Archives for December 2009

The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement

Gloria Muñoz Ramírez’
City Lights Books (2008)
Reviewed by Sarat Colling 




This richly illustrated and designed volume, featuring indigenous art and photographs on nearly every page and unprecedented interviews with members of the early villages, is a result of the seven years Mexican journalist Gloria Muñoz Ramírez’ spent with the Zapatistas in Southern Chiapas. Responding to military and corporate encroachment upon their territory, the Zapatistas demanded justice and democracy for indigenous people and all Mexicans. In more than 300 pages, Muñoz translates her research, observation and participation with the communities into what spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos calls “the most complete version of the public history of the Zapatistas.”  

Covering the movement from its conception, when a few urban guerrillas joined with indigenous leaders to plant the seeds of revolution, Muñoz provides an intimate and well detailed text. The Fire and the Word chronicles Zapatista history through the first 10 years of mobilizing a resistance in the mountainous and remote rainforest of the Lacandon Jungle; to the armed uprising against the Mexican government in 1994; and the negotiations, international relations and self-governing process that followed.

Insurgent Lieutenant of Public Health Gabriela says, “I’m proud of our struggle because you can really see the improvements in our villages” (91). In 2006, the Zapatistas created a self governing system in which several thousand villages are connected to larger hub villages known as caracoles, each having the principle of “governing by obeying” the people. The Zapatistas summarize their autonomous organization method as

a very concrete praxis that… follows no manual or theory, but is built with the everyday experience of resistance of tens of thousands of Tzotzil, Tzetzal, Tojolabal, Chol, Zoque and Mam men and women. (327)

As the title suggests, the praxis utilizes both the fire and the word. The book distinguishes between three main strategies that developed in the movement: the militaristic and rebellious actions of “fire,” the negotiations and global communication strategy of the “word,” and the organizational process that is the backbone to it all (283).

The fire was prominent on January 1st, 1994 when the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican Government. Coinciding with NAFTA’s first day of operation, the uprising captured headlines throughout the world and brought masses of people to the streets in Mexico City, showing their support and calling for peace. This led one Companero to question

how it was possible that thousands and thousands of people, without yet knowing who we were, came out to the streets to support us. I think that they saw that we were willing to die for what we seek, and that there was no other option. (77)

After 1994, the focus turned to the power of the word. The book lists numerous negotiations and meetings the Zapatistas held with the national and international community throughout the decade; all part of a developing strategy they call “walking and asking.” 

The Zapatistas rhizomatic structure and global communication methods provide an example for anarchism in the 21st century. In the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle the movement is declared as anti-capitalist and shows solidarity with all fighting neoliberal globalization. The book is described by Marcos as a giant tapestry filled with “those little pieces of mirrors and crystals that make up the history of the EZLN.” In these mirrors, the reader may see parts of themselves reflected. But the Zapatistas believe every person, and every movement, must grow through their own experience. Therefore, they offer “a mirror that isn’t you, it just helps you see how you are” (307).

From her participatory perspective, Muñoz has provided a comprehensive understanding of the movement that will keep the knowledge alive for generations to come. The Fire and the Word is a must have for those researching Zapatismo and a nonauthoritarian world.

The Fire and the Word is Distributed by City Lights Books:

The Lifelong Activist: Changing the World Without Losing Your Way

Hillary Rettig
Lantern Books (2006)

Reviewed by Ian Smith



As an activist, being effective is more important than merely being busy. A hectic schedule does not automatically translate into social change and doing more is not the same as achieving more.

Hillary Rettig’s The Lifelong Activist: Changing the World Without Losing Your Way starts from the uncontroversial but often underappreciated premise that all aspects of a person’s life will effect his or her ability to effectively engage in activism.

This means that skills such as time management, money management, and the ability to overcome procrastination while not glamorous remain important for activists because a deficiency in any one of these skills can easily derail a project or put an important goal out of reach. Anything with the potential to disrupt one’s life has the potential to disrupt or even terminate one’s activism. Seeking the most stable life possible should be an important goal for activists.

Rettig suggests that activists often resist becoming proficient in certain skills that could prove helpful such as marketing and personal finance because these tend to be associated with corporate culture and greed; values that are antithetical to a progressive worldview. But she effectively explains why such skills are necessary for progressives as well as how they can be used in ways that are not manipulative.

In addition to the above skills, Rettig wisely emphasizes the importance of actively maintaining one’s physical and mental health and cultivating mutually supportive relationships with others. The tendency to neglect these aspects of one’s life for the sake of one’s activism is generally counterproductive. Dysfunctional relationships and poor health tend to sap one’s energy and motivation. Under such conditions, burnout is a more likely outcome than social change. These are not shocking suggestions but they are lessons that activists often need to be reminded of. As the title of her book indicates, Rettig wants people to be able to engage in effective activism over the course of an lifetime and not merely for a brief unsustainable phase of their life.

Rettig asks a lot of her readers who wish to become more productive activists by cultivating or improving these skills and her book also provides a lot in terms of structure and assistance for those who are genuinely motivated. Rettig provides a series of exercises to help readers engage in honest self-reflection, to assess their own values, and to then to insure that decisions regarding how to allocate time, resources, and energy are consciously made to reflect those values. Too often such decisions are not consciously made but rather are left to chance and can subvert one’s ambitions.

Even a quick reading reading of Rettig’s book is likely to benefit most activists but to reap the full benefit from it requires a time investment. “Investment” is precisely the word for time spent with The Lifelong Activist because it is almost certain to yield dividends to a patient committed reader.

The Lifelong Activist would likely be an asset to anyone seeking a way to be more productive in their activism and more satisfied with their life.

The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle

Michelle Brown
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




It is impossible to come in contact with commercial media and not be exposed to the specter of criminal justice as entertainment. Turn on the news and you can see car chases. Turn on afternoon fare and it is syndicated reality shows featuring people being chased down by police. Primetime offers serialized prison action-adventures, courtroom procedural dramas and yet more reality shows of sassy judges, valorous cops and children wheedling their way through the juvenile justice system. Crime, punishment, but not the root causes, are today part of the lexicon of distractions, and a book argues society is far worse for it.

In Ohio University instructor Michelle Brown’s book, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle, the treatment of criminal justice as spectacle — as well as more insidious methods, such as making surveillance a televised affair — contributes to its devaluing, especially for classes of people least impacted by it.

Brown’s scan of these matters is fresh and important for people to grasp. Race and class distinctly define how people experience the criminal justice apparatus. In her view, those most removed from the jarring realities of law enforcement, trial and incarceration — white, middle-class Americans who do not endure the experiences of economically disadvantaged people of color — become passive supporters of the abuses heaped on these communities. The treatment of criminal justice as a television drama or a video-game title further desensitizes the population from precisely how brutal and unjust some practices are for other people. Thus, prison, corrupt police and unfair trials to whites may seem like the stuff of fantasy or, even worse, basis for street cred, but for Blacks and Latinos, such issues are real and can (and do) result in broken families, death and years in confinement.

Yet more appallingly, are the ways race and class shape the experience, both affect how society judges perpetrators, crime and punishment. To upper-class whites, who may lack the experience or clarity to understand convicting someone’s son, brother, father or husband to 20 years in prison is, in fact, two decades of life, believing in the sanctity of the law has a different gravity than for those who have historically faced discrimination, mistreatment of family and friends by the system and may not believe the philosophical foundations of equality and fairness never apply to them. Amid pundits and politicians demanding tough-on-crime jockeying, the full application of that intolerance is on display. What the callousness means in a few generations, especially if historical divides continue, is yet to be understood.

Brown’s way of telling these stories packs a real punch. While many researchers have plumbed for reasons why race and class so divergently distinguish life in the United States, The Culture of Punishment puts forward new information boldly and in a way everyone can understand.