When leadership takes risk

Juxtaposition of two different themes this morning.

One was a Tweet that caught my attention:

RT @oscarberg: RT @hnauheimer: When leadership takes risk and opens space, vision emerges and people come together in dialogue. Then, things take care of themselves.

The other was how well this dovetailed with what happened yesterday in this town where I’m working at the moment, Tepoztlan in central Mexico. (I’ll admit my Spanish is best described as rudimentary, so I’ll have to describe the background as I understand it, which may be some distance from the actual detail.)

In some ways this town is a spiritual heart for Mexico. (If you’re British, think of a combination of King Arthur and Glastonbury; if you’re American, perhaps the Alamo and Sedona combined; for Australians, think of the Eureka Stockade with Nimbin.) It’s a stunning place, ringed all round by vertical cliffs, on one of which stands the Tepozteco pyramid, clear air, birdsong, hummingbirds darting around (I’ve just been watching one as I wrote this). It’s also little more than an hour’s drive or bus-ride from the sprawling smog of Mexico City. So, as can be imagined, it’s a key tourist town: and, in turn, tourism is a key part of its economy, as city-folk swarm up here on the weekends for the market and the ‘traditional’ Mexican atmosphere – especially on this weekend, the key sort-of-religious festival of Dia del Muerte, the Day of the Dead, that actually lasts for several days and is assigned its own long public holiday.

All of which should, I hope, explain why it’s definitely non-trivial that the town was all but blocked off yesterday – by the townsfolk themselves.

Two separate but related concerns seem to have been the trigger. The taxis are a lifeline here, omnipresent, rattling round the cobbled backstreets, ferrying the elderly, the young and just about everyone and everything else – including my colleague’s drum-kit – up and down the steep hills of the town. Yet recently two taxi-drivers have been murdered – I don’t know how or why, though perhaps by small-time narcos. (Not it seems, by the serious big-time narcos, who apparently regard such attacks against ‘civilians’ as anathema.) The other trigger was the abduction of a young girl: just in time, the perpetrator was caught in the act near a cemetery by a funeral party, who dealt out their own rough justice. Yet in each of these cases, I was told, the police had done nothing: not interested.

Policing here is a political hot-potato, to say the least. There’d been a reshuffle a couple of years back – perhaps as part of the government’s ‘war against drugs’? – and a new police-chief imposed from outside. Whatever the cause, the reputation of the police amongst the local populace had been falling steadily ever since – and now it hit rock-bottom, with a bang.

So as in that Tweet above, “When leadership takes risk and opens space, vision emerges and people come together in dialogue. Then, things take care of themselves.” And yes, they certainly did.

Somewhat before midday yesterday, on what would probably have been the busiest tourist weekend of the year, all of the streets into and out of the centre of the town were suddenly blocked by taxis. No-one could get in by car, and no-one could get out – entrapping a few annoyed tourists in the resultant mess (and also a woman in labour, which was not such a good idea…). The usually-thronging main market-space was almost empty; instead, there was a huge crowd outside the town hall, audibly angry. Off to one side, I saw a couple of people in bright yellow uniform, who turned out to be paramedics; also with them was a member of the ‘Policia Preventiva’ with an assault rifle, which was not the worry that it sounds because I’d seen him often around town on other days, including giving first aid to an elderly woman who’d fallen in the market, with the rifle at that time slung awkwardly across his back. Other than that, there were no police to be seen: which was probably wise, as they were the all-too-overt focus of the townsfolks’ anger.

The crowd demanded the immediate resignation of the police-chief: they got it. They presented a list of ten other police officers that they demanded should be fired at once: they got that promise too. They also got the promise that the police would be responsible to the people of the town – not the other way round – and that the people themselves would determine the priorities of the police. But the promise alone was not enough: they didn’t move from in front of the town hall until, some four or five hours later, they not only had the official order in writing from the mayor, but that the mayor had signed it in front of them as well.

As my colleague here put it, “Like most places, most of the time people will keep their heads down and ignore the everyday injustices, out of fear perhaps, ‘nothing to do with me’. But underneath that surface indifference is real strength, real commitment: so when they do reach that point of ‘enough is enough’, this town will move.” A bit like that well-known quote by Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Yet here this wasn’t “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens”: this was almost the entire town. Interesting indeed…

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