Shock is reverberating among American social-justice activists with the news that New York-based independent journalist William Bradley Roland was shot and killed Friday when gunmen in civilian clothes opened fire on demonstrators in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The 36-year-old Roland, who went by the name Brad Will, was in Oaxaca covering the popular uprising of teachers and workers who in the last five months have seized streets and government buildings to demand the resignation of the governor there.
According to witnesses interviewed by Free Speech Radio News, Will was filming in Santa Lucia del Camino on the outskirts of Oaxaca City as groups of gunmen reportedly affiliated with the ruling PRI party opened fire on demonstrators manning a street barricade.
(El Universal photo of a gunman, via nyc.indymedia.org)
“He was filming as the paramilitaries began their assault on the crowd,” says Shannon Young, a reporter for Free Speech Radio News based in Oaxaca. “According to witnesses, someone grabbed Brad’s shirt and said, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ but he kept filming and he got shot.”
Will was felled by a bullet to his stomach. He died while being transported to a Red Cross hospital.
(photo of the fallen Brad Will, via nyc.indymedia.org)
A photographer for the Mexican daily Milenio Diario who was standing near Will was also shot in the foot.
According to news reports, two others were killed in the clashes Friday, including teacher Emilio Alonso Fabian, and more than 20 were wounded.
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, also suggested Will had been shot by local police.
“It appears that Mr. Will was killed during a shootout between what may have been local police” and protesters, Garza said in a written statement, according to the Associated Press.
Other news reports, however, claim the protesters were armed only with rocks and sticks.
In an update by Mexican journalist Diego Enrique Osorno, posted on the Narco News Bulletin, Saturday, the mayor of Santa Lucia acknowledged the armed men in civilian clothes were “police acting in legitimate defense against the threat of an occupation of City Hall.”
In Mexico, Indymedia journalists are now piecing together Will’s own videotapes in hopes that he may have filmed his own killer.
As word of Will’s death spread last night, friends and fellow activists converged at the radical Bluestockings Bookstore on the Lower East Side to mourn his loss and strategize for action.
Friends remembered the lanky Wisconsin native as a globetrotting, self-taught journalist with a love of adventure and a knack for finding himself at the center of hot spots. “He was one of the most dedicated activists I ever worked with,” said Brooke Lehman, owner of the activist-oriented bookstore, who met Will during the 1999 street protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.
“You could pretty much guarantee if there was a cause or an action, Brad would be there,” added Lehman. “He felt a tremendous responsibility to do media where other media outlets wouldn’t go, or were afraid to go.”
Last year Will was beaten and arrested by Brazilian police while filming the forced eviction of an urban squatter camp in Goiania, in central Brazil. Friends say he was the only journalist there. He displayed a similarly reckless zeal in 1997, when he stood on the roof of his East Fifth Street squat in Manhattan as a wrecking ball slammed into the front of the building. His act was a last-ditch effort to save his home.
In recent years, Will traveled to Ecuador, Argentina, and Chiapas to document social struggles there.
Yet despite the dangers he encountered, friends say he would return to New York singing folksongs from the places he’d been.
“He was committed to documenting injustice, but also the communities of resistance, to let people know that there is a vibrant community of people out there fighting for these causes,” recalled Beka Economopoulos, a fellow activist from Williamsburg. “He was able to take what was dire and turn it into folklore and make it mythical. He had a gift for that. He would dance around and hug you and get you caught up in whatever was going on.”
You can get a taste of Wills idealism in his last dispatch from Oaxaca, a near stream-of-consciousness report about marching to the morgue to identify a 41-year-old man named Alejandro Garcia Hernandez. He had been shot at a street barricade, just as Will would soon be.
The dispatch ends:
“one more death — one more martyr in a dirty war — one more time to cry and hurt — one more time to know power and its ugly head — one more bullet cracks the night — one more night at the barricades — some keep the fires — others curl up and sleep — but all of them are with him as he rests one last night at his watch”
There will be a vigil for Will at 7 p.m. Saturday tonight outside the Mexican Consulate, at 27 East 39th Street. Activists are planning another demonstration there Monday morning at 9 a.m. to demand that the Mexican federal government fully investigate Will’s murder and the cases of the other protesters killed and wounded recently by government-backed forces.
Similar vigils and protests taking place in San Francisco and Arizona.