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"Brad was one of these young activists I met coming to New York in the early '90s who were very brave and high-minded, and also willing to take risks and make sacrifices that kind of startled me," says Seth Tobocman, publisher of the radical zine World War 3 Illustrated. "He was schooled in the Earth First philosophy of putting your life on the line. Part of the training is that these 400-year-old trees are harder to replace than a human being. Your life is less important than the environment you're saving."
And that philosophy, Tobocman believes, informed Will's life to the end. "He went to shoot pictures of paramilitaries and police shooting into a crowd of people. I don't think there was a mistake here. He was doing what somebody should do, and he decided that person should be him."
"Brad told me his mom kept a picture of him dressed up as a giant sunflower during one of the garden protests [in NYC] on her coffee table. He was really happy about that," says Dyan Neary, a former girlfriend and close friend, who first met Will in 2001 when he was doing video tech work for the left-leaning cable broadcast Democracy Now.
The affection of Will's family is apparent in the scores of photos posted online by the family (at bradwill.org), which show the young Will as a shy Boy Scout, posing proudly with sailing trophies as a young teen, beaming as a college grad in cap and gown, and looking surprisingly clean-shaven at his brother's graduation. There are also pictures of him smiling during numerous family ski trips and vacations to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Bajaimages that suggest a world of privilege very different from the low-rent, dumpster-diving lifestyle Will embodied in New York City.
In an interview earlier this year with El Libertario, an anarchist paper in Venezuela, Will bemoaned his sheltered upbringing in a largely white and conservative town. "The community was completely closed, my parents were on the right, it was a struggle to open my life," he told the newspaper. "I didn't know much about the truth of the world, but little by little I forced my eyes open, without the help of anyone."
Will said he started questioning the government and the media during the first Gulf war, while he was studying literature at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He became intrigued with ideas of anarchism and ecology. But his real political awakening happened when he went to study poetry with Allen Ginsberg and other radical artists at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1993.
Will managed to attend classes without paying tuition. "We basically squatted school," says Jenny Smith with a laugh. Smith, a writer and massage therapy student from Brooklyn, met Will at Naropa when she was 18.
"Ginsberg really loved Brad," Smith recalls. Friends say Ginsberg gave Will several original, handwritten poems that he brought with him to New York, later lost when the building he was living in burned down.
Another influential professor was Peter Lamborn Wilson, a/k/a Hakim Bey, who was then urging activists to create "temporary autonomous zones"liberated spaces outside of social norms and government control. Smith remembers one of Will's first-ever protests: a mock gay wedding to protest the evangelical Promise Keepers, who were holding an outdoor luncheon at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Brad was the groom, Peter Lamborn Wilson was presiding, and the bride was our friend Pasq, who was like the gayest man in all of Colorado," she says.
Will at age seven, as an Indian Guide and Cub Scout, with his brother and sisters in the affluent Chicago suburb of Kenilworth.
courtesy the Will family
"This was at a time when gay marriage wasn't even on the cultural radar," Smith notes. Yet the heterosexual Will bravely locked lips with Pasq long enough to shock the Promise Keepers.
Through Wilson, Will learned about Dreamtime Village, a radical arts commune in rural Wisconsin devoted to new theories of permaculture and hypermedia. There, Will hooked in to the circuit of nomadic punks, anarchists, and "freaks," including a zine artist known as Fly, who introduced him to the world of Lower East Side squatting. "He was so, so young and full of wonder, he didn't even know what a squat was," Fly recalls. Yet Will was immediately enthralled by the idea of fixing up an abandoned building and living rent-free.
Will arrived in New York in 1994 and stayed briefly in an extended rent-strike building on Avenue B with artist Loyan Beausoleil, whom he'd met at Dreamtime. Beausoleil remembers him back then as a "really sweet, earnest guy." For years afterward, she says, Will would spontaneously show up outside her door to help carry wood up six flights for her wood-burning stove. "He would just be out there at 7:30 in the morning. I didn't even have to tell him when the delivery was coming."