Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Read: John Ross and Los de Abajo

Venceremos! We Will Win!
Sacramento, California
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From: Portside Moderator <moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG>
Sent: Mon, January 24, 2011 6:50:27 PM
Subject: John Ross and Los de Abajo

John Ross and Los de Abajo

by David L. Wilson


Most of the tributes to John Ross have stressed the
colorful side of the New York-born journalist,
activist, and poet, who died in Michoacan, Mexico, on
January 17.

"Colorful" is an understatement.  Tall, gaunt, with his
black beret and white goatee, a Palestinian keffiyeh
around his neck, John was an unmistakable figure at
demonstrations.  His prose matched his appearance.
Torrents of words poured out, puns in English mixing
with Spanish, Tzotzil, Yiddish.  The PRI, Mexico's
Institutional Revolutionary Party, became "the
longest-ruling political dynasty in the known
universe"; John's native country was "Gringolandia,"
or, more recently, "Obamaland."  Even his casual emails
were like no one else's: "the end is a little nigh,"
John wrote in September when he learned the liver
cancer had returned.

But all this shouldn't make us forget that John was
also a serious political thinker -- however hard he
tried not to sound like one.

Sounding Out the Base

John didn't usually parade his political thought in
heavy analytical pieces.  Instead, it came out in the
way he got on a story before anyone else.  As columnist
Luis Hernandez Navarro pointed out in the Mexican daily
La Jornada, John was always "in the place where things

John was covering Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' 1988 campaign
long before Cardenas astonished the pundits by winning
the Mexican presidency (in the real vote; he lost in
the official tally).  John made friends with another
officially losing presidential candidate, Andres Manuel
Lopez Obrador, back in the early 1990s, when "AMLO" was
still a struggling local politician in Tabasco.  Most
famously, John wrote about the possibility that a
guerrilla movement was stirring in the mountains and
jungles of Chiapas many months before the Zapatista
National Liberation Army launched its "surprise"
offensive on January 1, 1994.

This prescience wasn't just because of John's strong
journalistic instincts.  Early on he realized that the
really important changes don't come from the people at
the top of the pyramid; they start with subtle changes
in the consciousness of los de abajo, the people at the

He was still happy to chat with Lopez Obrador in the
early 2000s after AMLO had become mayor of Mexico City
and one of the country's most important political
figures, but John paid just as much attention to the
barbers and newsstand operators near his home at the
Hotel Isabel in the city's Centro Historico.  While
mainstream journalists (and too many writers for the
alternative media) would get their news from the great
men and their PR consultants, John was sounding out the
"ordinary people" -- an indigenous campesina in the
backwoods of Michoacan, an aging Palestinian farmer
amid his olive trees in the West Bank -- trying to
determine their mood, and how ready they were or
weren't to fight back.

When he'd visit the States to promote a book, John
traveled in late-night intercity buses, not just to
save money but more importantly to find out what was
going on with the people of "Gringolandia."

Tackling the IMF and World Bank

John's emphasis on the grassroots didn't mean he had
simplistic views on issues like the role of political
leaders or the value of intellectual work.

He would criticize politicians like AMLO or Hugo
Chavez, but at the same time he insisted that these
leaders could benefit the struggle by implementing
social reforms, or at the very least by giving the
grassroots movement room to maneuver.  Asked his
opinion of Chavez, John talked about the dangers of
caudillismo, the Latin American tradition of
concentrating power in charismatic populist leaders.
"Chavez is a caudillo," John concluded, "but he's our

John paid close attention to current economic and
sociological analysis -- but not the analysis from
officially designated U.S. experts.  John's sources
were the Latin American academics who back in the 1980s
were warning about the dangers of the neoliberal
economic policies that the World Bank, the IMF
(International Monetary Fund), and the New York Times
were busily promoting.

There's a myth among many U.S. leftists that the
anti-globalization movement started with the Seattle
demonstrations of 1999.  The reality is that outside
the United States people were analyzing and resisting
global neoliberalism at a time when people here still
believed in the "triumph of capitalism" and the "end of
history."  John was one of the few U.S. writers with a
more sophisticated view of economic dynamics, and he
spent much of the 1990s working to bring that analysis
to people here.

Bringing It Back Home

John approached his readers and potential readers in
the United States in much the same way as he approached
activists in Latin America.  A lot of leftists have
given up on the struggle here and now content
themselves with cheering for the home team south of the
border.  John too found the political situation in
"Obamaland" depressing, but from those late-night
Greyhound rides he'd sensed the sour mood of los de
abajo here, and he was determined to tell them that
people were still fighting back in other parts of the
world, that organizing was still possible.

For many U.S. leftists, social movements in the
Americas are a spectator sport; John felt they should
be a model and an inspiration.  You have to organize
here among your own people, he would say.  If you want
to support the Zapatistas, you have to be a Zapatista
where you live.

Our own past could be a model and an inspiration as
well, John felt.  In Murdered by Capitalism, a
picturesque melange of autobiography and U.S. left
history, John tried to introduce us to our activist
forbears, both the famous and the obscure, and to show
us their glory, their heroism, and, too often, their
failures, betrayals and sheer insanity.  It can happen
here, he was saying, and it can happen again -- and
better, if we learn from the mistakes of the past.

In the spring of 2007 John was invited to speak at the
annual Anarchist Book Fair in New York's Greenwich
Village, his home turf.  The panel was on zapatismo.
John had just walked over from the East Village, where
he'd been participating in a tenants' demonstration,
and he was full of enthusiasm for being a Zapatista
where you live.  Support the Zapatistas by joining a
tenants' protest here in New York, he told the
audience, mostly students and young academics.

Not too many of them caught John's enthusiasm.  At the
end of the question period, a young woman asked how
people in New York could show solidarity with the
Zapatistas.  John repeated his call for us to organize
where we are.  The questioner persisted: she wanted
"concrete solidarity," like writing our senators.  John
knew well enough that there are times when it's useful
to pressure the politicians: for instance, when
paramilitaries kidnap Latin American activists and we
need international action to get them released.  But
New York's senators then were Chuck Schumer and Hillary
Clinton, both diehard proponents of the policies that
had devastated Mexico -- how could they help the
country?  "Don't write your senators," John pleaded,
with a hint of exasperation.

A few of us in the audience applauded, but not as many
as should have.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane
Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and
Answers (Monthly Review, 2007). He is also a co-editor
of Weekly News Update on the Americas, which published
John Ross's weekly columns (first Mexico Barbaro and
then Blindman's Buff) from 1996 through 2007. At Ross's
request, Wilson is working with others to put together
an archive of his writings and to make the weekly
columns permanently available online.


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