Mexico’s students today and the spirit of ’68

September 26, 2018

Earlier this month, 50 years after the state massacre of students involved in a pro-democracy movement in 1968, students at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City went on strike to protest a September 3 campus attack against protesters, in which two students were seriously injured.

The horrific attack was carried out in broad daylight by a violent group of hooligans, known as “porros.” In response, a massive, strong student movement has emerged, coinciding with the anniversary of the emergence of the student movement of 1968.

Historically, porros emerged as hooligans linked to American football teams in Mexico’s universities and high schools. However, they are associated with state violence. During 1968, porros were controlled by the military. Later, they became agents of the state, serving the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In recent years, porros have operated as thugs for hire, and some of their leaders have posts in government and university administrations.

The recent attacks took place in the main campus of UNAM, in front of the administrative building and with collusion of security and university authorities. These provocateurs sought to disperse a small protest by high school students. (UNAM’s campuses have some 350,000 students, with 115,000 at the equivalent of high school level.)

The reaction from students has been decisive. The violent attack has unleashed a new student movement demanding action to uproot these right-wing gangs from the universities, as well as the resignation of university authorities complicit in the attacks.

In a statement, Edgard Sánchez Ramírez, a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT) in Mexico, discusses the claims that the current student movement is seeking to sabotage the transition of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The statement was translated from Spanish by Brian M. Napoletano and Héctor A. Rivera.

WITH GREAT joy and surprise, we are witnessing the resurgence of a strong and massive student movement that, in an historical paradox, coincides with the actions of the popular student movement of 1968, which is not limited to the tragic massacre of October 2 in Tlatelolco. Conscious of the symbolism, the Interuniversity Assembly called for a street demonstration on September 13, along the same route of the historic “March of Silence” of September 13, 1968.

But alongside this surprising resurgent student movement, there have also emerged various attempts to explain its origins with the old conspiracy theories favored by the anti-communist government of president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños in 1968.

Thousands of University students in Mexico City strike against far-right violence
Thousands of University students in Mexico City strike against far-right violence (Judith Flores | Facebook)

The obsession of these conspiracy theorists was given expression in the assault of the porros on students of CCH Azcapotzalco [one of UNAM’s technical high schools] who were protesting in front of the Torre de Rectoría [the offices of the university administration] on September 3.

Responses to the aggression in the hours following the attack took the form of a multitude of student assemblies in various schools and faculties, and a massive mobilization that descended on Ciudad Universitaria (CU, the main campus of UNAM) on September 5. Strikes and student protests immediately began that week, and the Interuniversity Assembly was formed with representatives of universities, schools and faculty involved in the movement.

Faced with the dimension of the movement that is emerging, some analysts emphasize the catalyst that triggered it: the brutal and unanticipated aggression of the porros against the original protest by the students of the CCH Azcapotzalco rallying around demands related to that campus. Since the attack, students have sought what they call “the hand that rocks the cradle,” which is to say, the intellectual authors of the aggression that sent these porros to launch an attack in the middle of the CU, in front of the media and students documenting the events on social media.

The September 3 attack is undoubtedly bizarre, both in its savagery (with many young people injured, including two seriously injured: an undergraduate student from the Faculty of Philosophy and a high school student from Preparatoría 6) and in the disproportionate nature of the aggression, which was carried out in broad daylight, rather than a back alley near the school, where porros routinely rob and attack students.

It would seem that the intent was to deliver a political message, rather than the attackers failing to check the level of arbitrary aggression — an impression strengthened by the presence of UNAM officials, who appear in the videos in constant communication with the porros as they launched their attacks.

The problem with such speculation and the emphasis on finding “the hand that rocks the cradle,” however, is that it tends to discredit the movement itself, as if the movement were somehow the result of the provocation, and is following an agenda set by the authors of the initial aggression.

IRRESPECTIVE OF the initial incident and the interests of those who provoked it, we must defend the legitimacy and independence of the emerging movement. The students who have mobilized in assemblies and marches, as well as the comrades joining and supporting them, be they teachers, university employees or other sectors in struggle, are forming an authentic and legitimate movement for their own demands.

The demands that have emerged include, first of all, a condemnation of the September 3 attacks by the administration; punishment of the responsible parties; and uprooting porros from within the university. Besides these, new and broader demands have also emerged organically from the movement, based on existing social conditions, not as the result of some Machiavellian plan or conspiracy.

With respect to 1968, it should be remembered that the historic student movement of that year began in response to the attacks by porros at Isaac Ochoterena High School and at the Vocational High School near the Ciudadela in downtown.

The attacks of the porros prompted a protest by students of the National Polytechnic Institute that coincided with a meeting in the Alameda commemorating the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution on July 26. These aggressions orchestrated by the police spilled into the old university neighborhood (back then located near the Zócalo) and ended with the military occupation of High School Number 1, after a bazooka destroyed the door of the High School of San Ildefonso.

Everything began with the aggression of the porros and police between July 22 and 26. The conspiracy theorists then insisted on looking for “the hand that rocks the cradle” to determine what the instigators hoped to achieve by their provocations (even going so far as to suggest that garbage cans in the center of the city “just happened” to be filled with rocks so that the students could defend themselves).

But irrespective of the initial incident and the intentions of its authors, an authentic and legitimate movement emerged, with its own program, its own leadership and its own methods of struggle, such as mass demonstrations and rallies. All of this emerged as a fight for democratic liberties in the face of the suffocating, repressive and authoritarian climate of the PRI government.

MEXICO’S PRESIDENT of that period, Díaz Ordaz, insisted on his own conspiracy theory, maintaining that the movement was the product of “foreign agitators,” troublemakers and provocateurs trying to boycott the Olympics or to destabilize the country and its institutions. It should not be forgotten that his right hand was the then-Secretary of the Interior Luis Echeverría, who is still alive and continues to enjoy impunity, along with several members of the his cabinet who held important positions in the PRI government and who remain politically active today.

Since then, porros have existed as shock troops, posing as football hooligans, but actually trying to control students through violence and force. The other mechanisms of political control and co-optation were the Student Federations and Student Unions, structures controlled by the PRI regime. These structures largely disappeared with the emergence of the movement of 1968 and the Committees of Struggle, but porros did not disappear, and have been inherited by succeeding governments and university administrations.

Coincidentally, when the Party for the Democratic Revolution (PRD) assumed the mayor’s office in Mexico City in 1997, another component of its degeneration and institutionalization was its inheritance of porro groups, particularly in the high schools and certain districts of Mexico City, where PRD groups created their own “shock troops,” just like the PRI and corrupt union bosses had done in the past. Since the last election, we have seen these groups attack their former colleagues who are now in the President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) MORENA party.

For these reasons, those who insist on conspiracy theories today believe that “the hand that rocks the cradle” must belong to the losers of the last elections: the PRI, PRD and the conservative National Action Party (PAN). They argue that the objective of these provocateurs is to sabotage the smooth transition that AMLO has offered, one without upheavals, ruptures or crises, maintaining the investments and confidence of the business community, and without “revenge,” but rather reconciliation.

The problem is that there are followers of AMLO who are “more papists than the Pope,” and who consider that any struggles or demands are imprudent, provocative or inconvenient in light of the smooth transition to which AMLO has committed himself.

They insult the movement and claim to find it suspicious that there are movements fighting today that — according to their assertions — did not fight against the government of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto or others.

Willfully ignorant, they do not know that, for example, the struggle against the new airport in Mexico City began 18 years ago during the Vicente Fox administration, and this movement faced the repression of May 2006, when Peña Nieto was the governor of the state of Mexico. They are also willfully ignorant that said airport is part of a neoliberal project backed by governments of all political parties.

In light of this, conspiracy theorists fail to understand that the triumph of AMLO and Moreno in the last presidential elections represents a change in the relationship of forces and popular consciousness after countless struggles against the neoliberal reforms and violence imposed by the previous governments, which led to popular discontent with the PRIAN (PRI/PAN/PRD regime) that was expressed at the polls on July 1. Prior to the elections, struggles occurred parallel to and frequently in conflict with the electoral campaigns.

As a result, these struggles will continue after the elections, and will take advantage of the weakening of the PRI’s patronage networks following its profound electoral defeat and before a new corporatism emerges that attempts to subdue and subordinate the movement.

THE EMERGING student movement has these independent and authentic characteristics. Beyond the attacks of September 3, the movement is fed by previous discontent and struggles that detonated in a massive explosion. It is not just the attack of September 3. It is the daily presence of porros in the high schools and colleges.

Essentially, this is why it is not sufficient to expel a dozen porros, imprison some of them and dismiss some of the low-ranking officials administering them; rather, the entire structure must be dismantled. This structure receives monetary support from university officials and from local governments governed by the PRI and PRD. Dismantling this structure also points to the necessary struggle for democratization of the university (and other educational institutions, as the struggle of the National Polytechnic Institute from a few years ago demonstrates).

The financial crisis in which various state universities are embroiled is also a source of mobilization — which is already being expressed — in the new student movement. This goes beyond demands to hand over the necessary resources to the universities, and is part of the struggle against the privatization of education and for a free, secular education.

But violence is not limited to the porros. The other issue following the protests of the comrades of the CCH Azcapozalco is that of violence against women. Since well before September 3, a strong movement of women and young students has emerged denouncing the sexual harassment and intimidation from teachers, school administrators and other students.

This sexual violence has even gone as far as femicide on the university campus itself, as the case of the murder of student Lesvy Berlín Rivera Osorio constantly reminds us. These previous struggles are part of a new surge in the women’s movement and feminism expressed not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America (the mobilizations in Argentina, for instance), in the U.S. (the mobilization of women against Trump) and worldwide.

The theory that there is a conspiracy to destabilize AMLO’s smooth transition does not account for such a broad movement. Today’s movement is like that of 1968, which preceded or was part of the youth mobilization against the Vietnam War, the French May of 1968 and the Prague Spring.

It is no coincidence that the September 5 protests had important, if not a clear majority, of contingents of young women, nor is it a coincidence that the Interuniversity Assembly approved as one of its central demands the fight against gender violence, sexual harassment and femicide.

In the days that follow, the Interuniversity and other assemblies will define their own program of struggle. Just as in 1968, it should come as no surprise if these demands go beyond internal academic issues to more general political demands in the struggle for democratic rights and freedom. A review of the “Six-Point Petition” of 1968 shows that the importance of the student movement then is that it rapidly moved beyond internal academic issues.

The most important thing is that the current movement has reclaimed the avenue of mass direct action in the streets and on university campuses, rather than limiting itself to flawed electoral and parliamentary processes, and a respect for decorum and reconciliatory transitions.

At the moment, the movement’s members have already shown signs of energy, creativity and joy typical of mass student movements. In the march on September 5, the School of Music came out interpreting [Giuseppe Verdi’s revolutionary opera] Nabucco.

Meanwhile, women marched in their own independent contingent and won a demand at the general assembly of the Faculty of Philosophy that the campus occupation designate a floor exclusively for women. At the same time, on social media, students have generated countless political memes, posters and diverse messages of struggle.

There was also the massive live-streamed transmission of the general assembly of the Interuniversity Assembly to five different auditoriums on campus, reaching more than 5,000 students. The debates in this assembly finalized the first declaration and lasted until 7 a.m. the following morning.

This generation of students is also using the methods of expression and organizational forms they have learned from the support brigades for the victims of last year’s September earthquakes, as well as the agitational efforts to obtain signatures for Marichuy’s [María de Jesús Patricio Martínez] campaign, with its anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal character.

With new and modern resources that did not exist in 1968, these students are quickly recovering the rebellious, radical, cheerful and subversive spirit of 1968. They are building an inclusive program in all their demands, as well as democratic methods of organizing like those of 1968, not excluding anyone, and unified around a base of mass mobilization.

Translation by Brian Napoletano and Héctor Rivera.

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