The last time I saw independent journalist and activist Brad Will was in September in an East Village yoga studio. I turned my head and found him lying on the mat next to me in the darkened room, his pale, flat stomach rising and falling serenely with the rhythm of his breathing. So on October 27, when I saw the photos posted on the Internet showing the 36-year-old Will’s mortally wounded body laid out on a street in Oaxaca, Mexico, I cringed. There was that same pale, flat stomach now punctured by a bullet.
Around the world, activists and friends who knew Will—and many people who didn’t—were having the same visceral reaction. Within hours of his shooting by plainclothes gunmen firing on a group of striking demonstrators, images of his murder ricocheted around the Web. There were photos of Will’s limp body being carried through the streets by frantic demonstrators screaming for help. Equally shocking were the pictures posted by El Universal and other Mexican media showing his alleged killers firing brazenly into the crowd, as if aiming at the cameras. The same gunmen who shot Will also wounded a photographer for the Mexico City daily Milenio, who was at Will’s side.
When images of the shooters aired on Mexican TV, viewers began phoning in to identify the gunmen. They have since been confirmed in the media as the police chief and two officers from Santa Lucia del Camino, the municipality where Will was shot, along with the town councillor for the state governing party, his chief of security, and the former head of a neighboring barrio.
Then came the most horrifying evidence of all: Will’s final videotape, uploaded on the Web the next day. In his zeal to capture the state-backed repression of the popular uprising that has rocked Oaxaca for the last five months, Will succeeded in recording his own murder.
Armed with an HD camera he had picked up on eBay, Will went to Oaxaca to document the broad-based movement of striking teachers, peasants, urban residents, and left-wing forces that had seized control of government offices and taken over the central square to demand the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz.
But by becoming the first American journalist killed in the unrest, Will became a pretext for Mexican president Vicente Fox to send in 4,000 federal police officers to put down the revolt, which Fox characterized as “radical groups, out of control,” who “had put at risk the peace of the citizenry.” Since then at least two more protesters have died in the heavy clashes with federal police, who stormed the barricades with tear gas and water cannons, and more than 80 demonstrators have been arrested as the federales continue to vie for control of the city.
Looking back at the trajectory of Will’s life, it’s not surprising that he would land in the center of this Mexican standoff. Will was always drawn to global flash points where the battle lines are drawn in stark black and white.
Over the course of his restless 36 years, he seemed to hit every activist node: squatting in the East Village, staging tree-sits in the Northwest with Earth First, and hopping freight trains to anarchist gatherings. He braved tear gas and rubber bullets during the anti-globalization battles in Seattle, Quebec, Prague, and Genoa (where a demonstrator was shot dead in the street by police). In 2004, I remember him being everywhere during street protests surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York, video camera in hand. He reveled in these clashes, always returning with tales of glory, folk songs about resisting the police, and reports of the free food and fun he’d had along the way.
When the heady Seattle-style direct-action movement in the U.S. toned down following 9-11, Will took his video camera south, following the wave of popular uprisings in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and finally Mexico. Friends say he was consumed with overlooked social struggles around the world.
“He was one of the most dedicated activists I ever worked with,” says Brooke Lehman, one of the owners of the radical Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side, who met Will in 1998. “You could pretty much guarantee if there was a cause or an action, Will would be there. He felt a tremendous responsibility to do media where other media outlets wouldn’t go, or were afraid to go.”
Yet in the wake of his shooting, even his most diehard anarchist friends are struggling to reconcile the worth of his activism with the risks he took on the day of his death. What propelled him to join that group of rock-throwing demonstrators as they chased down these firing gunmen through the outskirts of Oaxaca City? Was he incredibly brave, or just naive? Or perhaps too high on adrenaline to fully weigh the risks he was taking?
There had been other occasions that made people wonder—like the time Will stood on the roof of his East Village squat as a wrecking crane slammed into the building. Last year he was arrested and nearly killed by military police while trying to film the forced eviction of an urban squatters camp in Goiânia, in central Brazil.
“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 Baja—images 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
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.”
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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 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.”
By late September, Oaxaca was reaching a tipping point. Peasant and indigenous councils affiliated with APPO had seized control of local governments in most of the state. Yet as APPO upped the ante, so did the police and paramilitary forces loyal to the PRI. Since August, plainclothes police and so-called Priistas had been staging drive-by attacks on the more than 2,000 barricades maintained by protesters across the capital to prevent incursion by state police. At least 10 demonstrators had been killed in the city, including the husband of a teacher shot during a peaceful march.
Friends in Mexico warned Will that the situation in Oaxaca was getting out of hand, way too risky for an American with only halfway decent Spanish skills.
Al Giordano, publisher of the Narco News Bulletin, a radical website devoted to news of the drug war and Latin America, posted excerpts of an e-mail exchange he had with Will just before he left. Will had been seeking contacts in Oaxaca from Giordano, whom he had known since their days doing pirate radio broadcasts on the Lower East Side’s Steal This Radio in the mid ’90s.
On September 26, Will wrote:
it brad from nyc—it would be great to get yr narco contacts in oaxaca—i am headed there and want to connect with as many folks as posible—are you in df?—i should be stopping though there and it would be great to go out for a drink
Giordano says he pleaded with Will not to go to Oaxaca City:
Our Oaxaca team is firmly embedded. There are a chingo of other internacionales roaming around there looking for the big story, but the situation is very delicate, the APPO doesn’t trust anyone it hasn’t known for years, and they keep telling me not to send newcomers, because the situation is so fucking tense… If you are coming to Mexico, I would much more recommend your hanging around DF-Atenco and reporting that story which is about to begin. The APPO is (understandably) very distrustful of people it doesn’t already know. And we have enough hands on deck there to continue breaking the story. But what is about to happen in Atenco-DF needs more hands on deck.
Will responded the same night, undeterred:
thanks for the quick get back—i have a hd professional camera—i have heard reports about the level of distrust in oax and it is disconcerting—i think i will still go
He flew to Mexico City, where he spent a night at the Centro de Medios (Free Media Center). Activists there also tried to discourage Will from going to Oaxaca City, suggesting he’d be better off covering the struggles of APPO in the countryside, where there were fewer journalists on the ground and also fewer risks.
But Will was determined to be on the front line of the battle unfolding in the provincial capital. He moved into an apartment with three radical teachers from California who were also reporting for Indymedia, and began acting as a human rights observer for CIPO, a rights group whose members say they have been the targets of police repression. He also befriended a British journalist and a Spaniard doing human rights work, who took Will for reporting runs on his scooter.
Will began camping out in the zocalo where APPO had its central encampment in the city and was helping man the barricades at night. He immediately threw himself into the thick of things, as evidenced in his last online dispatch, on October 17, which he posted on the NYC Indymedia site. It tells the story of marching to visit the body of a compañero gunned down by police at a neighborhood barricade:
went inside and saw him — havent seen too many bodies in my life — eats you up — a stack of nameless corpses in the corner — about the number who had died — no refrigeration — the smell — they had to open his skull to pull the bullet out
Will seems to have been propelled by the drama of the events he was witnessing:
what can you say about this movement — this revolutionary moment — you know it is building, growing, shaping — you can feel it — trying desperately for a direct democracy . . . whats next nobodies sure — it is a point of light pressed through glass — ready to burn or show the way — it is clear that this is more than a strike, more than expulsion of a governor, more than a blockade, more than a coalition of fragments — it is a genuine peoples revolt
Neary says she spoke to him just days before his shooting: “He told me that he was a little scared, but that he felt this was a crucible, that it was inspiring, but definitely that things were getting sketchy. Still, he knew he had to be there.”
According to Jourdan, Will seemed more worried about getting his camera settings straight than the violence escalating around him. Jourdan says Will phoned him up the night before he died, seeking technical advice. He’d just gotten a request for footage from Telesur, a Caracas television station that broadcasts throughout Latin America, and he wanted to know how to convert his video footage to PAL, a broadcast format used outside of the U.S.
“He was concerned about the growing intervention by the Priistas,” Jourdan recalls, using the Spanish nickname for supporters of the state’s ruling PRI. “And he was worried about federal police pushing in. He said he thought at any time stuff could shift.”
Things did shift. Will’s last video tells the story.
It opens with Will conducting interviews with local residents and activists defending the barricade outside the university’s radio station, which had come under fire by unidentified gunmen that morning. A man on the barricade says a group of 100 or more Priistas firing rifles had attacked the barricade and forced the demonstrators to retreat from the street. They regrouped and drove out the Priistas, though one of their compañeros was later grabbed and beaten up.
“We are the townspeople here who are fighting for our rights!” exclaims one local woman. “We don’t want to live in a state of repression, of attacks and assassinations, and compromises,” she shouts, gesturing up the street, where an SUV is ablaze.
Walking up the street, Will pans over the billowing clouds of smoke coming from the truck, which reportedly belonged to one of the Priistas but had been set aflame by the demonstrators after they chased the gunmen away.
Shots ring out, and Will takes shelter beneath a tractor trailer while trying to zoom in on the shooters. Looking out between the wheels, he zeroes in on a small traffic island, where a man in a white shirt is firing a pistol from behind a tree, surrounded by several other men in civilian clothes. It’s a surreal scene. At one point a man on a bicycle pedals slowly past the intersection, as if nothing were going on.
And then the Priistas retreat down a side street, with the shadow of Will’s camera tracking them. “White shirt,” Will says, identifying the shooter for the group of young men in hoodies and bandannas as they pursue their attackers through the barrio with their own rudimentary weapons: sticks, rocks, slingshots, and homemade rocket launchers used to set off flares—generally used by the APPO members to warn of an attack.
“Where, where?” a demonstrator asks.
“Over there, on the corner,” Will answers.
“Vamanos, vamanos! [Let’s go!]” the young men shout. The gunmen appear to retreat inside a two-story house from which they continue firing. A young man rushes up and tries to bash through the flimsy metal garage door with a stick. It’s crazy; he could be shot at any second. Yet Will has positioned himself at the side of the door, as if ready to storm in. He and the other demonstrators are forced back by a hail of gunfire. Then the demonstrators back a dump truck down the street to serve as cover. Eventually they crash the truck though the garage door of the house, which is reportedly owned by one of the shooters.
More shots ring out, and a demonstrator fires a flare down the road, which witnesses say was reportedly to ward off a different group of shooters on the ground. Will is standing on the side of the street behind a group of demonstrators, trying to capture the exchange, when he gets hit.
The sound of a single shot is followed by that of his final, pitched cry of pain.
The footage swirls as Will falls, but the camera, dangling from his neck strap, continues to record the frantic scene as the demonstrators run with his body amid another hail of gunfire. “Vamanos! Vamanos!” they shout. Finally the camera is set down on a ledge but stays on to record a few more rounds of gunfire, then it goes black.
Press photos show his fellow protesters struggling to revive him. In an interview with Free Speech Radio News, one of the demonstrators described how they carried Will’s body past the barricades to a VW Beetle, but it ran out of gas on the way to the hospital.
“We tried to wave down a cab and some passing cars, but no one wanted to stop because of the violence that day,” said the man, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. So they carried Will’s body several more blocks, amid a sudden downpour, until a truck finally stopped and took Will to the Red Cross. According to the man, Will had been squeezing the man’s finger to let him know he was still alive. “He died in my arms, about four or five blocks before we got to the hospital,” the man said.
The U.S. embassy and news accounts initially reported that Will had been caught in a “shoot-out” between police and protesters. Indeed, the PRI-controlled pirate radio station Citizen Radio called Will an “armed terrorist” and claimed that Will had been firing back at the shooters.
While that claim is absurd, it now appears that there may have indeed been some level of crossfire between APPO and the gunmen. APPO has always declared itself a nonviolent movement, whose weapons—rocks, sticks, Molotov cocktails—are used only in self- defense. Yet pictures published in El Universal and La Crónica de Hoy identify at least three men with pistols as APPO supporters.
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.
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.
“I remember this one time he was blowing fire in the middle of a Critical Mass ride in Times Square. The cops went to grab him and he threw his bike over his shoulder and ran up over the roof of a cab and got away. It was amazing.”
The repercussions go beyond Will’s own tragic murder. While it would be wrong to blame Will for the violent crackdown on APPO by federal forces, journalists on the ground say it sets an ugly precedent. In the words of Giordano: “Anytime the local forces of repression can’t contain a rebellion in Mexico and want the feds to storm in, the recipe now exists: Kill a foreign journalist.”
Neary says Will knew what he was getting into. And he did it anyway.
“The last time I saw him was back in August,” she says. “I told him, ‘I love the work you do. But you don’t always have to be on the front lines. You’re not invincible.’ I said to him, ‘Watch out, listen to the silent places inside you. You matter too.’ ”
“He told me, ‘I’ve got to be part of the revolution,’ ” Neary recalls. ” ‘There’s stuff going on down there that I have to see. This is what drives me. This is where I’ve got to be.’ He always put himself on the front line. Once he was there, turning back was not an option.”
It would be easy to see Will’s life as a classic case of upper-middle-class rebellion. But Neary says his passion ran deeper.
“He wanted to get to the things that were slipping through the cracks,” Neary says, “the people whose faces will never make the news because of what and who they are.”
That was Will’s objective: giving people who had no names in the media a presence. He was traumatized by world events and the fact that people were dying around him. “He felt these people didn’t have a choice to be in their situations,” Neary says, “but he had choices and he was using that privilege to help give people a voice.”
Will’s journalism was always aimed at the activist crowd. He didn’t bother much with translating his radical perspective to a broader audience—let alone properly punctuating his sentences.
In the wake of Will’s death, at last, his reporting did go mainstream. His murder spotlighted the social upheaval in Mexico, which is ready to explode. It’s not just APPO’s popular takeover in Oaxaca, but also the larger battle over the contested national election and the widening polarization of rich and poor in Mexico as multinational corporations gobble up land and resources.
Americans don’t pay much attention to festering discontent south of the border, just to the consequences: the flood of immigrants crossing over, along with an increasingly violent drug trade. The American government’s response: put up a multibillion-dollar wall.
For now, Will’s murder may have put a chink in that wall. His death, however briefly, made the crisis in Oaxaca impossible to ignore here. On Sunday, November 5, tens of thousands of APPO supporters from across Mexico descended on the capital to stand in solidarity with the besieged demonstrators. Though violence is ongoing—one protester was shot when gunmen opened fire on the march—APPO has managed to hold off federal forces seeking to wrest away control of the university campus and is still controlling parts of the city. The battle is not yet over.
Additional reporting: Bill Weinberg
Editor’s note: This piece was updated online on November 14.