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 Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther

By Jeffrey Haas
Lawrence Hill Books (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Among some circles, Fred Hampton is a luminary without peers. Though new generations may only catch his reference in a song, his legacy in Chicago and to the Black liberation movement is without question. The charismatic Black Panther Party chapter leader demonstrated a natural gift for reaching people, and marshaled young people into political action for the first time. His brutal murder — in which Chicago police, after wounding him as he slept, delivered two rounds to the head, killing him — horrified the world. He was just 21 years old.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther is the account of attorney Jeff Haas’ fight to ensure justice for the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, killed in the police raid spun by authorities at the time as repelling a Panther attack. It is also a chilling chronicle of the depths authorities will sink to silence dissent and to cover it up.

Haas and three other lawyers set up the People’s Law Office in 1969, and he defended many social justice activists since then. The Hampton case, however, drove Haas. It dragged on for years, facing defeats along the way, until a settlement. The book is as much about the commitment of scores of people, who poured in their time and energies to see that justice was done, as it is the quest to hold the police officers and establishment involved accountable.

Subsequent investigations of Fred Hampton’s murder would reveal involvement by a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant and collaboration with local police that resulted in the organizer’s assassination. Few knew it at the time, but what occurred would be shown to be part of a sophisticated federal effort, labeled COINTELPRO, aimed at disrupting, demoralizing, dividing and exterminating Black activism primarily among social justice tendencies. It wasn’t until activists burglarized a Pennsylvania FBI office and released documents in 1971 that COINTELPRO was exposed. Operative William O’Neal, working through the bureau’s Racial Matters unit, provided key information just hours before the murder. His work, and the war the FBI waged on Black revolutionaries, figures prominently in the book.

Those familiar with writings that trace legal trajectories will find The Assassination of Fred Hampton cuts a familiar path, yet one that takes on a particular heft given the case. The final days of Hampton’s life is imparted, but it is the excruciating detail with which the murder is told that is where Haas’ legal background brings the story out. Culled from volumes of testimony, research, released documents and other sources, Haas compares what happened with conflicting police testimony and justifications. His writing presents a penetrating image of law enforcement bent on protecting its own, even if some recognized the fault in their actions. Indirectly, the book shows the determination of the Hampton and Clark families as well as the legal team to counter the coverup in court and in the community.

Though contemporary political movements in the United States have few comparisons quite like the Fred Hampton case in terms of severity today, Haas’ book is a primer on how a movement can challenge official misconduct through a diversity of efforts. The Assassination of Fred Hampton stands out, just as Hampton himself did all those years ago.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution

Michael O. West, William G. Martin and Fanon Che Wilkins (Eds.)University of North Carolina Press (2009)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton perhaps explained Black revolutionary nationalism best when he drew lines against what he called reactionary nationalism. Revolutionary nationalism is a force that sees capital and the ruling order in a fundamentally different way; rather than grouse over what piece of the power structure can be reformed or what privileges can be maintained, the revolutionary nationalist sees the challenge is in upending the dynamics as a whole.

Though in some sense, the struggle of Newton’s day is gone, the spirit of what he envisioned has not disappeared from communities or consciousness. Be it noncooperation with police (a symptom of generations-old antagonism of the Black community by law enforcement) or local mobilizing for justice, resistance is alive as it ever was. However, with so many former radicals and intelligentsia invested in existing power via academia, grant cycles and so forth, a look at the grassroots social movements from which emerged Black internationalism is as exciting as it is instructive.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution relays the story of Black anti-imperialism, a tradition explored exquisitely by Gerald Home among others, but rarely elsewhere in a method that frames the intellectual current as married to the upheavals of many periods. Edited by professors Michael West, William Martin and Fanon Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac transverses the histories of many important Black internationalist movements. The editors deliver a superlative recounting of history that organizers today should learn about and from.

Of special note are the writings on transnational organizing among Blacks between the United States, Haiti and a constellation of African nations spanning centuries. Whether is was the impact of the Haitian Revolution on North American activism or exactly how profoundly figures like W. E. B. DuBois would shape political philosophy on global African liberation, the editors ensure they deliver a serviceable presentation of stories that have been, in some instances, told exhaustively. Elsewhere, the real treasures in this book are the details that convey to new students of Black internationalism how deeply embedded the struggle’s aspirations were to people most incorrectly do not associate with political activism. The spread of Pan Africanism in the early 1900s, in one passage, is traced back to sailors and international ship travel; those seeds would reach apartheid South Africa and eventually lend energy to the toppling of white rule across the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s association with Black struggles in the United States and elsewhere are sketched out as well.

The editors do a solid job presenting Black internationalism in the United States as well. The influence of Black communists, particularly people like Harry Haywood and Claude McKay, on modern ideas of self-determination and racial diversity in white-dominated movements are weighty, and offered here. The Comintern’s involvement in drawing support for the Scottsboro campaign as well as agitating against the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy are significant activist insurgencies highlighted with richness.

From Toussaint to Tupac wanders into shakier territory when it comes to the spin on hip-hop. Utilizing an oft-repeated premise — that hip-hop traces roots to a mix of influences, from griots to Malcolm X — the book tries to close with a telling of the international (though less internationalist) reach and organizing potential of the music and culture. Fair enough, but following writings about the Black Panther Party and West Indian revolutionary fervor, the conclusion feels unsatisfying. However, in all, From Toussaint to Tupac is a good introduction to an overlooked history.