An occupation protest that happened in Mexico last year on the issue of rising femicides didn’t get the attention it deserved in the media.
Last year we witnessed a lot of occupation protests from Shaheen Bagh to Farmers’ occupation of Delhi borders. Just like those in Shaheen Bagh, this occupation protest in Mexico was led by women. It started with the spontaneous takeover of the Office of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in response to rising femicides in Mexico.
Eleven women are killed in Mexico every day. Femicide rates have increased in Mexico each year for over a decade. Their characteristics are consistent and gruesome, with many cases where perpetrators have mutilated and abused their victims’ bodies, then disposed of them on roadsides or in fields.
Over 66% of Mexican women report having experienced some type of sexual violence. Victims find themselves caught in an endless bureaucracy where they are denied justice for years and 98% of all reported crimes go unresolved. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 71% increase in reports of domestic violence and has created further difficulties for women seeking justice through the legal system.
The Human Rights Commission was supposedly there to protect women, but their frustration over its failed justice system resulted in the women realising that the government wasn’t going to help them. They decided to take matters into their own hands, which led to the unprecedented event in world history where women occupied a government building.
On 2 September, 2020, two women refused to leave the office building to protest the lack of progress in their respective cases, a murder and sexual assault. They requested local activists for support and dozens of feminist collectives arrived outside the building led by anarcho-feminists wearing black balaclavas who call themselves Bloque Negro (Black Block).
They occupied the pavement outside the building and wrote up a list of demands. With support from the feminist organisation Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), they took over the building on 4 September. They forced themselves into the building and asked the remaining workers and guards to leave.
More and more women across various collectives joined, putting their bodies in line with the women inside. As the word spread, supporters began bringing bags of donated clothes, food, diapers and toiletries, which the women passed out to local families in need.
They painted a mural that declared: “Ni perdonamos, ni olvidamos (we neither forgive nor forget).” Bright murals covered the walls, offices became bedrooms and the staff kitchen became a communal cafeteria. Women from all over Mexico City showed up to read poetry, perform music and write the names of their abusers on the walls.
They renamed the building as Okupa Cuba Casa Refugio (Cuba Occupation-Shelter House) — or Okupa for short. They have demanded that these women not be prosecuted for the protest; for police officers to receive gender sensitivity training; for the president to present a report on actions to decrease gender-based violence; and for the state to guarantee a quick resolution of femicide and disappearance cases.
The occupation was the culmination of year-long mobilisations against gender violence in Mexico City. The young women of the Bloque Negro joined the movement from personal experience of violence. Others were radicalised by the police violence they experienced during protests.
Every day, they wake up to alerts in news and social media about disappearances, rape, abuse and murder. Black Block protestors protesting through direct-action techniques have long been a ubiquitous presence at political demonstrations in Mexico City.
View this post on Instagram
Their appearance was inspired by Zapatistas, anarchists who wore black balaclavas to declare war on the Mexican state in 1994 and take over not a building but a territory. Now, large groups of women are adopting these strategies.
After police officers sexually assaulted a young woman, activists took to the street, broke bus station windows, set a police station on fire and graffitied feminist slogans on the iconic Angel of Independence monument.
They expected police retaliation and arrests, which led them to coin the phrase fuimos todas (it was all of us). “The window we broke, the fire, wasn’t done by one person”, so that police can’t target them individually.
The women had declared the Okupa a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. The building became a safe haven for many, including relatives of victims of forced disappearance, Indigenous women forcibly displaced from their homes by organised crime and survivors of domestic violence.
Hundreds of survivors have come to seek lodging and legal counsel. They gather to hear testimonies of fellow mothers of victims of femicide, rape and enforced disappearance. They have turned the building into a community. A committee was constituted for cooking each meal and everyone was responsible for washing their own dishes.
The women take turns keeping guard at the doors, where they have arranged a line of Molotov cocktails for emergency use since the blocks around the Okupa have a constant police presence. The occupiers have planned security protocols in case police attempt to evict them from the space violently.
The organising among so many women is done through dialogues and discussions, thinking about each other and their actions and consequences. They are determined and not ready to accept anything less than justice. They are struggling, resisting and persisting to stay alive because in Mexico, staying alive is a challenge.
They painted “We do not forgive or forget”, “Justice”, and “duuuude, not the wall!!” — a reference to public outrage over a graffiti left in the wake of past feminist protests, an outrage much louder than that over violence against women.
They painted over portraits of all-male historical figures adorned with lipstick, eyeshadow, purple curls, “ACAB”, anarchist symbols and flowers. They brought these paintings outside and displayed them, images that have gone viral. The groups are auctioning off the paintings to fund their shelter.
The occupiers include older women, kids and pregnant women. Many are university students, who in between activities, turn to online classes. Many were arrested in the frequent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and violence on these protestors. But the women plan to keep the occupation of the building even if the state agrees to their demands.
Okupa has inspired similar protests across the country. When feminists took over the Human Rights Commission in a neighbouring State, police violently evicted them. The next day, the Bloque Negro returned shouting, “If it’s not ours, it’s no one’s”. They broke the locks, smashed the windows and set fire to the building before marching away.
Even though there are fundamental differences between the Shaheen Bagh and Okupa protests, both were led by women who were frustrated with their government. They wanted to send a message that they could take matters into their own hands and raise their issues themselves and are completely capable of self-organisation through mutual aid and democratic decision making.
The Shaheen Bagh protest saw women come in large numbers to occupy the protest site demanding the repeal of the discriminatory CAA, NRC and NPR. Both these protests saw the participation of women on a radical and unprecedented scale never witnessed around the world.
These protests where women are reclaiming their rights and occupying public spaces simultaneously at two farthest points in the globe gives us hope that a new dawn is approaching, where equality will not just be a privilege for the few but the norm.
This article was first published in Round Table India.