Friday, June 20, 2008

Remembering the midnight painters

There's a mural on the corner of Centre St. and Seaverns St. here in Jamaica Plain that depicts a teenage girl lying spread out across the roofs of the city, gazing up at at a sky filled with white doves. Across the bottom are scrawled the words "If you learn to see without your eyes, you'll see something more profound, more true -- you'll see you."

I'll have to learn to see the mural itself without my eyes -- this morning on the way to work I walked past a man covering the mural over with grey sheetrock.

The scene brought me back to Oaxaca, the December before last, a city under siege by paramilitary police brought in to crush an uprising that had begun by June, sparked by the brutal repression of a teachers' strike.

U.S. reporters had bemoaned the desecration of colonial buildings with political graffiti -- largely oblivious to the brutal subjugation of Oaxaca's never fully colonized people engaged in a struggle the Zapatistas in the neighboring state of Chiapas aptly described as a "war against oblivion," their cultural survival threatened by ecological destruction, economic globalization, and military repression.

In an effort to show that they had regained control, city officials had work crews out all day whitewashing the graffitied walls.

By night white pick up trucks full of masked men in black uniforms armed with assault rifles would patrol the city, kicking down the doors of suspected dissidents, beating them and shipping them off to distant prisons to be tortured. From the roof of my hostel, I would see the trucks go by every fifteen minutes.

But throughout the city there were kids with cans of spray paint who knew the exact timing of the patrols and would run out and leave fresh graffiti on the whitewashed walls.

Today I think of the midnight painters and wonder how we can bring their spirit to the more subtly occupied and regimented cities of the United States.