harriet: the focus on narrative is hard, because it always asks for people to be reasonable. And if we’re heading full speed towards a cliff, the only reasonable action is to pull the breaks. And currently the only reasonable thing to, is much more ‘extreme’ than what we are doing right now. We need to shift the middle ground on what ‘reasonable’ is. So we need to do as many actions against climate change as possible, and we need to be there with everyone at the next intact of Sinterklaas, not just with a small group. If we show how angry and how hopeful you are, maybe people will understand that what currently is seen as extreme, is actually very reasonable.

An important audience note: the term indigenous only applies when you are born on this land, but your country got occupied and ‘indigenous’ is what you are reduced to. So if we compare the struggle of the Zapatistas with the Dutch struggles, we need to keep in mind that Dutch people are not indigenous.

Final notes:

Harriet: come to the big climate demonstration on the 10th of March

Jerry: look at what you can do yourself. Racism is not a problem of black people, is a problem of white people. We have just been so kind to help you.

Jorge: remain autonomy over your narrative, don’t dilute or change it.