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Day 210 – Anatomy of A Protest (Mexico City v. Bangkok)

May 8, 2011

Location: The Zocalo, Mexico City, Mexico

Date: Sunday, May 8, 2011

Today, I am a protest veteran. I’m not talking about some G7 or G8 or G40 or whatever it is now where the participants don’t know what they’re protesting (Whales? Capitalism? Meetings?). Nor am I talking about some hippie crap where you sit in a tree and poop in a bucket so that the rotted plant doesn’t get cut down. And I’m definitely not talking about holding your breath until Mommy gives you ice cream.

I’m talking serious protests. The kind where people chant for the president or prime minister or whoever to get the hell out—all for the same reason. The kind that’s got a slogan. The kind that’s got its own media center to beam its message to the world.

I say all this because today in Mexico City’s main plaza–the Zocalo–I experienced my second big time protest in a year (the other: Thailand). I think that makes me an aficionado. So what are the similarities and differences between a Thai protest and a Mexican one? Let me count the ways. . .

STUFF THAT’S THE SAME:

*Food Lover’s Paradise – Look. You don’t get this many people together and not eat. Thailand was stacked with carts selling fried bananas, rice and noodle dishes, and juice. In Mexico, it’s tortas, tacos, and jugo. Want to grab some good local food? Head to a protest. Upside of being overseas: I’m pretty sure the fare beats out the hotdogs and burgers they’d serve up back home.

*Capitalism – Where there’s people, there’s money and where there’s money there’s people trying to take it. Both Thailand and Mexico put strong efforts into selling protest gear (slogan filled t-shirt anyone?). Both countries also weren’t afraid to branch out into non-protest merchandise. Here in Mexico: books, bootleg DVDs, and posters of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Some things just go hand-in-hand: the need for change and the desire to make some cash off that urge.

*Massages – This deserves its own category even though it arguably should go under “Capitalism” above. I thought only Thai women protesters liked to get their feet rubbed while fighting for the cause. Turns out their Mexican sisters feel the same. Who said you can’t pamper yourself while trying to change the world?

*Media Savvy – You can’t have a protest nowadays without having a self-funded media crew. Just like in Thailand, the protesters here were connected to the rest of the country. A sophisticated stage. Camera crews roaming the audience. And, of course, a camera on a boom to give sweeping overheads of the stage and the rally. A serious movement does not test the old adage: If a protester screams in a city square and doesn’t show up on YouTube, DVDs, and basic cable, does he even exist?

STUFF THAT’S DIFFERENT:

*Todo Español – Obvious, but worth mentioning: Mexicans protest in Spanish. This is a big deal since I don’t speak any Thai (and thus had to guess what people were yelling about) but I do speak Spanish (and thus could mostly tell what the hell was going on as long as people spoke clearly). More on this later.

*Colorful T-Shirts – In Thailand, color mattered. You couldn’t wear a yellow shirt to Red Shirt rally unless you wanted to get mobbed. Smart people did not wear blue shirts anywhere (like a certain someone I’m not saying who) unless they wanted people to think they were there to incite violence. And the only people who wore black were the guys who wanted to scare the poop out of foreigners.

In Mexico, on the other hand, color wasn’t as important. The predominant color was white (all the more effective to highlight the splatter of fake blood or sangre). But protesters also wore red or yellow or blue. No black, though. What’s up with that? Mexicans not down with black?

*Classy – I’m not talking class as “sophistication;” I’m talking class as in “social.” As in “economic.” The Red Shirt protesters in Thailand were mostly poor people from the countryside trying to revive the influence and goals of an exiled leader. They camped out in the streets for months.

I got the feeling that the Mexican crowd was a more diverse cross section of people. Sure, there were tents set up to tangentially protest poor treatment of electric worker and other working class people. But there were also grandmas, hipsters, professionals, and college students. These people weren’t going to be camping out here for weeks. They had other stuff to do. In fact, the crowd seemed to thin rather quickly by late afternoon as if people said to themselves, “Well, we can’t protest too late—have to go to work tomorrow.”

*Fear of Violence – None. Really.

Contrast this to Thailand when I went to my first night protest and felt like I was walking through a zombie wasteland filled with black clad gangs of youth.

To be fair, after that I felt pretty safe. It was mostly singing families, after all. And all the violence there was at another site. But though the crowd at the Thai protest seemed friendly enough, you can’t argue that the Red Shirt Revolt resulted in death and destruction in a section of Bangkok. There, the protests sparked violence.

Today, it was the opposite: violence sparked the protests.

It all started in 2006 when Mexico’s newly elected president, Felipe Calderon, started an aggressive campaign against Mexico’s drug cartels. He used the army to take out the heads of many powerful gangs. This, however, may have destabilized the drug power structure and led to some bloody, undisciplined infighting. It’s the law of unintended consequences.

While it’s unclear why the violence has increased, what’s clear is this: over the last four years at least 28,000 people have died in drug related violence (some estimates run as high as 37,000) Some of the dead are drug cartel minions. Others are illegal immigrants headed for the U.S. who refuse to work for the cartels or are held for ransom. Some, like the son of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, are innocents caught in the crossfire.

Which leads us to today. The odds of this protest becoming violent were pretty low. When you’re slogan is “No Mas Sangre” (No More Blood) then you’re unlikely to go around inciting violence.

After a couple big time protests, I think they’re mostly the same. Rarely do they start out violent. Mostly, they’re a bunch of people getting together with their families to eat, chant, and get the attention of a government. If you can sell some merchandise on the side and grab a decent massage, all the better.

I think, though, I’ve had my fill of protesters. No need to press my luck. One of these days, I could actually get caught in some violence. Perhaps I should cancel that trip I planned to Syria. . . .

GALLERY: No bonus pictures today.

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