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Mexican students protest for greater democracy, 1968
In July of 1968, as the student-led uprising of May and June in France was fading away, a new one was just beginning in Mexico City. Students inspired by the success of the movement in France saw their own opportunity to bring more open democracy to Mexico. They saw the summer Olympics that were to take place in Mexico City in October as an opportunity to put pressure on the government, led by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The dissent that had been simmering previously was finally triggered on July 22nd when a street fight between rival high school students was brutally repressed by police, causing students from both factions to barricade themselves within a school. After several days of rioting and fights between police and students, high school and university students initiated student strikes and occupations of school buildings in order to protest the police repression. Each protest caused more anger among students as they were met with more police brutality. On July 30th, know as “el día del bazukazo” (the day of the bazooka) police and army units took over schools that had been occupied by students, in one famous case using a bazooka to blow through a historic door dating from the colonial age.
In response to this day of massive repression, the rector of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), Javier Barros Sierra, led 100,000 people in a protest march. After the July 30th repression, the student demonstrators became more organized in their protests and the result seemed to be a diminishment in the level of violence on their part.
Finally, at a protest on August 5th, organizers circulated a petition with a list of demands. It asked for the release of political prisoners, the disbanding of the granaderos (government police force), the dismissal of the police chief General Cueto and his assistant General Mendiola, compensation for acts of police brutality that initiated protests, the repeal of Article 145 and 145A of the consitution, and punishment of guilty members within the police and government. These specific demands were part of a larger demand for a more open and democratic government.
The August 5th petition had been put together by the newly organized National Strike Committee (CNH). This committee organized the protests to some extent; however, much of the campaign was based on work carried out by individual “brigades”. These brigades were small groups of students who produced their own fliers, often with different demands from other brigades and the CNH, and staged their own lightening protests. In these lightening protests students would quickly organize and then disband before police arrived. They also performed street theatre with political themes, staged political conversations in public spaces, made speeches in social gathering spaces such as squares or markets, and painted slogans on walls and telephone poles.
The groups organized two massive marches on August 13th and 27th to the Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. Between 150,000 and 300,000 people participated in the first march and reclaimed the square, which had previously been used for PRI demonstrations. Over 500,000 people participated in the second march. During the 4-hour assembly in the Zócalo, demonstrators entered the nearby cathedral to ring the bells and shouted insults towards the Presidential Palace. The students, both during these assemblies in the Zócalo and in everyday life, used songs, slogans, and jokes to voice their demands for democracy. As part of these two actions in August parents, workers, teachers, and nurses joined the students in their demands for greater democracy in Mexico.
Throughout the campaign the PRI government also attempted to undermine the student protests by arranging demonstrations of their own. One such demonstration on August 28th revealed the extent to which the government had lost public support. As the PRI began this rally in the Zócalo by raising the flag, nobody in the audience cheered. Instead, the silence was broken by some 500 protesting university students, who chanted as they marched directly into the midst of the governmental rally. The gathered crowd cheered on the students, only to be dispersed by armed police forces when the students had reached the front of the Presidential Palace.
Despite the massive, open protests in Mexico City, President Díaz Ordaz dismissed the public unrest in his national address on September 1st and threatened continued violence against any future demonstrations of dissent. Nonetheless, the CNH and the smaller brigades continued their organizing and distribution of leaflets.
On September 13th the students held a silent march and on September 15th they organized a fair on the UNAM campus, which had become a center for pro-democracy protests. However, on September 18th the military took over UNAM. When the military attempted to take over the National Polytechnic Institute, another center for dissent, students and residents in the area retaliated with stones and Molotov cocktails, leading to three days of clashes between students and military troops. However, this attempted suppression of the campaign did not stop the protests, as students simply began circulating fliers explaining yet another act of government repression.
However, as the October 12th date for the beginning of the Olympic games approached, the PRI became increasingly anxious to suppress the civil unrest. October 2nd was the tragic day that marked a turning point in the campaign. On that day, in the plaza of the housing project, Tlatelolco, between 5,000 and 15,000 people gathered peacefully to protest and listen to speakers. Suddenly, soon after the speeches had begun, special military units began firing on the crowd. Hundreds of peaceful protesters, as well as residents living in the buildings surrounding the plaza, were killed and 1,000 more were arrested by police and military troops. The horrific scene was represented in government-controlled newspapers as a violent student uprising which forced military action throughout the city.
Protests continued after October 2nd, but the CNH agreed to a truce beginning on October 9th in preparation for the Olympic games. After the Olympics there was little more protest action. In December, the CNH was dissolved and students returned to their schools, ending the student strikes. The dissolution of the movement after the brutal crackdown at Tlatelolco is a marked contrast from the effect that police repression had on the student campaign in France. In France the repression fueled the movement and helped students incorporate the whole society. However, repression in France was much less severe then it was in Mexico City so it is difficult to tell whether the different effects of the repression was due to the Mexican student campaign’s handling of the situation, or if the more closed and ruthless Mexican government made it impossible for students to have used the repression to their advantage.
Although the student protests in Mexico City did not lead to any direct political change, they did lead to a change of mindset in the population. The student demonstrations illuminated the repression and hypocrisy of the government, and can be seen as the root of continuing social discontent that eventually led to a more open government far in the future. Unfortunately, the 1968 student campaign had been suppressed before this change was brought about.