The Inconvenient Death of Brad Will

Mexican police gun down a counterculture hero

The last time I saw independent journalist and activist Brad Will was in September in an East Village yoga studio. I turned my head and found him lying on the mat next to me in the darkened room, his pale, flat stomach rising and falling serenely with the rhythm of his breathing. So on October 27, when I saw the photos posted on the Internet showing the 36-year-old Will's mortally wounded body laid out on a street in Oaxaca, Mexico, I cringed. There was that same pale, flat stomach now punctured by a bullet.

Around the world, activists and friends who knew Will—and many people who didn't—were having the same visceral reaction. Within hours of his shooting by plainclothes gunmen firing on a group of striking demonstrators, images of his murder ricocheted around the Web. There were photos of Will's limp body being carried through the streets by frantic demonstrators screaming for help. Equally shocking were the pictures posted by El Universal and other Mexican media showing his alleged killers firing brazenly into the crowd, as if aiming at the cameras. The same gunmen who shot Will also wounded a photographer for the Mexico City daily Milenio, who was at Will's side.

When images of the shooters aired on Mexican TV, viewers began phoning in to identify the gunmen. They have since been confirmed in the media as the police chief and two officers from Santa Lucia del Camino, the municipality where Will was shot, along with the town councillor for the state governing party, his chief of security, and the former head of a neighboring barrio.

Brad Will was gunned down while filming protests in Oaxaca, Mexico.
photo: AFP/Getty Images
Brad Will was gunned down while filming protests in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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Then came the most horrifying evidence of all: Will's final videotape, uploaded on the Web the next day. In his zeal to capture the state-backed repression of the popular uprising that has rocked Oaxaca for the last five months, Will succeeded in recording his own murder.

Armed with an HD camera he had picked up on eBay, Will went to Oaxaca to document the broad-based movement of striking teachers, peasants, urban residents, and left-wing forces that had seized control of government offices and taken over the central square to demand the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz.

But by becoming the first American journalist killed in the unrest, Will became a pretext for Mexican president Vicente Fox to send in 4,000 federal police officers to put down the revolt, which Fox characterized as "radical groups, out of control," who "had put at risk the peace of the citizenry." Since then at least two more protesters have died in the heavy clashes with federal police, who stormed the barricades with tear gas and water cannons, and more than 80 demonstrators have been arrested as the federales continue to vie for control of the city.

Looking back at the trajectory of Will's life, it's not surprising that he would land in the center of this Mexican standoff. Will was always drawn to global flash points where the battle lines are drawn in stark black and white.

Over the course of his restless 36 years, he seemed to hit every activist node: squatting in the East Village, staging tree-sits in the Northwest with Earth First, and hopping freight trains to anarchist gatherings. He braved tear gas and rubber bullets during the anti-globalization battles in Seattle, Quebec, Prague, and Genoa (where a demonstrator was shot dead in the street by police). In 2004, I remember him being everywhere during street protests surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York, video camera in hand. He reveled in these clashes, always returning with tales of glory, folk songs about resisting the police, and reports of the free food and fun he'd had along the way.

When the heady Seattle-style direct-action movement in the U.S. toned down following 9-11, Will took his video camera south, following the wave of popular uprisings in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and finally Mexico. Friends say he was consumed with overlooked social struggles around the world.

"He was one of the most dedicated activists I ever worked with," says Brooke Lehman, one of the owners of the radical Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side, who met Will in 1998. "You could pretty much guarantee if there was a cause or an action, Will would be there. He felt a tremendous responsibility to do media where other media outlets wouldn't go, or were afraid to go."

Yet in the wake of his shooting, even his most diehard anarchist friends are struggling to reconcile the worth of his activism with the risks he took on the day of his death. What propelled him to join that group of rock-throwing demonstrators as they chased down these firing gunmen through the outskirts of Oaxaca City? Was he incredibly brave, or just naive? Or perhaps too high on adrenaline to fully weigh the risks he was taking?

There had been other occasions that made people wonder—like the time Will stood on the roof of his East Village squat as a wrecking crane slammed into the building. Last year he was arrested and nearly killed by military police while trying to film the forced eviction of an urban squatters camp in Goiânia, in central Brazil.

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