Sarah DeVries
Ayotzinapa students at Guerrero Congress In 2020, students from the Ayotzinapa teacher college set fire to buildings at Guerrero's Congress to protest the kidnapping of 43 students in 2014. Twitter

Who are the good guys to root for in Mexico’s endless, routine protests?

When protesters use threats or violence to achieve goals you support, it gets really confusing

For the past several months, I’ve been noticing banners on the various buildings of the Universidad Veracruzana campuses across my city that say “20% Salary Increase or Strike.” They’re signed by the university workers’ union, which consists of mostly nonacademic laborers.

I’m a fan of the labor movement, but the institutionalization of these threats to strike — an insider tells me that every year, the workers say they’ll go off the job, they receive a counteroffer from the university and then they accept a 3.5% pay increase — makes me both chuckle and frown.

Why not just institutionalize the 3.5% yearly increase without the scary-looking signs?

Is the protest necessary if we all know the outcome? What kind of weird dance is this?

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because I’m witnessing the political right in my own country co-opt many of the techniques and even slogans that used to be the purview of the left but with assault weapons horrifyingly slung over their shoulders. (“My body my choice?” Really?)

But it’s all just so confusing. Here, for example, I was about to make a brassy comment along the lines of, “If you’re carrying a loaded gun and are dressed for nothing short of guerrilla warfare, it’s going to be hard to convince anyone you’re the one being bullied.”

Then I thought of the Zapatistas, who literally carry guns over their shoulders and are dressed for guerrilla warfare. Ah! The middle part of this Venn diagram is too encompassing, and I’m feeling both weary and panicked about the prospect of having to sort out the difference.

I suppose the short answer would be that one of these groups has been systematically oppressed by the greater society while the other has simply pretended that this was the case for them, even while maintaining about as much power as a non-elected official can.

Still, though. The assault weapons throw me off.

The fact is, protest – especially when it’s violent – is suddenly something I’m suspicious of, which is a very new feeling for me. I’m trying hard to examine those feelings and catch myself, lest I fall into some trap that should be hard to miss.

But I do know one thing: noble cause or not, violence, and the prospect of violence, make me nervous. It’s the point at which I draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable social and political action.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. had the right idea: once you start hitting back, the water gets muddy, and one’s moral righteousness along with it.

Especially uncomfortable to think about has been the case of the students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Guerrero, where conflict — often violent conflict — with the government is an established tradition.

Why does a college designed to create educators seem instead to be a guerrilla-warrior training academy?

No one, of course, should have disappeared or been killed for protesting, even violently. Still, it’s hard to figure out what the students are trying to accomplish by constantly daring the authorities to react to them as they take over toll booths, hijack vehicles and assault members of the National Guard.

It hardly seems the way to get the public on their side. And while I’m confused by the president’s apparent reaction of “Oh, those rascals!” I’d certainly get behind him on the plea he made this past week at his morning press conference: “I want to call on the boys … to no longer act in this way … You have to fight for ideals, not for destruction. There should be no rebel without a cause.”

While I agree with his assessment, I don’t understand at all why the behavior is openly tolerated.

All of this is swimming around in my head with bigger questions about the nature and purpose of social protest. Is it possible for a cause to be objectively good or objectively bad? Under what circumstances is violence justified? Even Martin Luther King, Jr. moved a bit closer to Malcolm X’s way of thinking in the end, after all.

Can a cause start out as good and justifiable and then turn sour? How can we tell when someone has lost sight of good intentions? If a hero of a cause loses their way and is no longer good, how much damage will we let them do before we come to our senses?

And if we have to act, how do we pull it off? So many people, myself included, thought that the president would be the kind of hero we’d been waiting for. So now what?

I’m reminded of two of Mexican director Luis Estrada’s more famous films: Herod’s Law and Hell. Both films are satires, and both are set up in such a way that the viewer identifies with and roots for the protagonist even as he descends into increasingly deeper levels of corruption and just plain evil. By the end, you find yourself thinking things like, “Oh, if he can just make that one thing work, all those horrors will have been worth it!”

Art that came later has followed the same antihero narrative that we love and root for, and it often makes me wonder about the extent to which we let ourselves be fooled in real life by nonfictional people.

We rooted for Walter White in Breaking Bad. I’m currently watching the show You on Netflix, and find myself thinking, “Sure, he’s a psychopath, but maybe he and that girl can find happiness together.”

And then I go and take a long, hard look in the mirror. Me, manipulated like that. Me!

I’m not saying that any of these protesters or participants in social movements are evil or unjustified or that they have nefarious intentions. But the fact that it’s so difficult for any of us to switch opinions once we’ve settled upon a certain narrative sure is scary.

Because if beloved heroes of our own modern folklore turned into villains, how long would it take us to recognize it?

The university workers fight with signs, not guns. That, at least, is something I can get behind.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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