Riot police swept thousands of striking teachers out of the heart of Mexico City on Friday, driving protesters through the streets with tear gas, flash grenades and water cannons in a swift end to the weeks-long occupation of the Zocalo plaza over reforms to the dysfunctional national education system.
Three days before Mexican Independence Day, the teachers armed themselves with metal pipes and wooden clubs and blocked off the Zocalo with steel grates and plastic traffic dividers, threatening to scuttle the traditional national celebration in the massive colonial-era square.
Before moving in, the government had promised that Independence Day celebrations would take place in the Zocalo as scheduled, and the head of the federal police warned on national television that police would move in at 4 p.m. local time.
The teachers, many veterans of battles with police in poor southern states, promised not to move from the square where they have camped out since last month. Some fixed knives and nails to wooden planks and declared themselves ready to fight. Others set up sewage-filled portable toilets in the path of police vehicles.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the police swarmed in, shooting tear gas from specially equipped fire extinguishers, tossing flash grenades and spraying water from armored trucks. Protesters hurled sticks and chunks of pavement broken from the streets around world-famous tourist attractions including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor and the National Palace.
But within a half hour, police had cleared the Zocalo and much of the surrounding historic center of virtually all protesters. Union organizers said they would reassemble away from the main plaza at the nearby Monument to the Revolution. Small knots of teachers, self-described local anarchists and other supporters hurled bottles and rocks at police on some of the main avenues of downtown Mexico City.
It was a dramatic reassertion of state authority after weeks of near-constant disruption in the center of one of the world's largest cities. The teachers have marched through the capital at least 15 times over the last two months, decrying a plan that aims to break union control of education with a new system of standardized teacher testing that become law on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the protests began turning violent, as demonstrating teachers scuffled with riot police after officers set up a line to keep them from blocking one of the city's main expressways. City officials reported 15 police hurt as protesters seized some plastic riot shields from officers.
The teachers say blocking the reform itself is no longer the point. They say they are now trying to maintain pressure to protect their rights and privileges as the government puts the labor reforms into effect and reduces union control over teacher hiring and assignment.
As federal police helicopters swooped low overhead Friday, teachers struck tents they have been living in for weeks and burned garbage and plastic traffic barriers, filling the Zocalo with thick, acrid smoke. A group of battle-hardened teachers said clearing the tents was a tactical move to allow them maneuvering room for a possible clash.
In echoes of clashes between teachers and police in the capital of the southern state of Oaxaca in 2006, a group of Oaxaca teachers at the Mexico City protest had said they commandeered a bulldozer from road works in the Zocalo and moved it to the front lines.
"We've got the bulldozer ready," said primary-school teacher Cesar Perez, who teaches in the impoverished Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca. "The president isn't going to give the shout here. Here they are going to listen to the people."
As the teachers waved pipes and cudgels in the air, singing "we will overcome!" actor Pepe Ortiz cheered on the crowd dressed as independence hero Miguel Hidalgo and clutching a big Mexican flag. He brushed off criticism that the protest was preventing the customary shout of independence.
"For me, this is the shout, the shout of the people," he said, pointing to the singing, chanting throng of protesters. "This is the real shout."
The protests were being led by the National Education Workers Coordinating Committee, or CNTE, the smaller of the country's two main teachers unions. The larger union has supported Pena Nieto's reform.
The teachers argue that because they are from poor states and don't have the means to enact peaceful change, their main strength is the ability to shut schools and make life inconvenient in Mexico's economic, political and cultural heart.
Many independent observers say that the teachers are simply accustomed to using disruption as a tactic for winning concessions like better pay and benefits from the weak governments of the states where teachers are actually one of the most powerful political forces.
Mexico City's government avoided intervening until Friday, increasing the frustrations of many capital dwellers. The city's leftist government has historically been slow to crack down on protests, fearful of violence on the capital's streets. Two massacres of protesting students in 1968 and 1971 became national traumas.