The Inconvenient Death of Brad Will

Mexican police gun down a counterculture hero

In 1995, Will moved into the East 5th Street squat, a big hulk of a building occupied by a mostly young crew of punks, artists, and travelers, as well as a few seasoned street denizens. Back then the place was still raw, with little running water, caved-in floors, and electricity cadged from a light pole on the street. But Will fixed up an apartment and was soon engaged in all the protests and eviction battles going on in the neighborhood. He was there for the birth of the Lower East Side pirate radio station, Steal This Radio, staging clandestine broadcasts from squats around the neighborhood to avoid detection by the FCC.

Will is probably best remembered in the neighborhood for his heroics on his East 5th Street roof, after a fire in February 1997 ripped through the building, prompting the city to move immediately to tear it down. Determined to stave off the destruction of what private engineers had told residents was a still salvageable building, Will somehow snuck through the lines of riot police and got back inside. I recall him waving his arms frantically from the roof as the wrecking crane slammed into the cornice, sending a cascade of bricks to the street.

There's an interesting twist to the 5th Street saga: It turned out his space heater supposedly started the fire. Everyone hailed him as a hero for climbing up on the roof to face down the demolition. But, in fact, he was being blamed by the other squatters for costing them their homes.

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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Tobocman says Will's stunt on the roof ultimately made up for the tragedy, because the fact that the city was knocking down the building with a person still inside helped the squatters win a $120,000 settlement. More importantly, it set a precedent by establishing that squatters in city buildings have the right to due process, that they can't just be tossed out of their homes. That's one of the reasons that 11 former squats were later legalized by the Bloomberg administration.

"I almost feel like he wanted to die up there, he felt so guilty about what happened," commented one friend, who asked not to be named.

But others say there was no death wish in Will, just an inordinate lack of fear.

That same summer Will hopped trains out West to take part in forest blockades in Northern California, and later a tree-sit in Oregon.

Afterward he came back to New York and trained activists here in the Earth First tactics he'd learned—whether it was chaining themselves down in defense of community gardens or setting up metal tripods to block traffic during Reclaim the Streets demonstrations.

In early 2000, Will and a group of activists camped through most of the winter in a giant frog they'd fortified with welded "lock boxes" to defend a Puerto Rican community garden slated for condominiums. After getting arrested during the protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, Will got swept up in the anti-globalization crusade, traveling to all the big demonstrations in Prague, Quebec City, Genoa, Zurich, Sweden, and Barcelona.

An interview he did with Fly for her book PEOPs begins: "I was in Europe for 6 months and I was in 4 riots," then goes on to describe a seemingly endless running battle with police, braving tear gas, chucking cobblestones, and lighting up flaming barricades.

By 2004, Will's mug shot was flashed on Nightline as one of the top 50 "leading anarchists" in America, based on a trumped-up police report released just prior to that year's Republican National Convention. And he was good friends with Jeffrey Luers, a/k/a "Free," the eco-activist sentenced to 23 years for torching SUVs in Oregon.

Yet looking back through Will's dogged dispatches, which used to arrive via e-mail under a variety of pseudonyms—"b.rad," "b.strong," or sometimes just "unknown"—one senses real passion and searching behind Will's frenzied pace of living.

That seemed particularly true after 9-11, when Will began documenting protests and social struggles in Latin America. His former girlfriend Dyan Neary, who traveled extensively with Will between 2002 and 2003, says his experiences in Latin America drove him to define himself more seriously as a journalist—albeit a partisan one.

In Ecuador, Will helped Neary sneak a video camera into a women's prison to make a film about all the children who were growing up inside the jail.

Using money they collected at benefits in New York, Will and Neary financed numerous mutual-aid projects, such as helping set up a pirate radio station in Fortaleza, Brazil, and helping fund a free school for poor kids in Lima, Peru. After spending a month camping out with landless peasants in Brazil in 2003, they even donated one of their video cameras to them.

"For us, it was all about mutual aid," explains Neary. "We weren't into being imperialist activists or top-down NGOs. They didn't need us to tell them how to organize or create community; they were already doing that themselves. We gave people money to help give them a voice, or just to fund what they were doing. And because we were staying with them and learning and experiencing so much."

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