Who knew Charas was so easy to break into? After five long years of being padlocked, the former East Village community center was briefly liberated on Saturday night by comrades of the slain Indymedia journalist Brad Will.
(Slideshow of the liberation march here)
Will was killed in Oaxaca, Mexico, on October 27 by plainclothes gunmen who opened fire on a group of striking demonstrators as Will was filming.
After a packed memorial service this weekend at St. Marks Church on Second Avenue, close to 300 friends and fellow activists took to the streets in a boisteroius and unpermitted march through the East Village to visit the spots where Will made his mark.
Trailed by a single squad car, they made pit stops at 535 East 5th Street—the former site of a squat where Will once stood down a wrecking ball—and the former Esperanza community garden on East 7th Street, which was bulldozed to make way for a Baptist church and more luxury housing.
Then the crowd headed to the boarded-up P.S. 64 school building on East 9th Street and Avenue B, where the Charas/El Bohio community center thrived for 20 years before it was sold to developer Gregg Singer.
While the Hungry March Band blared, someone clipped the heavy chain on the construction fence out front and kicked open the doors. People swarmed inside to check out what had become of the center—once an activist hub in the neighborhood, it has languished empty ever since Singer took possession of it.
“Brad Will, presente!” they chanted, and tagged up the whitewashed walls on the first floor, which once had been painted with murals.
“Armando, presente!” they chanted on behalf of Armando Perez, one of the founders of Charas, who was murdered by street thugs in Queens in 1999. “Viva Charas libre!”
There was no sign of any security guard, and for some reason the cops had faded. So after about 15 minutes of everyone marveling at all that empty space going to waste, the crowd filed out and headed to the La Plaza Cultural community garden down the block, where they lit a fire barrel and sang the folk songs Will loved.
The action felt like a throwback to pre-Giuliani days in the hood, and was definitely in the spirit of Will.
“Gregg Singer is just temporarily stealing it,” someone yelled from the scaffolding of the former Charas building. “And we’re going to fucking take it back!”
People came from as far off as Toronto, New Orleans, Wisconsin, and Hawaii to pay tribute to Will, a 36-year-old activist and videographer who travelled the world to pursue social and environmental causes. At the garden, one guy told the story of how in Prague, Will somehow managed to import 1,000 gas masks to help fellow protesters weather the tear gas during the September 2000 demonstrations against the World Bank and IMF.
“The first time I met Brad, we were skinny-dipping in the Everglades and he was smoking a joint!” another friend yelled. “And the last time I saw him, we were skinny-dipping in the Mississippi River and smoking a joint!”
During the memorial service at St. Marks Church, Will’s former girlfriend screened video footage of him with a monkey on his head in an Ecuadoran jungle, teaching friends to play the juice harp in the slums of Argentina, and hitchhiking and hopping freight trains across America.
There was also a photo montage of Brad’s quintessential suburban childhood in Kenilworth, Illinois, and footage of him in his twenties speaking earnestly of his desire to combine the roles of poet annd activist—a merger he may have managed though his folk songs, which made him a troubadour of protest culture, and through Indymedia, which gave him a forum for a more self-expressive style of journalism.
Among the many speakers was poet Anne Waldman, who taught Will when he came to study poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1993.
Waldman spoke energetically of the passionate “intent” that drove Will to engage in and report on so many protests and social struggles across the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.
“May his life bring justice,” Waldman declared, raising her fist. “It will, will, will, will. . . . ”
Will’s family is setting up a foundation in his name to “support and contribute to non-violent groups dedicated to the advancement of underserved people and communities around the world.” To find out more, visit bradwill.org.