The Inconvenient Death of Brad Will

Mexican police gun down a counterculture hero

According to Gustavo Bilchis, a freelance photographer who says he was nearby when Will was shot, some of the demonstrators did pull out guns after the Priistas had opened fire on them.

"At that point, people were feeling, 'They are shooting at us, so we need a gun to protect ourselves.' But always they wait until the PRI shoots first," Bilchis said. He added that it was clear to him that Will was brought down by a PRI gunshot.

Now many are wondering whether Will was targeted as a foreign journalist. A tall and lanky gringo, Will would have been an easy mark, and it's significant that the Milenio photographer was shot right next to him.

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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Will's tape shows him being taken down by an isolated shot, as he's standing in back of about a dozen other protesters. Will was also hit on the side of the torso, perhaps in the barrage of gunfire that followed. According to La Jornada, the coroner removed two AR-15 rifle bullets from his body. Witnesses have said the shot that first hit Will appeared to come from the roof or second floor of the house where the gunmen were hiding.

Nevertheless Oaxaca attorney general Lizbeth Cana put the blame for his death on APPO, whom she has compared to an "urban guerrilla group."

Similarly, when asked at a news conference whether he was concerned about a possible human rights violation committed against an American journalist working on foreign soil, a U.S. State Department official told reporters: "I have no indications of that," adding, "Well, you know, it is unfortunate anytime you have peaceful political protests that get out of hand that result in violence."

Officials at the U.S. embassy say they are pressing for a "swift and thorough" investigation into the circumstances of Will's death. But at this stage the investigation is being conducted by the state attorney general—who is, of course, a member of the same party as the alleged killers.

On November 4, two local PRI officials were formally charged with Will's murder. But three others are now reportedly on the lam, including municipal policemen Juan Carlos Soriano and Juan Carlos Sumano, and PRI militant Pedro Carmona, who was initially identified as the person who fired the shot that killed Will.

Meanwhile, activists on the ground in Oaxaca say there are calls on PRI radio to "shoot foreign journalists with cameras" if you see them. At least two independent journalists have been beaten up by police since Will's death, and a photographer for a local Mexican weekly was roughed up and detained for 48 hours, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.

It now appears that Will may have been doing more than simply filming the assaults on demonstrators by gunmen. Other activists say that in the days before his death, he was following members of PRI and police in the streets in order to gather evidence against them. That seems to be what he is doing right before he gets shot, if you watch his footage closely. "White shirt," he calls out to the other demonstrators, identifying a shooter. "Over there."

If so, he may have crossed the line from journalist to APPO sympathizer in a way that made him a target.

What would have made Will cross that line? Even as he becomes a martyr to the Oaxacan uprising he celebrated, close friends who loved him are still struggling to understand what he was doing that day—and why.

"Brad was a journalist in the way Orwell and Hemingway were, in terms of getting in there and being partisan," argues Seth Tobocman, referring to the writers' support for the anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. "He wasn't there as a neutral party. He was there because the causes he covered meant something to him."

"I think his death should be a wake-up call," Tobocman continues. "People like Brad and Rachel Corrie were taking risks for a lot of us, and they get victimized because there aren't a lot of people doing it. If more people did what Brad did, maybe he wouldn't have died."

But others say Will's death should be a warning to other activists who plunge headfirst into foreign hot spots without fully understanding the context and the cost.

"I think he romanticized the risk and felt kind of invincible because of being a foreigner with a camera there," says Matt Power, a contributing editor at Harper's, who credits Will with schooling him in his first direct action: climbing a City Hall tree in a sunflower costume to protest former mayor Rudy Giuliani's destruction of community gardens. Power also hopped freights with Will: They once got arrested together while riding a boxcar from Pennsylvania to Virginia one Fourth of July weekend, watching the fireworks erupt across the American countryside. "We got busted when Will got cocky and went to talk to the engineers," Power says with a laugh.

Yet as much as he praises his friend as an "elder statesman" of activists, Power sees Will's death as in some ways inevitable: "Always before in his life he'd get in trouble, and then come up smelling like roses—from eluding police during Critical Mass rides to all these other protest actions that he did, and I think it finally caught up to him.

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