John Ross and Los de Abajo

Most of the tributes to John Ross have stressed the colorful side of the New York-born journalist, activist, and poet, who died in Michoacán, 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 Hernández Navarro pointed out in the Mexican daily La Jornada, John was always “in the place where things happen.”

John was covering Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’ 1988 campaign long before Cárdenas 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, Andrés Manuel López 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 base.

He was still happy to chat with López 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 Histórico.  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 Michoacán, 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 Chávez, 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 Chávez, John talked about the dangers of caudillismo, the Latin American tradition of concentrating power in charismatic populist leaders.  “Chávez is a caudillo,” John concluded, “but he’s our caudillo.”

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 mélange 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 México Bárbaro 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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