Activist, reporter, former squatter Brad Will shot dead in Mexico
Will, shortly before his death, in the zocalo at Oaxaca City, where APPO has set up an encampment.
By Lincoln Anderson
Outrage over the murder of activist and journalist Brad Will and the violence in Oaxaca, Mexico, exploded on Monday when a protest by hundreds of angry demonstrators outside the Mexican Consulate in Midtown flared into a near riot with the police.
Protesters tried to storm the consulate, then chained themselves to a gate blocking the entrance. By the time it was all over, 12 had been arrested, several of them having been carried off or dragged off by police after doing civil disobedience.
Will, 36, a former East Village squatter and community gardens activist turned Indymedia reporter, was killed last Friday by paramilitaries in Oaxaca City as he was documenting the uprising against Ulises Ruiz, governor of the state of Oaxaca (pronounced “wah-hahka”).
His final video begins with Will doing an interview about the insurgents’ fight to maintain control of a local radio station. There had already been gunfire from the paramilitaries that morning. Will then follows along with a group of Oaxacans who, despite sporadic gunfire, chase one of the paramilitaries into a building, then use a dump truck to ram an opening in it. At some point, either this paramilitary or another fires a shot that strikes Will in the abdomen. The tape ends in commotion, with Will crying, “Help me!” and others shouting, “Grab him!” as they try to pull him to safety. The camera is left on a ledge, still filming.
The video, which is in Spanish, can be viewed at http://indybay.org/newsitems/2006/10/28/18324298.php.
Emilio Alfonso Fabian, a teacher from Oaxaca, and Esteban Zurrita, an Oaxaca resident, were also killed in the same incident by the paramilitaries, who are said to be connected with PRI, the state’s ruling party.
Will was buried in Oaxaca.
He was the second Downtown journalist to be killed abroad in a little more than a year. Last August, Steven Vincent, a former East Village political activist, was killed while covering the insurgency in Basra, Iraq.
A peaceful memorial for Will by about 75 friends was held Saturday evening outside the Mexican Consulate on E. 39th St.
But Monday’s protest, which drew hundreds, had a markedly more militant tone. The rally took up the call of APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, which is demanding Ruiz’s resignation, claiming he rigged the 2004 election.
‘ulises yacco yo!’
“Yacco yo! Yacco yo! Ulises yacco yo!” they chanted.
Will’s friends and the uprising’s supporters fear his death will be used to justify the government’s quashing the rebellion in Oaxaca City, which has been under the insurgents’ control for about five months. Each night, the insurgents barricade the roads into the city and stand guard.
“No government violence in Brad’s name,” read a banner the protesters draped on the consulate’s wall.
At both the memorial and protest a red-and-black anarchist flag fluttered above the crowd. Will identified politically as an anarchist.
Also at the protest, in a different take on the white “ghost bikes” left around the city wherever cyclists have been killed, a black ghost bike with spokes made of rebar was chained to the consulate’s fence. Will was an avid cyclist who participated in Critical Mass rides. Taped to the bike’s handlebars was a bullet. However, Will always insisted he was a peaceful anarchist.
About an hour after the rally started, one protester, Tim Doody, 32, of the West Village, scaled a lamppost using a foot harness attached to a strap that he pushed up the pole bit by bit. When he got up 25 feet, he unfurled a banner with a painting of the bearded and pony-tailed Will with the slogan, “One more night at the barricades.” Hanging onto the pole, Doody hung the banner around his neck.
“Brad Will presenté!” the protesters cheered.
While everyone was focused on Doody up on the pole, several other protesters tried to storm through the consulate’s doors. There was a tangle of police, protesters and other individuals, and when it ended, a gate had somehow come off its hinges and was wedged at an angle in the entrance, with one man clamped to it by a bike lock around his neck and another by handcuffs.
The crowd closed in on the consulate and someone grabbed a police officer’s hat and flung it into the sky and when it came back to the sidewalk a man stomped on it.
Police whipped out small telescoping black batons and briefly flailed them to disperse the crowd, then, moving like offensive linemen on a football team, aggressively shoved the protesters away from the consulate.
Undermanned and caught by surprise, the police called in reinforcements, which arrived in the form of a police wagon and several Emergency Service Unit trucks.
Indymedia reporter Brandon Jourdan, 26, a friend and former roommate of Will’s from when they lived together in Tribeca, lay down in front of a laundry van and refused to move, and was carried off by police.
Delayed briefly by two women near the base of the lamppost, two police on top of an E.S.U. truck pulled the banner away from Doody, then convinced him to come down, after which he was arrested.
Savitri Durkee, a.k.a. Savitri D, 25, wife of Reverend Billy, the anticonsumer performance artist preacher, was arrested for hanging onto the lamppost, trying to delay Doody’s arrest. When she wouldn’t let go she was charged with failure to obey an order.
“I went to the protest because of Brad’s death, but I got arrested because of the oppression in Oaxaca,” D said later. “We want to continue Brad’s work.”
The situation remained tense for another hour. Scuffles repeatedly broke out, as protesters refused to stay where police told them.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” they chanted.
Police brought in metal barricades to pen the crowd. But as soon as the officers turned their backs, the protesters moved the barricades away.
One female photographer kept getting right up next to the police, despite their warnings to keep her distance.
“Get away from my gun right now!” one officer shouted at her at one point. Identified as Erin Siegal, 25 of Indymedia, from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, she was eventually arrested.
Using a circular saw police quickly freed both men identified as Tim Keating, 47, and Kevin Svorak, 43 locked to the gate, as well as a woman who had chained herself to another door, and arrested them. They also cut down the black ghost bike. It all only took seconds.
Around 11 a.m. police, using a bullhorn, started clearing the block, slowly moving the protesters toward Madison Ave.
Others arrested included Chloe Watlington, 19; Joan Roney, 38; Will’s former girlfriend, Dyan Neary, 25; Beka Economopoulos, 32; Madeline Nelson, 51; and Eric Marchese, 18.
Two days before, friends had gathered at the consulate to grieve and remember Will, an activist who seemed to have been involved in almost everything of a leftist nature going on in the city, when he wasn’t off reporting on some hotspot in Latin America. Some of the mourners held smoldering sheaves of sage, filling the air with a sweet smell. With small white candles, they made the shape of the Indymedia logo on the sidewalk.
Indymedia started in 1999 during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which Will participated in. He was involved in Indymedia a collective of volunteer reporters affiliated with more than 150 independent news centers from the beginning.
Eric Laursen, an anarchist who helped organize protests during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, said it was natural for Will to be drawn to Oaxaca.
“What’s going on in Oaxaca is exactly what Brad’s dedicated his life to,” Laursen said. “He had a sense for homing in on people taking control of their own lives and their own government direct democracy. It’s the same reason George Orwell went to Barcelona in the 1930s. He did tree-sits in the Pacific Northwest, he did squats.”
Friends related an incident that deeply affected Will, when, covering a squatter eviction in Brazil, police let Will go after seeing his American passport, then killed some of the squatters.
Josh Bregman, a fellow independent reporter who met Will in Oaxaca, said he and Will had been there together briefly in September. Bregman said the resistance has set up an encampment in the zocalo, or central square, of Oaxaca City. Every night, at the roads into the city, barricades are put up, made of cinder blocks, wood, tires, with a fire in their middle. During the day, people can move in and out.
Bregman said Will, he and others were trying to document how neoliberal policies otherwise known as free trade are wreaking havoc on the Mexican campesinos by bringing in U.S. agricultural products.
Michael Shenker and Fran Luck spoke about Will’s history as a squatter in the East Village. In recent years, Will had been living in Williamsburg, or “Billyburg,” as he liked to call it.
“On the local level, two of his homes were destroyed right under his feet,” Shenker said, referring to the Fifth St. Squat and Dos Blocos.
In 1997, after a small fire caused the evacuation of the Fifth St. Squat, the city moved to knock down the building, despite a judge’s court order to halt the demolition. But Will snuck in and got up onto the roof, even as the demolition had started.
“They kept swinging that wrecking ball, but Brad did not back down,” Shenker recalled. “It went on for close to an hour. Eventually Brad won they stopped. They sent up cops with a platform and they arrested him.”
Afterwards, the old tenement was razed that night, in defiance of the court order. But Will and the other squatters later won a $120,000 legal settlement from the city. Shenker also said it was Will’s act that led the city to negotiate with the remaining East Village squatters, culminating in the 2002 sale of the buildings to the squatters for $1.
“We lost the building,” Shenker said of the Fifth St. Squat. “But thanks to Brad’s efforts, 11 of those 12 buildings are safe today. Thank God to Brad Will, my home is safe today.”
“It inspired the whole Lower East Side,” echoed Luck of Will’s brazen act. “It was such a symbol of defiance and resistance what a staunch pillar. It seemed to me like Brad had nine lives, at least. Think of the guts of being the last person in a building that the city was trying to wreck. They could have easily wrecked it with him in there…. Brad wasn’t just Oaxaca.”
Fought for gardens
Will was also a key member of the More Gardens group, fighting to save community gardens from being developed. Aresh Javadi recalled how, during the fight to save Esperanza Garden on E. Seventh St., Will had locked himself down in a device called a “black bear” at the base of a 28-foot-tall sunflower structure, on top of which another protester was perched.
“Brad took his sweet, long time,” Javadi said. “He made it very difficult for them.” In the end, Will was the second-to-last person arrested in that protest. He was later arrested again at the Esperanza site when garden activists, making a last stand to prevent the plot’s development, tore down the construction fence.
Graphic novelist Seth Tobocman said Will was an important figure in countless local struggles.
“The community gardens, ABC No Rio, the squats a lot of these owe their existence to Brad,” Tobocman said. “He trained people to do nonviolent civil disobedience. He was involved with everything Downtown. Brad was an activist long before he was a journalist. He was a writer and folk singer too.”
When he was in town, Will also rode in Critical Mass, the monthly event to raise awareness about bicycling and nonpolluting transportation.
“He was a rare individual, because he was a long-term activist and also an environmentalist,” said Bill DiPaolo, founder of Time’s Up!, the East Village environmental organization that promotes Critical Mass. “He was not a flash in the pan…. Brad operated in several different circles. He was a local activist, and he was known globally. He would bring back his video from the world and show it at the Time’s Up! space.”
Will also participated in Reclaim the Streets, a group that set up spontaneous dance parties in the intersections of New York City streets.
“Anarchist” did not mean violent, at least not for Will. After the R.N.C., in a Sept. 22, 2004, Villager article, he related how deeply upset he had been to discover he had been on a list of protesters under surveillance by the New York Police Department for the 18 months leading up to the convention. ABC’s “Nightline” reported that, according to the N.Y.P.D., the individuals were “troublesome, even dangerous, anarchists who infiltrate other groups of demonstrators and then try to provoke violence.”
At the time, Will who stressed he had never been arrested for a violent act said he was considering suing the Police Department for defamation of character.
“I never hurt anyone in my life,” Will told The Villager then. “There are no cases pending against me. I’m a journalist now, I don’t want my career to be ruined.”
However, in the end, he only sued for being pepper-sprayed during a clash with police on 16th St. during the R.N.C., for which he won a settlement, according to Jeffrey Rothman, the attorney who represented him.
In the Villager article, Will explained that, to him, anarchy meant “anti-authoritarian,” “anti-oppression,” “self-rule,” “local control” and, ideally, no government. He contributed a chapter on community gardens to a book on global movements, “We Are Everywhere,” in which he identified himself as an anarchist.
Another time a few years ago, in an interview while biking in a Critical Mass ride, Will again complained about being singled out apparently for his politics telling The Villager how he had been detained for interrogation at the airport by Homeland Security officers after returning from a trip reporting abroad.
Will grew up in the Midwest where his family lives in Wisconsin. His given name, according to Indymedia, is William Bradley Roland. According to Newsday, he is survived by his parents and three siblings. Javadi said Will was also a father, and leaves a young child living in France.
In a statement, Will’s family said: “We are grieving over the tragic and senseless loss of Brad’s life. Brad’s friends and family admired his brave support for the downtrodden and willingness to act tirelessly upon his convictions. We believe he died doing what he loved. We will all miss Brad’s compassionate, loving and adventurous spirit, and it is our hope that his life’s work reporting on the human struggle will never be forgotten.”
Interested from an early age in both writing and activism, in his early 20s, Will attended the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, where one of his teachers was Allen Ginsberg.
“He loved Brad,” Jenny Smith who met Will at Naropa recalled of the famed Beat poet. She recalled Will also was the groom in a mock gay wedding they staged in Boulder in plain sight of a Promise Keepers evangelical meeting.
Will was also active in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery.
There’ll be payback
Two East Village activists speaking on Monday as the consulate protest was winding down said there will be consequences for Will’s murder.
John Penley, who usually spends the winters D.J.’ing on the Oaxaca coast, said he didn’t go down this year because of the unrest.
“My predication, the whole thing is blowing,” Penley said. “It’s definitely going to spread. In a way, it may be a good thing for Mexico, because change never comes without violence in Mexico. I believe that Brad’s death may be the spark that sets off the revolution.”
Father Frank Morales, of St. Mark’s Church, said of his former fellow squatter Will, “That’s what he was doing in Oaxaca the people seized the land. People got to squat the world. He was covering it. He was documenting the struggle of grassroots people.
“He was an activist’s activist,” Morales said.
“Journalist,” interjected a young man passing by while ducking under a police sawhorse. “He was a journalist.”
“They picked the wrong guy to assassinate,” Morales said. “He’s got a lot of friends. This is going to ignite.”