Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I don't want to be that gringo . . .

Coming back from Oaxaca in December, 2006, I wrote "I don't want to be that gringo, bleeding all over the page . . ." And I still don't. . I was supposed to be in Oaxaca to tell the story of people living under an occupation, not to write about myself.

But its all coming back. In Minneapolis, when police in dark uniforms walked through the hall of our hotel, my heart raced and my whole body tensed and in mind they became indisinguishable from the Mexican Federal Preventitive Police (PFP) I had seen in the streets of Oaxaca. And last night, watching the video of Amy Goodman being roughed up by police in riot gear, I felt an uncontrollable rage coming over me.

I tell myself these are normal reactions. But in my gut I know there is something more going on.

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We arrived in Oaxaca shortly after the last street battles, when the barricades fell under the onslaught of riot squads and tanks.

Just over a month earlier, a plainclothes police officer had shot and killed an American journalist, Brad Will, who was trying to tell the story of how the people in Oaxaca had risen up against desperate poverty and violent repression. Just before we arrived, police announced plans to arrest other gringos who they accused of fomenting rebellion.

Oaxaca was tense and strangely alive. Tanks controlled the central square, the Zocalo. By day we met with people in hiding -- the sister of a man shot by police, members of the teachers union who had been beaten and jailed, human rights workers trying to find missing people.

By night we stood on the roof of the hostel where we were staying, drinking mescal and watching white pick-up trucks roll by carrying men in black uniforms armed with automatic rifles on their way to kick down doors of people suspected of taking part in the uprising, beat them, and fly them across the county to distant prisons where they would be tortured.

On our last night there, walking home from a restaurant, one of the white pick-up trucks passed just a dew feet away from us. The PFP officers had taken off their badges and covered their nameplates and wore masks over their faces. Their rifles were cradled in their hands. The truck stopped at their corner and I locked eyes with one of the cops.

For a split second I was certain he was about to point his gun at me and put me under arrest. But the truck pulled away.

I felt a wave of relief -- followed by the sickening realization that that someone else was going to be flown to the prison in Nayarit that night, someone who didn't have the protection of the U.S. consulate, someone whose torture would bring no Congressional inquiry. I was embarassed at my selfishness and fear.

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The next night it was all I could do to remind myself that the State Trooper standing next to me in the airport bathroom in Boston wasn't PFP.

For months afterwards, every time I saw a police car, my heart would beat furiously and every muscle in my body would tense. One night, passing a cop on a dark road in rural Maine, with one headlight of my van out, I flew into a panic. I concoted an entire scenario that I was thoroughly convinced was about to unfold -- cop pulls me over, brings up my record on the computer in his car, sees that I am an activist and pulls me out of the car and beats me, then writes in his report attacked him and he acted in self defense. The cop never pulled me over to begin with. I was three miles further down the road before I realized that I had never been in real danger.

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I am telling this story because my very resistance to telling it tells me it needs to be told.

I am telling this story because when I am gathering stories in Latin America and I get together with other journalists and human rights workers at the end of the day we drink too much.

And I normally hardly drink at all.

I am telling this story because often when I get together with veterans and hear there stories I remember Oaxaca and Colombia and Bolivia and the same thing happens.

I'm embarrassed to say that because my own brief forays at the edge of war zones are meaningless in comparison to a year or more spent in combat in Iraq.

I am telling this story because these past few days my body has felt very much like it did right when I came back from Oaxaca.

I am telling this story because there must be something compelling me to be sitting at a computer at 11:47 after days of not enough sleep.

Every bit of judgement I have is telling me this is all melodramatic and self indulgent. And every bit of sense I have tells me to delete everything I just wrote.

But instead I am clicking on the bright orange box that says "publish post."

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