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Violence overshadows nonviolence in Peru

Indians of the central Peruvian jungle block the highway in Andahuaylas, east of Lima

Indians of the central Peruvian jungle block the highway in Andahuaylas, east of Lima

The use of nonviolence by Amazon Indians in Peru has been almost completely obscured by news coverage in the West. Indigenous groups have been blocking roads and rivers for nearly two months to protest the government’s free-trade agreement with the United States. But it wasn’t until the situation erupted into violence two weeks ago (due to police provocation) that the protesters received significant coverage. Unfortunately, that coverage, by the major media outlets, didn’t focus on the near two months of nonviolent protest preceding the violence or the unjust trade agreement that allows for private companies to exploit ancestral land for oil, gas and other development. Instead, the media focused on the violence. And, in doing so, it managed  to further obscure the truth.

John Gibler, a journalist based in Mexico, wrote a piece for Amazon Watch on Friday that explains how papers like the LA Times and NY Times overlooked basic facts, confused storylines and ignored the indigenous voice in its coverage.

The initial media response to the violence obscured the order and nature of events and thus the responsibility for violence, converting a bloody police raid into generic “clashes.” The Peruvian government has in turn attempted to recast state violence as the necessary response to “terrorism” with insidious speculative claims linking the indigenous protesters with an array of demonized outsiders, and the media have largely lent the government a hand in this task by widely and uncritically reporting their insinuations and slander.

What has been missing, and what is urgently needed, to understand what happened are precisely the voices and testimonies of the indigenous participants in the roadblock, the victims of the initial attack, and witnesses to the full unfolding of events from police raid to self-defense to the police cover-up operations, using helicopters to dump the bodies of slain indigenous protesters into the Maranon River.

The rest of Gibler’s article goes into greater detail on a lot of these points. My only problem is that he gives too much justification to the protesters’ use of violence in their self-defense. While it is extremely important to note that the police ignored pleas for dialogue and killed 40 or more mostly unarmed indigenous protesters, their violent self-defense led to the deaths of 22 police officers and as a consequence nearly ruined their hard fought struggle for justice. As Dr. King once said, “When violence is tolerated even as a means of self-defense there is grave danger that in the fervor of emotion the main fight will be lost over the question of self-defense.”

Fortunately for the Amazon Indians, Prime Minister Yehude Simon, a former left-wing activist appointed to help President Alan Garcia improve relations with indigenous groups, stepped forward this week and promised to exert his influence over Congress to get the laws in question revoked. Simon also announced that he will resign once the crisis settles and is seeking forgiveness from the protesters over their losses. It still seems like a ways from being settled, but nonviolence has helped progress the situation this far.