By Maurice Rafael Magaña
This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power
The governor of Oaxaca state in Southern Mexico sent the police in to evict the striking teachers and destroy their encampment in the zócalo (central plaza) overnight on June 14, 2006. After weeks of refusing to negotiate with the powerful teachers’ union, the governor decided to use the police to send a message to the union and the rest of Oaxacan civil society about where the balance of power lay. This message was manifest in swinging batons, fists, boots, dogs, and gas canisters launched directly at people from a privately-owned helicopter. By violently attacking the teachers in the middle of the night, while most people slept, perhaps the governor and police thought they would encounter less resistance. This might have been true at first. The police were able to drive the sleeping teachers and their families from the zócalo while they burned and destroyed their tents, signs, and other property. By midday, however, the teachers together with thousands of Oaxacans who came to their defense, were able to drive the police back to their barracks The teachers were able to do this with the help of thousands of Oaxacans who flooded the city center when they learned of the police attack.
Many of those who helped retake the zócalo were young anarchists, punks, and graffiti writers who took joy in being able to physically overwhelm the police. A twenty-something anarcho-punk activist who asked to be called Mentes Liberadas (Liberated Minds) remembered:
What motivated the banda to go and support the teachers was that we were sick and tired of so much repression. That was the moment for all of us to show them that we were fed up with so much injustice by all pouncing at the same time against the police. They were the ones who were always fucking with us. This way we would show the government that it wasn’t cool to keep doing what they were doing anymore (Interview, March 13, 2013).
Youth joined teachers and others in throwing rocks and police gas canisters, grabbing police batons and shields, and using their own bodies to drive the vastly outnumbered police away. For people like Mentes Liberadas this was the chance to finally meet police violence with physical resistance. The police regularly beat and humiliated punks and graffiti writers to punish them for their cultural practices, which sometimes ran afoul of local noise ordinances or constituted vandalism, and at other times did not. The collective response to the attack against the teachers was an important moment of catharsis for criminalized youth and others who had been aggrieved by the authoritarian governor who regularly used the police as his personal security force to punish political dissenters. The energy generated that day was harnessed over the next six months in the form of an emergent, broad-based social movement that forced the governor to flee the state and maintained grassroots control of the city and several municipalities.
I got to know many youth like Mentes Liberadas who participated in the self-defense action on June 14, 2006 and served as a popular security force protecting the social movement against deadly paramilitary and police attacks over the next six months. They made pyrotechnic powered bazookas, Molotov cocktails, and gained renown for their prowess with slingshots. They helped erect a citywide network of self-defense barricades which claimed urban space for the movement and prevented paramilitary caravans from roaming city streets. Later, these barricades slowed the entry of military-trained federal police whose month-long siege eventually wrestled control of the city away from the social movement. The extraordinary state violence during the crackdown left twenty-six people dead and hundreds more arrested and tortured. Yet for many young anarchists, punks, and graffiti writers this was simply the continuation of the violence they faced at the hands of local police for years (Magaña 2020). One prominent graffiti writer turned post-graffiti artist recalled:
In 2006, after the federal police were trying to take the university, which is not far from my neighborhood, my brother and I went to help fight them off. It was like revenge for all the times they beat us and put us in jail for painting. We threw rocks at them and reinforced the barricades (Interview, September 29, 2010).
Where do the actions taken by youth like the anarcho-punk and graffiti artist quoted above fit in the schema of non-violent activism? They are neither practitioners of Gandhian non-violence nor armed guerillas. They refuse to be passive victims of state violence, yet they are not interested in seizing state power, whether peacefully or through force. The politics driving the actions of these young people and those of others who helped defend against police and paramilitary attacks differed in important ways. While many of the protesters were interested in replacing the governor or police chief who authorized attacks against them, these young activists were not. Their physical resistance, their “pouncing” and “revenge” were about exercising a different relationship to the state. Their “tactical stance of unarmed militancy” (Bjork-James 2020, 518) included theories of social change that did not involve elections, mediation, or any other mechanism of the liberal state. Their militancy is the embodiment of a politics of ungovernability and anarchism that is both goal and means.
In addition to unsettling the distinction between violent and non-violent struggle (Juris 2008), the militant practices and ethics of groups like these are based on a refusal of the state’s legitimacy vis-à-vis its monopoly on violence and its capacity to govern. Though the politics of these groups is not uniform, the network of collectives I worked with in Oaxaca self-identify as a combination of anarchist, liberationist, and autonomist. Liberationist is my translation of organizer’s own self-identification as libertari@s, which refers to a leftist, nonhierarchical, anti-authoritarian politics. They often use this term interchangeably with anarchist though not all liberationists identify as anarchist. Those in this network who identify as anarchist do so mostly either through their organizing and belonging to anarcho-punk collectives or as Magonistas, a reference to the influence of the revolutionary anarchism of Oaxacan brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón. These groups also share a commitment to the anarchist value of autogestión which can be understood as self-organization, self-management, and self-sufficiency. The autonomist politics of these and other groups is strongly linked to the struggles for Indigenous autonomy in their communities of origin in Oaxaca and of Zapatista communities in neighboring Chiapas.
The power and politics of these militant anarchist and liberationist groups cannot be mediated or channeled through electoral politics and liberal reforms. This is a source of tension within broad-based social movements that include nonstate-oriented militant groups alongside traditional opposition parties, trade unions, NGOs and other moderate or hierarchical groups that are interested in change via state-sanctioned channels. The forceful self-defense and militancy of anarchists and affinity groups was praised and valorized in the extraordinary context where the very lives of social movement activists and their supporters were threatened by state and paramilitary forces daily over nearly six months. In the years following the social movement’s loss of physical control of the city, however, various sectors within the movement and broader public turned on their former comrades. Their complete rejection of hierarchy, respectability politics, and reform-minded “pragmatism” left many within the movement, especially those from the leadership ranks of established political organizations, frustrated and confused.
These tensions appeared in the immediate aftermath of the uprising. The government’s campaign of repression continued resulting in many activists being arrested. The teachers’ union and their movement allies were able to secure the release of many of them through their team of lawyers. The only catch was that political prisoners had to confirm that they were part of the coalition of groups that came together in 2006 known as the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). Many of the anarcho-punks refused to pledge any such allegiance in order to secure their release. This owes largely to the distrust that many younger, more horizontalist-oriented activists harbored against what they, often rightfully, viewed as political opportunism of would-be leaders within the APPO assembly which had been established as a non-partisan, non-hierarchical organizing and decision-making structure. Mentes Liberadas recalled what happened when the lawyers visited detained anarcho-punks:
They would ask them, “What’s your name? What organization are you from? So are you from the APPO?” And if the compañeros would reply “No, I’m not from the APPO, I am from the pueblo,” then the lawyers would say, “Well then we can’t get you out.” They left them alone in jail and they had to figure things out on their own (Interview, March 13, 2013).
This refusal to pledge allegiance to the APPO, even after mobilizing alongside the movement and serving as part of its popular security force, might strike some observers as naïve or foolish. Why not say what the lawyers wanted/needed to hear in order to be freed? Or attempt to reclaim the movement for the pueblo by claiming APPO membership? To me, this refusal to pledge allegiance in order to gain their freedom speaks to the destituent practices of the more militant anarchist and liberationist activists who refuse to let their power and politics get absorbed by civil society organizations. The pueblo, after all, does not have a team of lawyers. The teachers’ union and other well-resourced organizations do. They are also the sectors of the movement that at times had a seat at the table in negotiations with the government or that would later run candidates in local and statewide elections. Remaining in jail without the means of securing their release was activists way of refusing to be counted among those that would engage the state in ways that legitimize its institutions or its power. At the same time, they were willing to mobilize alongside them in 2006 and in the years that followed but only as long as they could do so on their own terms.
Another hallmark of the destituent practices of anarchist and liberationist activists is their refusal to have their actions policed by other activists or members of civil society. Their insistence on being ungovernable and refusing the respectability politics which undergird much of the advocacy and organizing spaces of civil society prefigures the diverse society free of coercion and authoritarianism that they are struggling for. Maple Rasza (2015) and his interlocutors in ex-Yugoslavia have termed such spaces of autonomist self-organizing and creative direct action the “uncivil society” of radical politics (9). Such a break with the status quo of civil protest and organizing denies NGOs and other neoliberal institutions the energy of unruly yet highly imaginative political actors. Rather than invest in institutions that are easily coopted by the state, anarchist and liberationist activists in Mexico, and globally, create their own spaces and networks based on horizontal anticapitalist politics and social relations.
The youth I came to know during more than a decade of fieldwork in Oaxaca were responsible for opening autonomous social centers, anarchist okupas (squats), punk venues, and post-graffiti art spaces during the moments of movement control over the city and in the years after. These physical spaces are often short lived, as they rarely have formal ownership or even leases on the properties. The spaces are often remade as they relocate, avoiding the staleness of many formal institutions. While it is true that this precarity results in very real limitations in terms of building sustained initiatives and expanding membership, activists insist that the important thing is not the materiality of real estate but rather the social relations and political energy that sustains them. An exchange I had with a liberationist activist named Silvia about the autonomist social center she participated in speaks to this:
It’s a rented house, but we can’t just think about the material. Instead, we have to think about what it is that has been achieved…for example, the barricades are no longer in the streets, but the barricades weren’t just the physical space. They are also the deep transformation that they produced, the social relations, the everyday interactions. These things will be in my heart, whether I am here in the house, or in another space, that spirit doesn’t die. It’s alive (Interview, February 8, 2011).
The refusal to fetishize the physical spaces that house their political and social initiatives is an expression of their anticapitalist politics. This relationship to real estate finds another manifestation in their willingness to vandalize or destroy property as part of their repertoire of direct actions. Bricks and rocks thrown through the windows of multinational corporations and graffiti on government buildings designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites during movement actions generated heated criticism from within movement circles and civil society. This tension between anarchists and liberationists and other movement activists is not unique to Oaxaca, of course. The obsession with condemning looting and property destruction during uprisings demanding an end to the continuous murder of Black people by the US state, for example, highlights the degree to which racist, settler colonial logics and capitalism underwrite liberal politics to the point that valuing property above human life becomes commonsense. We see similar dynamics in Mexico which, given its formation as a settler colonial state within the capitalist world-system, should not be surprising.
Whether in Mexico, the United States, or former Soviet republics, the refusal to acquiesce to the laws protecting the sanctity of private or public property when the sanctity of life itself is not respected puts into question the power of the state. This becomes more apparent when we consider that all land within a sovereign territory legally belongs to the sovereign, which would have us believe that only the sovereign can destroy or seize property (Graeber 2009). Whether it be by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the state’s control over property, or its monopoly on violence, activists are enacting a different kind of politics. They question the very premise of liberal representative democracy by refusing to have their valuable political energy drained by electoral politics and political cycles that reproduce things as they are (Anderson and Samudzi 2017). The horizons of anarchist and liberationist politics point to alternative futures made possible through the actions of an uncivil, but potentially more just, society.
Maurice Rafael Magaña is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research focuses on the cultural politics of youth organizing, transnational migration, urban space, and social movements in Mexico and the United States. Specifically, Dr. Magaña’s work examines how youth construct themselves as political actors in relation to multiple communities across time and space. His research aims to provide a transnational perspective on historic marginalization, racialization, youth political culture and the role of art in activism. Dr. Magaña’s first book, titled Cartographies of Youth Resistance: Hip-Hop, Punk, and Urban Autonomy in Mexico, was published by University of California Press in 2020 and was awarded the Anthony Leeds Prize for outstanding book by the Critical Urban Anthropology Association in 2021.
 Portions of this work can be found in Magaña (2020) Cartographies of Youth Resistance: Hip-hop, Punk, and Urban Autonomy in Mexico.
 Banda is a word used repeatedly by many of the youth. This word is sometimes translated as “gang” but that is not the usage here. In this context, banda tends to refer to youth from popular neighborhoods or specifically to the speaker’s group of friends. I chose to retain the original banda in my translations of interviews because of the messiness of translation.
 For a wonderful study of autogestión in relation to anarchopunk organizing in Mexico City see Tatro (2018).
 For more on the genealogies of these political currents and how they come together through youth organizing in Oaxaca see Magaña (2020).
Anderson, William C., and Zoé Samudzi. 2017. “The Anarchism of Blackness.” ROAR Magazine, issue 5. Accessed March 28, 2022: https://roarmag.org/magazine/black-liberation-anti-fascism/
Bjork‐James, Carwil. 2020. “Unarmed Militancy: Tactical Victories, Subjectivity, and Legitimacy in Bolivian Street Protest.” American Anthropologist 122 (3): 514–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13382.
Graeber, David. 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. Oakland: AK Press.
Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Magaña, Maurice Rafael. 2020. Cartographies of Youth Resistance: Hip-Hop, Punk, and Urban Autonomy in Mexico. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Razsa, Maple. 2015. Bastards of Utopia: Living Radical Politics after Socialism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Tatro, Kelley. 2018. “Performing Hardness: Punk and Self-Defense in Mexico City.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 21(3): 242–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877916688503.