• Excerpt

Lessons on overcoming fear from the overlooked 2003 global justice victory in Cancún

Fear leads to confusion and division, but — as the 2003 global justice mobilization in Cancún showed — solidarity and courageous action are powerful deterrents.
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The following excerpt is from Lisa Fithian’s new book “Shut It Down: Stories From a Fierce, Loving Resistance” and is reprinted with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

The 2003 global justice mobilization in Cancún, Mexico, is a relatively untold story, though the ministerial conference there collapsed, just as in Seattle. At that time in the United States, there was a debate about local versus global activism, with some making the argument that international summit-hopping was just for the privileged few. Many chose to stay home. This was unfortunate, because local organizers in the Global South could have benefited from material support from the Global North, and organizers from the Global North could have benefited from the wisdom of the indigenous resistance.

I became involved via my participation in the Root Activist Network of Trainers, or RANT, a small trainers collective founded in 2000 by Starhawk, Hilary McQuie and myself. Star and I attended an international planning meeting in Mexico City in November 2002 that included representatives from 89 Mexican organizations and 53 international ones from 16 countries [spanning Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.]

There was a general consensus that agricultural and environmental policy, including GMO policy, protection of forests, and energy extraction, should not be governed by the World Trade Organization, or WTO. The call to defend the water, forests and food sovereignty — defined as the right to eat, produce and decide agricultural policies locally — was very strong. An overall strategy was articulated that included support for developing countries to resist the WTO, breaking consensus between the European Union and United States on key issues, national civil society campaigns, and mass mobilization and street protest.

Starhawk and I traveled extensively to support the mobilization. We worked with a group of youth from Mexico City who formed the Global Alliance S9. Their slogans were “We Say No to Institutional Violence” and “We Support Legitimate Self Defense.” We did a big training with them, and Star and I still remember the dirty, sweat-filled wrestling mats we slept on in a gym. RANT raised over $10,000 to pay for buses to take them to Cancún. These students were inspiring and experienced, sophisticated organizers. We also met with organizers and local activists in Cancún, many of whom were working with a global network of NGOs called Our World Is Not for Sale, along with Puente a Cancún (Bridge to Cancún), a collaborative of Mexican, Irish and U.S. activists. La Vía Campesina, the international peasants movement, was a big player, bringing thousands of campesinos to the mobilization.

Cancún mirrors many problems and realities that the neoliberal world brings, especially the extremes of wealth and poverty. This land, on the northeast tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and historically inhabited by Mayan people, was mostly undeveloped prior to the 1970s, when the Mexican government decided to develop this lush, tropical region as a tourist destination. Today it is comprised of Cancún Centro, a city center on the mainland, and a resort area along a narrow strip of land that juts into the Caribbean. The former is a poor working-class city while the peninsula is a playground for the rich.

In advance of the mobilization, we rented a four-story white building near Parque de las Palapas, the main city center park, to house our art making, meetings and legal support — along with a nearby house for the medics and a big space for the media center. Another location, Casa de Cultura, had large meeting spaces and was where the La Vía Campesina contingent would be sleeping. Together we partnered with a group of young punks from Mexico City to construct a model eco-village in the open fields to the north of Casa de Cultura. (In advance of the summit, they had given us a tour of their permaculture projects in the south of Mexico City.) In the fields we constructed solar showers, a solar oven, an educational display, and ingenious handwashing stations that used collected rainwater and a bike pump with funnels for basins that recycled that water back into the soil. This was real infrastructure that supported La Vía Campesina during their stay in Cancún, while also educating the thousands of people who came through that space about low-cost, simple systems to reproduce in their own communities.

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[The first day of the ministerial was marked by the death of Lee Kyung-hae, president of the Federation of Farmers and Fishermen of Korea, who took his own life in protest of the WTO’s trade policies on South Korean farmers.] On the second day, we went forward with a powerful, youth-led, fiery night march filled with the clanging of pots and pans. It was called a cacerolazo, which was first used in Chile in 1971 during protests against food shortage. When this march approached Kilometer Zero and the memorial [to Brother Lee that was] under way, it went dead silent as everyone raised their fists in the air.

We were more determined than ever to get into the Hotel Zone. The unique geography of Cancún made it easy for the government to keep us out; there were only two roadway entrances to the narrow strip of beach, one coming from the airport to the south, the other from the mainland to the north. It was nearly impossible for us to figure out an effective action from the south, and the government erected not one but two security fences to the north. The first, at Kilometer Zero, was breached the first day. The second, more elaborate fence was about a third of a kilometer farther down the road. We did not think we could break that fence or actually get to the ministerial itself. We were wrong.

It didn’t seem realistic to enter the Hotel Zone en masse, but a smaller, disruptive action seemed possible if we could get into the zone. Our planning meetings were exhausting. Ideas arose, then fizzled out as the tactical impossibilities were discussed. Then a plan emerged — Operation Ballpark! What if we went into the zone as tourists? We could enter in small groups of just two or three, dressed the part, then converge around the Hard Rock Cafe and blockade the road next to the convention center. We would do this at dinnertime, when the ministerial’s delegates would be out and about at nearby restaurants.

Early that evening Star, Juniper, our friend Brush and I drove in our rental car down Boulevard Kukulcan, easily passing through the checkpoint. We watched as the beautiful jungle scenery gave way to hotels, sparse at first, then densely packed. We parked near the Hard Rock Cafe and got some ice cream — great cover, and one of Star’s favorite things. Looking around, I saw others from our group milling about, staging as tourists, getting out of taxis, browsing at souvenir shops. So far, so good.

Abruptly, as planned, a group of young folks bolted into the road. Taking their lead, the rest of us flowed into the streets. Out of inconspicuous tourists’ bags we pulled drums and bags of seeds. Some drummed and chanted, some sat down across the road, some danced in a spiral around two fruit trees, calling on the elements of earth, air, fire and water to be with us. We called on spirit to help in the healing of the environment against the ravages of globalized corporate industry. The road was blocked.

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I called our media team to let them know we had taken the road, and they called some of our friends inside the ministerial, including Antonia Juhasz from the International Forum on Globalization who joined us in the street. She and other representatives with mainstream NGOs were credentialed to attend the meetings. Soon the media arrived and the sidewalks filled with onlookers. The police stood at the periphery, not making a move. As the evening grew dark, we gathered in an impromptu spokes council to decide our next move. Luke Anderson, a writer and organizer from California, urged everyone to acknowledge that we had achieved our goal and that it was wiser to be part of another action tomorrow than to go to jail. Part of the art of action is knowing when to end an action, and to me, this was a clear ending point. Much to our surprise, the police offered two luxury buses to transport us back to wherever we wanted to go. Those without cars took the buses back to Kilometer Zero.

That night, we gathered together and worked late with the Koreans, discussing plans to tear down the second security fence. I was skeptical, but the Koreans were confident it could be done. They were unyielding, carrying a fierceness I can only describe as the spirit of Brother Lee working through them. They presented the plan of using ropes to tear down the fence, and a Mexican woman proposed that the women should go first, cutting the fence to weaken it before the ropes. I was thrilled. We had been dealing with a lot of sexism, part of the Mexican culture and also deeply rooted in some of the international male organizers, including some from the States, who had arrived in Cancún full of arrogance, assuming leadership in pretty unskillful ways. There had been growing frustration among the women.

We presented our plan to the delegates assembly at La Casa de Cultura the next morning, and much to our surprise they all agreed. I raced to the nearest hardware store and bought every bolt cutter they had, along with wire cutters and heavy-duty pliers.

By 10 a.m. we were ready. Thousands of us marched toward Kilometer Zero, including thousands of indigenous people in their beautifully woven clothes. The Koreans wore their tan vests and floppy sun hats, the students sang and banged on drums, and the Infernal Noise Brigade, from Seattle, brought great energy to the march. Several pushed the giant puppet my friend Gan Golan had built of Chac — the Mayan god of rain, thunder and lightning — and we asked for Chac’s support as we traveled the road that led to the ministerial.

At Kilometer Zero we paused to honor Brother Lee, then walked toward the new fence that had been erected 100 meters closer to the Hotel Zone. The women coalesced into formation, row upon row of us wearing bandannas around our foreheads or as masks. We had learned from the Zapatistas that masking your face is a way to be seen. Before reaching the fence, we linked arms, feeling happy, excited and free. There was a crack of thunder and a brief rain poured down, cooling us all. The gods were with us! We were in our full power as we chanted “Bella Ciao,” an Italian anti-fascist song of resistance. Years later, I realized how appropriate it was in light of Lee’s suicide.

The fence was just ahead, and it was formidable. Massive sections of thick, chain-linked metal were reinforced from behind with eight-foot boxes of steel and topped with barbed wire. Behind that were barricades, then battalions of riot police. I passed the tools out to the women and, singing our hearts out, we cut and unscrewed. The police did nothing, perhaps having confidence in the steel wall between us. Little by little, section by section, we weakened the chains and the links. As we worked, the men behind us kept pushing forward, wanting to break through the fence before it was ready to come down. Other men held the impatient ones back until we had completed our work.

Lisa Fithian pulling the ropes attached to the police barricades. (Chelsea Green Publishing)

Next it was the Koreans’ turn. Several of them came forward and tied the rope to the fence, then stretched the long ropes out into the crowd. When the ropes were tied tightly to the fence and secured in everyone’s hands, the man at the front yelled, “Pull!”

The road was wide open before us, along with hundreds of riot police with their water cannons, tear gas, and Darth Vader suits, plus the brown-clothed, unarmed peasants the police had conscripted to add to their numbers. There was a moment of stillness, as nobody, police and demonstrator alike, had planned for what would happen next. We all sat down, forming rows as the Koreans lit candles in the road. We held this space for about an hour, then the Koreans led a chant, “Down, Down, WTO,” as we all rose together, drumming and singing. We marched back to Kilometer Zero, marching with joy, giving all we could to say “No Más, No More, the WTO Must Go.”

The ministerial itself was several kilometers away. We would not get there, but we didn’t need to. We had opened the way, a political space that the state had closed.

The next morning, news came that the Kenyan delegates — representing the desires of the Group of 22 developing nations — refused to go along with the WTO’s agricultural deal. They walked out, and the ministerial collapsed, again. There would be no deal. It was an overwhelming sight to behold as our beloved community at Kilometer Zero broke out in joy, hugging, singing, crying and dancing.

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In Cancún, we demonstrated peacefully and powerfully with our humanity, our creativity and our hearts. Unlike in Prague and Genoa, the police did not attack, and therefore there was no violence. We voiced our opposition to the WTO through action, and the delegates inside the ministerial were emboldened to step away from deals that would have continued to do harm to their people and their lands.

A few months later, in November, we mobilized again against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, at a summit in Miami. This led to the final unraveling of the deal we had first protested in Quebec. Bolstered by our street actions and emboldened by the growing collaborations and solidarity within the global justice movement, delegations inside the negotiating rooms from Central and South America said no. The FTAA was finished for good.

These lessons from the global justice movement are needed now more than ever. With the rise of right-wing populism, many are afraid of violence, and fear leads to confusion and division. It is the empire’s most powerful tool for social control. We may be afraid, but we can still act. We don’t all have to agree on the best way forward, and we can work together with respect and agreements. There is no one way; there are many ways. This is what the Zapatistas have taught us: “One no, many yeses.” Our solidarity despite our differences in the midst of courageous, creative and collective action is the sweet spot where the greatest changes are possible.

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