The Conversation

My 'Dances with Zapatista Wannabes': 20 Years of Resistance

The current Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas marked its 20th anniversary this week. Media outlets across the world covered the date, with far-left outlets and blogs celebrating their Zapatista heroes.

The uprising is recognized as officially beginning on New Year’s Day, 1994, when rebels springing from indigenous peoples stormed a municipal palace in San Cristobal de las Casas. The EZLN, more commonly referred to as the Zapatistas, were now on the scene. The demands were simple: land, homes, food, health, education, work, justice, democracy, and freedom. Guns in hand, the masked rebels shocked the world, including the Mexican military and federal government. 

The Zapatistas’ model of organizing themselves immediately appealed to far-left activists around the world: they made decisions based on a consensus model. This model, though heavily bastardized by predominantly white, suburban young adults in the U.S., was what we saw when we watched the Occupy movement’s efforts to gather in a circle and make decisions for their movement.

Unlike the Occupy movement in the U.S., the indigenous peoples of Chiapas existed, and still do, in circumstances of extreme poverty where they had no redress against the Mexican government. Though the relationship between the Mexican government and the indigenous peoples of Chiapas has definitely shifted as a result of the once violent uprising, many of the same conditions continue to exist today. 

This writer will not criticize what the Zapatistas have done in their own land. Their circumstances and cultural heritage are different from my own and from all I have ever known. I would think that resisting oppression would manifest differently and with more of an individual liberty-oriented goal, but I exist in a society with a heritage that cherishes such things — they exist in a completely different set of circumstances. I do, however, critique them in the same manner I would critique a group of adults who perform a stunt on television without encouraging any children who might be watching to exercise caution and realize the context their stunt occurs within is not the same context the children’s repeating the stunt would occur within.

The manner in which far-left radicals in the U.S. embraced the Zapatistas has been somewhat comical in that the self-described anarchists failed to recognize the context they existed within. U.S. radicals were not from an area with generations of culture and heritage of consensus-style decision making. They were not existing within a system that prevented redress of government or the ability to change government, as were the Zapatistas.

My own experiences with such far-left anarchists in post-Katrina New Orleans proved frustrating to say the least. I was a co-founder of a relief organization and we had a very radical bent. We appealed to the anti-war movement to mobilize as a relief network. Many of the thousands of activists who showed up to help were in fact more interested in perfecting the “Zapatista model” than in actually performing the aid for many of the elderly black residents and communities we were trying to help bring a voice to, deliver food and water to, and whose property rights we were fighting for. They tried to replicate the “Zapatista model” without any appreciation of the different circumstances existing between the average white radical and the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

One co-founder of the effort in New Orleans even insisted that people call him “Subcomandante Scott,” after the Zapatista’s infamous Subcomandante Marcos. Long meetings marked the days, with predominantly white suburban young adults sitting in circles arguing over how to do everything from how to hold meetings to whether white people should be allowed to speak in meetings about efforts to help predominantly black residents.

These experiences were the beginning of my realization that my radical desire to help others did not mean I was actually in agreement with the people I was trying to help others with. One decisive moment in my life occurred when I tried to deliver a truck load of bottled water to elderly black New Orleans residents and a young white female anarchist sat on one of the boxes of water bottles. She stated: “This is not the world I want to create, where one white male in a position of power tells us what to do and when to do it.” I stated: “What are you talking about? All I said was that we needed to deliver this water in a hurry.” She replied, "You are a white male with privilege in a position of power and you are trying to lead what we do.” 

"Do you realize we are a bunch of white people with privilege sitting on water bottles while elderly black people are thirsty?" I responed. "Do you realize you would rather talk about perfecting the process and making us feel better than delivering this water to black residents? I do not want to create a world where rich white people sit around on boxes of water bottles talking when elderly black people are dying of thirst.”

I ultimately drove off and began ignoring the white anarchists, as the “Zapatista model” meant far more to them than actually doing the work black communities in New Orleans needed us to do.

The issue was that the predominantly white suburban young adults were mostly from well-off families, they were not indigenous peoples of Mexico. They were not oppressed peoples, they simply found a mechanism to be able to show up at an organization others had built and devoted time to; under the guise of the “Zapatista model,” they could insist on having the same influence and say-so as everyone who had been busting their rear-ends to make the effort work.

Me being a white male meant that it did not matter how much risk I took to start an effort. It meant that it did not matter how much time and personal sacrifice I invested to get an effort going. It meant that the expertise I developed in doing so was all for naught if a person from a more "marginalized” identity group showed up at any given point and wanted equal influence over the efforts I had been working towards. “I’m a female, you’re a male, therefore you should be quiet and allow me to have more influence — since white males have already had too much influence throughout history.”

I began to become a very vocal critic of the “Zapatista model” being used in the context of the U.S. I began to see that many U.S.-based radical organizers were only using the consensus model as a means of achieving power for themselves and their political camps. Arguments would go like this: “No Brandon, we are concerned because you and your group are making decisions and we have no access to make choices.” I would reply, “You feel that any person who shows up at any given time should have equal say and the ability to block anything if they do not consent to how we help others?” They would say, “No, there needs to be a group who decides which individuals can participate in the decision-making.” 

“Exactly. That is what we already have," I would explain. "You are not mad that everyone can not have a voice, you are mad that we will not include you in decision-making.”

Minus the hundreds of years of cultural ties that likely existed for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, the “Zapatista model” also resulted in a lack of personal accountability when attempted by U.S. radicals. This also was very much disliked by the predominantly black communities we were in “solidarity” with. When decisions on who did what changed based on the consensus of whichever individuals were sitting in the hours-long decision-making circles, pre-existing commitments that were made by the “empowered” individuals the day before were often left and dropped from the group. The commitments were often not followed through on. 

The black communities we were working within had a tradition of being centered around churches, and they had hierarchy in their families and lives. The lack of accountability resulting in far-left U.S. anarchist efforts to crush hierarchy and implement their version of the “Zapatista model” often resulted in a lack of participation within the group from the very communities we were trying to aid.

The relief group ultimately decided to divide the city into sectors; people believing in the Zapatista approach of consensus-based decision making had one area, and I was to manage our relief efforts in another area, mostly in the storm-ravaged 9th ward of New Orleans. Again, the attempt to implement the “Zapatista model” failed for the radicals. The beginning of this failure occurred when the relief group was set to bring in several hundred volunteers for Thanksgiving week. 

The pro-Zapatista crowd brought in radical organizer Lisa Fithian as the “non-leader.” She “got consensus” from her activists and decided that the housing for the hundreds of activists would be created in her area. They chose a building that had extreme damage to the roof. Many people with roofing skills were there to volunteer, but Fithian and her consensus group decided to “empower” people who needed to be empowered to have the authority over the repairs, rather than people who knew how to fix roofs. All of the roofing experts were white males who had enjoyed “such power and privilege” for their entire lives, etc. Rains came, the repairs failed, and Fithian’s hundreds of volunteers had to come to the church I was operating out of in the 9th Ward. 

This is where the left-of-center bent shines through in U.S. anarchists who routinely claim they are not leftists: it was not okay that people who wanted to use the “Zapatista model” and reject hierarchy simply had the freedom to do so. They insisted on “smashing hierarchy” wherever it existed. They felt they were right, so they destroyed and attacked anyone who wanted to operate differently. The concept of “we feel this is right so we will do it while you do something else” was lost on them — everyone had to be forced to live without hierarchy.

Thus began my transformation from radical leftist to radical helper who began realizing he was not like these leftists. This type of scenario occurred repeatedly throughout my two and a half years running relief efforts in New Orleans. I left town for a month to go to Venezuela, and upon returning I learned that Fithian and her activists had “consented” to basically undo everything I had built. Instead of my model of small volunteer centers in different communities, she had decided to centralize all volunteers into a former Catholic school building. She and her group appointed security personnel based once again on who they wanted to empower, not on who could do the job. There ended up being several sexual assaults in the centralized activist housing — not surprising when hundreds of people who do not know each other are sleeping in an encampment together and hierarchy does not exist to monitor the safety of individuals staying there.

Fithian’s occupation of the 9th Ward was the predecessor to her later effort: the Occupy Wall Street movement. Early organizing internal emails from the group revealed Fithian was once again at the core, and her “Zapatista model” of non-hierarchal organizing and decision-making was once again the system for a large-scale encampment of hundreds or thousands of people who did not know each other. Their inability to learn from their past leadership mistakes is how I knew sexual assaults were likely occurring again, since the same people created the exact same circumstances. Turned out I was correct. Unreported sexual assaults were frequent in the main encampment of Occupy Wall Street. I could go on and on with examples, but I think readers get the point.

My dance with Zapatista wannabes went from my complete adoration, to my feeling complete disdain for them and what their irresponsible efforts lead to, to later successful efforts to expose them. Again, I will not critique how the Zapatistas organize in their own context, but how their example manifests in the context of the U.S. has shown to be a complete disaster after twenty years.


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