The Inconvenient Death of Brad Will

Mexican police gun down a counterculture hero

But by 2005, friends were beginning to wonder whether Will was taking these experiences too far.

In February 2005, Will was nearly killed during the forced eviction of 12,000 squatters from an urban encampment in an abandoned industrial area of central Brazil. He was beaten and arrested by Brazilian military police and had his camera seized during the brutal raid, which killed at least two people and injured scores of others.

His report of the police storming the encampment is shockingly visceral—written in the punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness style that used to infuriate his editors at Indymedia, the left-wing alternative-media website where he worked:

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.

it was pandemonium -- everyone was running and screaming -- as i ran i saw them coming from my flank -- and aiming to shoot again not more than thirty feet away -- then all hell broke loose -- suddenly there was gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades on all sides -- immediately i recognized the sound of real bullets -- i tried twice to stop and film but only for seconds until bullets flew near by

Yet after he was released, Will was e-mailing back home asking friends to ship him another camera so he could document the aftermath.

"A lot of us were really concerned for his safety," recalls Lehman. "We even had a meeting about it. We wanted him to come home."

Neary says Will found the experience in Brazil chastening; she says he felt only his American passport kept him from being killed. "For the first time he realized he was not invincible," she says.

Will came home, but he didn't slow down. He immediately began hustling up lighting and stagehand jobs to buy a new camera and finance more travels. "Over the past year or so, Brad worked his ass off—sometimes 60 hours a week or more," recalls Brandon Jourdan, a filmmaker and former roommate who worked with Will at Indymedia.

"Some of his friends thought he was working too much," recalls Jourdan. "But he was working toward a goal. He wanted to build support for the social movements in Latin America because he really saw the need to make connections between what's going on there and what's happening here."

In January he traveled to the Yucatan to document the first leg of the Zapatistas' so-called Other Campaign to challenge Mexico's electoral system, following Subcomandante Marcos and his supporters as they toured the region.

Will then boarded a plane south to Venezuela to attend the World Social Forum, where he shot footage of Hugo Chávez rallying his adoring left-wing fans. But he also trekked out to the northwest border with Colombia to document indigenous peoples protesting the Chávez government for allowing foreign companies to mine their land.

"Brad was not a cheerleader for leftist governments," says Jourdan. "He understood the leftist movements in Latin America were an improvement over the right-wing neoliberal order that's been imposed on these countries, but his core belief was in grassroots movements from the bottom up.

"What inspired him about these social movements was that they were not dependent on these single-leader figures like Chávez or Evo Morales. He saw the Zapatistas and the movement of landless peasants [in Brazil] as harbingers of real democracy and social justice."

But it wasn't until Oaxaca in the fall of 2006 that Will saw, at last, the potential for a revolution.

image
Will in 1998, staging a tree-sit in Oregon and camping out in a helicopter cargo net 200 feet in the air.
courtesy the Will family


The revolt began on June 14, when state police stormed the encampment set up by teachers in the tourist city's main square who were demanding better wages and increased school funding. According to local radio reports, the cops fired concussion grenades and rifles, killing three and wounding more than 100. But the teachers regrouped and retook the zocalo, hurling tear gas canisters back at police lines and charging them with commandeering buses.

The crackdown became a flash point for discontent over Oaxaca's governor, Ulises Ruiz, who protesters believe was fraudulently elected, and his political machine, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Soon, the teachers were joined by all sorts of leftists, trade unionists, neighborhood block committees, students, and indigenous and peasant groups, who took up the call for the governor's resignation.

The Ruiz opposition united as APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, and seized control of government buildings, forcing Ruiz and his bureaucracy to retreat to hotels on the outskirts of the city. Radio and TV stations were also seized as APPO pledged to make the state "ungovernable." Protesters and local residents occupied police stations and began erecting nightly barricades and lighting bonfires on the streets and highways.

Although ignored by mainstream media in the U.S., the revolt in Oaxaca was being hailed by leftists here and abroad as the next Paris Commune or a sequel to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.


Will's roommates, who shared a small rent-controlled apartment with him in South Williamsburg, recall him staying up late to monitor APPO's pirate radio broadcasts over the Internet.

Remembers Brandon Jourdan: "He was excited by the fact that activists had staked out their own autonomous area. He was drawn to that. He wanted to document the fact that people were organizing and trying to take control of their own lives from this corrupt political machine."

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