Jeff Sharlet | Sweet Heaven When I Die, W. W. Norton & Company | Aug 2011 | 37 minutes (9,133 words)
Our latest Longreads Member Pick is “Quebrado,” by Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth, contributing editor for Rolling Stone and bestselling author. The story was first published in Rolling Stone in 2008 and is featured in Sharlet’s book Sweet Heaven When I Die. Thanks to Sharlet for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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Even before he was killed by a Mexican policeman’s bullet, Brad Will seemed to those who revered him more like a symbol, a living folk song, than a man. This is what the thirty-six-year-old anarchist’s friends remember: tall, skinny Brad in a black hoodie with two fists to the sky, Rocky-style, atop an East Village squat as the wrecking ball swings; Brad, his bike hoisted on his shoulder, making a getaway from cops across the rooftops of Times Square taxicabs; Brad, locked down at City Hall disguised as a giant sunflower with wired-together glasses to protest the destruction of New York’s guerrilla gardens. Brad (he rarely used his surname, kept it close in case you were a cop) wore his long brown hair tied up in a knot, but for the right woman—and a lot of women seemed right to Brad—he’d let it sweep down his back almost to his ass. Jessica Lee, a journalist for a radical paper called the Indypendent, met Brad at an Earth First! action in Virginia the summer before he was killed, and although he wasn’t her type she followed him away from the crowd to a waterfall, where he stripped naked, revealing thighs thick with muscle and a torso long and broad. She kept her swimsuit on. He disappeared behind the sheets of cascading water. When she ducked behind the falls, too, and he moved to kiss her, she turned away. She thought there was something missing. “Like he was incomplete, too lonely.” Or maybe just tired, after a decade and a half on the front lines of a revolution that never quite happened.
He was one of America’s fifty “leading anarchists,” according to ABC’s Nightline, which in 2004 flashed Brad’s mug shot as a warning, a specimen of the black-clad nihilists said to be descending on New York for that year’s Republican National Convention. “Leading anarchist”—that was the kind of clueless oxymoron that made Brad break out in a yaklike guffaw. Brad wasn’t a “leader,” a word he disdained; he was a catalyst, the long-limbed climber who trained city punks on city trees for forest defense in the big woods west of the Rockies, the activist you wanted in the front row when you gave your public report on the anarchist scene in Greece or Seoul or Cincinnati, even though he was also the dude who would giggle when he fumigated the room with monstrous garlic farts, one of his specialties. In the 1990s he’d helped hand New York mayor Rudy Giuliani a public defeat, organizing anarchist punks into a media-savvy civil-disobedience corps that shamed the mayor into calling off plans to sell the city’s community gardens. In the new decade he became a star of Indymedia’s anti–star system, an interconnected, anticorporate press that lets activists communicate directly instead of waiting to see their causes distorted on Nightline.
Brad always seemed to be everywhere. One friend remembers him in Ecuador, plucking his bike from a burning barricade; another remembers him in Quebec City, riding his bike into a cloud of tear gas, his bony frame later shaking with happy rebel laughter while a comrade poured water into his burning eyes.
In the end, the one that never ends—the martyrdom of Brad Will—he would become best known for the last minutes of his last day, October 27, 2006, in Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he had gone to document a strike blowing up into a general revolt. Brad and his video camera peer through broken glass at a smashed computer; hold steady on a strangely peaceful orange-black plume rising from a burning SUV; crawl under a truck to spy on a group of men with guns. Brad feints and charges toward them alongside a small crowd armed with stones and bottle rockets, chasing men slinging AR–15s. With two minutes left, Brad inches toward the door behind which he knows more men with guns may be hiding. “Si ven a un gringo con cámara, mátenlo!” government supporters announced on local radio around the time Brad arrived in Oaxaca—”If you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!” Then there are the last words heard on Brad’s video before he films a puff of smoke, a muzzle flash beneath a gray sun, and finally his own knees rising up toward the lens as he falls, the cobblestones rushing up: “No esten tomando fotos!”—”Stop taking pictures!”
He was scheduled to fly back to Brooklyn the next day.
During the three weeks he spent in Mexico before he was killed, Brad would make fun of his half-assed Spanish by introducing himself as Quebrado—”Broken.” He didn’t look it. Six feet two, with a frame broad as his father’s—a veteran of Yale’s 1960 undefeated football team—he was vegan-lean but ropy with muscle, “a little stinky and a lot gorgeous,” says his friend Kate Crane. Back during his twenties, when he’d bring a slingshot to demonstrations instead of a camera, he thought of himself as half warrior, half poet, a former student of Allen Ginsberg’s now specializing in crazy-beautiful Beat gestures recast in a militant mode. He called it “sweet escalation,” protest not as a means to an end but as a glimpse of a world yet to be made.
By the time he got to Oaxaca he was calling himself a journalist. “His camera was his weapon,” says Miguel, a one-named Brazilian filmmaker who produced a tribute called Brad: One More Night at the Barricades. “If you survive me,” Brad told a friend after he’d battled cops at a protest in Prague, “tell them this: I never gave up. That’s a quote, all right?” But in the end there were no noble last words. Just an image, the last one he filmed: the puff of smoke of the bullet speeding toward him.
“Yo d,” he wrote to Dyan Neary, an ex-girlfriend, three days before he died,“jumping around like a reporter and working my ass off—been pretty intense and sometimes sketchy.” The governor of Oaxaca had sent in roving death squads, pickup trucks of paramilitaries firing on the barricades. The bodies were piling up. Brad was getting scared. i went back to the morgue—it is a sick and sad place—i have this feeling i will go back there again with a crowd of reporters all pushing to get the money shot—the body all sewed up and naked—you see it in the papers every day—i am entering a new territory here and don’t know if I am ready.
Ready for what? Revolution? Blood? Brad had seen a little bit of both before, in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil. The events in Oaxaca were bigger, more exciting and more frightening. What had started as a strike by the state’s seventy thousand teachers had exploded after the governor attacked them with tear gas and helicopters. The federal government feared a domino effect, other states following Oaxaca’s example and rebelling against Mexico’s corroding regime, a new Mexican revolution gathering as the one-hundredth anniversary of the last one approached. In Oaxaca every kind of leftist group—indigenous fronts, unions, students, farmers, ancient Trotskyites, young anarchopunks—came together in an unprecedented coalition and took over the city. The incoming national government of Felipe Calderón, about to take power after an election so crooked that it drove millions of Mexicans into the streets, was ready to declare the entire state of Oaxaca “ungovernable.”
Brad knew what to do: Film it. He’d send the tapes home, screen them in squats and at anarchist infoshops. Revolution is real, he’d say; here’s the proof. Burning tires, masked men stuffing rags into bottles of gasoline, farmers with machetes; midnight soccer games, barricades basketball, three men with guitars who sing a song under a streetlight for Quebrado, “Qué lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido!”—”How far I am from the land where I was born”; interviews with housewives’ collectives, “people’s police” debating, striking secretaries knitting; scenes of free kitchens, free clinics, buses commandeered by farmers and fishermen who roamed the city shutting down roadwork construction, freeing men from their jackhammers.
And there are the dead. In a Catholic church young women wave white lilies and weep; at a street funeral old women sing an anthem with their fists raised in the air; in a red tent at night a father pounds the silver box that holds his son and delivers a eulogy directed via Brad’s camera to “all the scum who want to rape our land,” as his wife and his son’s widow lay hands on the coffin. “The people don’t have weapons,” cries the father. “All we have are our voices.”
“La muerte as gobierno malo!” chant the bereaved—”Death to the wretched government.”
“Viva Alejandro!” shout other mourners. Alejandro García Hernández, forty-one years old, shot twice in the head by soldiers who tried to crash through a barricade opened to let an ambulance pass. Brad wrote home: “they had to open his skull to pull the bullet out—walked back with him and his people. And now alejandro waits in the zocalo” (the city plaza):
he’s waiting for an impasse, a change, an exit, a way forward, a way out, a solution—waiting for the earth to shift and open—waiting for november when he can sit with his loved ones on the day of the dead and share food and drink and a song … one more martyr in a dirty war … one more bullet cracks the night.
Kenilworth, Illinois, isn’t a town that raises radicals. A mile wide, tucked away near the beach on the North Shore of Chicago, Kenilworth is the kind of place where the wrong side of the suburb means that houses cost only a million dollars. There were four African Americans in the most recent census, and if there were any Democrats around when Brad was growing up, a family friend named Stephanie Rogers told me, they kept quiet. “Kids would study that East Coast model, towns like Greenwich, Connecticut. That’s what Kenilworth wanted to be.”
Not the Wills. They didn’t follow anyone. “The Wills were leaders,” says Rogers. “Everybody knew the Wills. Being a Will meant you had a sense of honor. Wills do the right thing.” Brad’s father, Hardy, owned a small manufacturing firm; his wife, Kathy, stayed home with their children. There was Wendy, a star student, and two years behind her, fraternal twins, Christy, a natural athlete, and Craig, who simply excelled at everything. Then, two years later, came Brad.
Brad was different. “We were all active kids, curious, athletic, and we would roughhouse and play ball,” his sister Christy told me when I visited her in San Diego, where she lives a few blocks from the beach. “Brad was less interested in those kinds of things.” He liked costumes, playacting, The Chronicles of Narniaand The Lord of the Rings. And Star Wars, one of the few passions he shared with his father. Hardy Will, an engineer, liked to imagine how other worlds might work. Brad liked to build them. He’d arrange miniature societies with his action figures. Not soldiers. “Adventure People,” says Christy, a forgotten line of smiling Fisher-Price figurines without weapons, most of them wearing 1970s jumpsuits. Later one of Brad’s favorite movies was It’s a Wonderful Life; lanky, amiable Jimmy Stewart provided a model for the way Brad would move through the world as he grew older, a Teen Beat–gorgeous geek with feathered hair and a broad smile spreading beneath dreamy eyes, a dungeon master who was friends with jocks, preps, and stoners.
But he was slowly splintering away from the high-school-college-back-to-the-burbs loop that was the natural order of things in Kenilworth. “It was a struggle to open my life,” Brad would tell a Venezuelan newspaper years later. “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.” Without the help of anyone. It was such a Will family thing to say.
The Will children were expected to be athletes. Brad ran, without much enthusiasm. Instead of joining clubs he worked after school, as a flower-delivery boy, a library shelver, selling newspaper subscriptions. “Brad was perplexing,” says his mother, Kathy. His sister Wendy went to Stanford, Craig followed their father to Yale, and Christy went to Scripps. Brad’s grades hovered between B and C. Only by acing his entrance exams could he squeak into Allegheny, a small school in western Pennsylvania. There he joined a frat, majored in the Dead, and studied On the Road. Mostly he liked getting high, passing a pipe back and forth with his friend Matt Felix, an outdoorsman from New Hampshire who introduced Brad to the radical environmentalism of Earth First!, defined by direct action and the theatrical gesture. When he graduated in 1992, Brad went west to Boulder, Colorado, where he began attending classes taught by Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
Even more influential than Ginsberg was Peter Lamborn Wilson, who under the pseudonym Hakim Bey was known for a manifesto called The Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ, a study in “ontological anarchy” and “poetic terrorism,” and a guidebook to the life Brad was beginning to lead. “What happened was this,” Bey writes. “They lied to you, sold you ideas of good & evil, gave you distrust of your body & shame for your prophethood of chaos, invented words of disgust for your molecular love, mesmerized you with inattention, bored you with civilization & all its usurious emotions.”
Bey wasn’t offering an indictment so much as a prescription: “Avatars of chaos act as spies, saboteurs, criminals of amour fou neither selfless not selfish, accessible as children, mannered as barbarians, chafed with obsessions, unemployed, sensually deranged, wolfangels… .” Brad was becoming one of them: a wolfangel. “Very high energy, extremely bright, not so well controlled,” Bey remembers of the student who talked his way into class because he hadn’t bothered to pay tuition. “Loose at the edges, reckless, you might call it courage. Manic sometimes, charming everybody.”
Brad stopped paying rent. “My crazy poet roomies fled the scene,” he later wrote of his accidental introduction to squatting. “I stayed and didn’t even have the phone number of the landlord.” That suited Brad. Cash, he was beginning to believe, was a kind of conspiracy, a form of control he was leaving behind. He became a Dumpster diver, a moocher, a liberator of vegetables. He wanted to write poems, but even more he wanted to become one, a messy, ecstatic, angry, sprawling embodiment of Bey’s Autonomous Zone.
His first attempt came one summer when fifty thousand members of a Christian fundamentalist men’s movement called the Promise Keepers descended on Boulder, distributing a pamphlet called The Iron Spear: Reaching Out to the Homosexual. Brad wasn’t gay, but he decided to reach back. The Naropa Institute’s lawn abutted the Promise Keepers’ rally ground, so Brad put on a show: He married a man. He recruited Bey to perform the ceremony and the poet Anne Waldman to play his mother. Another student was his male bride, in a white satin gown complete with a train, and Brad scrounged a suit and tie. “I actually am a minister in the Universal Life church,” says Bey. “I married them in full view of the Promise Keepers.” Then Brad kissed his bride, a long, wet kiss that provoked one Promise Keeper to hop the fence to make a closer examination of the abomination.
That was Brad’s idea of politics and poetry at the time: a party and performance. But he didn’t care for stages. He wanted the show to run 24/7. From Boulder he moved to West Lima, Wisconsin, a half-abandoned town that had become a commune called Dreamtime Village. There was a post office, a school building, little Midwestern houses, and almost no rules. Brad moved into the school and began studying fire, twirling torches, touching the flames, eating them as entertainment for whoever wanted to watch him. Everybody at Dreamtime was a freak, deliberately at odds with the world, but Brad was crazier than most. “That badass motherfucker who wasn’t scared to be on the front lines,” remembers his friend Sascha DuBrul, cofounder of the Icarus Project, an anarchist movement dedicated to the idea that much of what is classified as mental illness should be thought of as “dangerous gifts.” For Brad, the front lines weren’t at Dreamtime; in 1995 they were in New York City.
“I moved to the big shitty as Giuliani-time kicked in,” Brad wrote in an essay for an anarchist anthology, We Are Everywhere. In New York, at least, anarchists were concentrated in a few dozen squats, buildings abandoned at the nadir of the city’s grim 1980s and rehabbed by whoever wanted to live rent free. It was illegal, of course, which was part of the attraction for Brad—just living in a squat was a form of direct action, defiance of all the rules about property and propriety. Brad found himself an empty room in a squat on East Fifth Street, home to around sixty “activists and destructionists,” in the words of Pastrami, a yoga teacher Brad befriended. They hauled water up from fire hydrants and wired electricity from a streetlight. Next door they cleared the trash out of an abandoned lot and turned it into a garden with a pear tree. They shared the garden with their Puerto Rican neighbors, eventually winning over even the nuns of the nearby Cabrini seniors’ home, whose response to the squats went from one of horror to prayers for the wild but lovely young creatures who ate the trash and the toxic soil of the city.
This was the life Brad had been looking for. He’d haunt the anarchist store Blackout Books, in New York’s Alphabet City, and then he’d disappear for days into volumes he had bought with scrounged change or borrowed or found abandoned on the curb—the great free sidewalk bookstore of a city with small living spaces—his long bony hands cracking the spines of old lefty tomes and the quickie compilations of the writings of Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista revolt in Mexico who was fast becoming the new model for anarchist panache. Once, when Brad found himself across the street from a group of police officials, he got hold of a black ski mask and pulled it over his head Zapatista-style. Then he made his way to a rooftop looking down on the cops and stood there in his mask, pretending to speak into a walkie-talkie until the cops spotted him. They evacuated the meeting. Perfect poetic terrorism, thought Brad—nonviolent, funny, and kind of scary.
He read Kropotkin, the early-twentieth-century Russian biologist who articulated for anarchism its core idea of “mutual aid,” the simple but radical premise that cooperation, not competition, is the natural condition of humanity, and he worked with movements like the Ruckus Society, Earth First!, and Reclaim the Streets, leaderless networks of activists who put anarchist ideas into action through confrontational tactics—Brad was expert in the construction of “sleeping dragons” and “bear claws,” both methods of locking yourself down in front of a bulldozer or in the middle of a city street. The point wasn’t a set of demands but the act of disruption itself. In Brad’s world, action—direct, local, unfiltered—mattered more than ideology.
In theory, anyway. In practice anarchist factions often succumb to purist notions, refusing even to speak to comrades they consider co-opted. Not Brad. He was tight with anarchoprimitivists, who view language itself as oppressive, and social anarchists, who write books and build schools. “He was the least sectarian person I ever met,” says Dyan Neary. “That’s what made it easy for him to introduce people to ideas. He was just sort of user friendly.” Not everyone thought so. “Brad did his fair share of alienating people,” says Sascha DuBrul, who like Brad had migrated from Dreamtime to the Lower East Side. “He was so loud and outspoken, and he wasn’t always a big listener.” At the Fifth Street Squat he’d boast about his building skills, but then, friends say, he wired his room incorrectly, resulting in a small fire. The fire didn’t threaten the building, but it gave the mayor an excuse to tear it down. “When they came for our building,” Brad wrote, “there weren’t any eviction papers, and they came with a wrecking crane. I snuck inside, felt the rumble when the ball pierced the wall. I was alone. From the roof I watched them dump a chunk of my home on my garden… . When it was all over: a rubble heap.”
“I almost feel like he wanted to die up there, he felt so guilty,” a friend told the Village Voice. Afterward Brad left on a freight-train tour of America, riding in boxcars from city to city, speaking to activist groups about Giuliani’s crackdown. “Brad got incredibly fucking riled up,” remembers DuBrul. “He was on fire; his hands were shaking.”
In 1998 Brad went out west to join Earth First! activists for a “forest defense,” which for Brad would consist of spending the summer on a platform built high up around the trunk of an old-growth Douglas fir in Oregon, an anarchist retreat from the laws down below. “I called it the Y plane ‘cause you’re up, up, up off the rules of the X plane,” says Priya Reddy, who became one of Brad’s best friends that summer. “The only rule you really have is gravity. It’s homelessness in the best sense.”
A city girl, Reddy—in Oregon she took the name “Warcry”—didn’t know how to climb, so at first she provided ground support, hiking from tree to tree in the murky green light, taking orders for supplies. Brad had a different concern. “I dropped a piece of paper,” he called down on her first day. “Could you find it for me?”
Warcry looked into the branches. The voice’s source, two hundred feet up, was invisible. So was his piece of paper, fallen amid the thick ferns of the forest floor. When she found it, a folded-up scrap, she took a peek. A battle plan? No. A love poem, for one of the girls he’d left down below.
The woods were noisy with the music of the tree sitters, drowning out the sounds of the forest. CDs and tapes of Sonic Youth, Crass, and Conflict blasted full volume. But the most popular song was “White Rabbit,” recorded by Jefferson Airplane in 1967. After Warcry heard it for what seemed like the hundredth time, she took a stand. “What’s with this hippie shit?” she demanded. “You don’t know?” came the answer. “It’s a warning.” “White Rabbit” meant the cops, spotted by Brad or another tree sitter from their perches far above, were on their way.
Soon Warcry worked up the courage to join Brad in the trees, spending three weeks on a neighboring platform. Other women visited Brad’s roost, but although she adored him—and, with her dark eyes and long lashes, she was one of the most beautiful creatures in the trees—she never became one of his lovers. She became his chronicler.
She still is, in her tiny apartment in Spanish Harlem, one wall dedicated to a shrine to Brad: photographs of Brad in the trees, Brad in a boxcar, Brad kissing the toes of a lover, and material traces of Brad’s life as a rebel warrior—his old slingshot, anarchist ninja gear, little shells and pretty stones he’d bring her from his adventures. “I want to show you a video,” she says. We move into her office, a lime green closet with a window, decorated with imagery from past campaigns. She hits Play on a computer. Instead of Brad, trees and the sound of saws, then a giant tree falling, yards away from Brad and Warcry’s perches, almost close enough to take them down. I can’t see Brad but I hear him scream: “Fuuuck! ” The tree settles, and Brad shouts at the loggers below. “How old do you think that tree was? How old are you?” It was a question he might have been asking himself—up in his tree house, there were times he felt like a child, powerless to respond.
What set Brad apart from so many radical activists was that throughout it all, he remained close to his family, the buttoned-down Republican Wills of Kenilworth. When he was jailed for nearly a week at the World Trade Organization Seattle protests in 1999, one of his chief worries was getting out in time for his mother’s sixtieth birthday, which the Wills planned to celebrate in Hawaii. He made it, but he didn’t tell them where he’d been. One day he was behind bars—”screams down the hall,” he wrote, “ear pressed to the crack—twilight and i borrow someone’s glasses to watch rare sun fall on a freight leaving town”—and the next he was learning how to surf with his sister Christy.
That’s how Brad kept the peace with where he came from. In 2002, when he and Dyan Neary, who goes by “Glass,” were hopping freight trains from the Northwest to New York, he insisted they take a detour so that she could meet his mother. Glass tried to talk politics, telling the Wills about South American coca farmers blasted into extreme poverty by U.S.-funded crop spraying. Brad’s mom looked confused: “But, dear, how do you think we should deal with the cocaine problem?” It wasn’t meant as a question.
“Later,” Glass told me, “I was like, Oh shit, they don’t really know what you’re doing, do they?” Brad had giggled, proud of his ability to move between worlds.
He and Glass had met shortly after 9/11, their first date a six-hour walk around Ground Zero. Brad was thirty-one; Glass was twenty, a policeman’s daughter from Brooklyn, tall and skinny with a deep, earnest voice and a smile like Brad’s, wide and knowing. But she was stunned by New York’s transformation from go-go to warmongering. What the fuck happened to my city? she thought. They decided it was time to get out of town.
There were two complications. The first was monogamy. Brad didn’t believe in it, had never even tried. All right, Glass said, no sex. Brad suddenly discovered an untapped well of fidelity. The other problem was thornier: Brad was about to become a father. The mother was a Frenchwoman with whom he’d had a brief relationship while she was visiting New York. A month later she called to tell him she was pregnant. Brad loved kids, but he’d sworn he’d never bring one of his own into a world he considered too damaged.
“Why don’t you stay?” the mother-to-be asked when Brad spent his savings on a flight to France. “We can raise the child together.”
“I’ll help you out with money,” he said—a major commitment, given that he lived on food he found in Dumpsters—”but I’m not moving to France.”
When the woman had the baby, her new boyfriend adopted him. That seemed to Brad like an ideal solution—he loved the family he already had, but he wasn’t looking to start one.
“He wanted to experience revolution,” says Glass. “He wanted to live that every day.” They spent much of the next two years in South America, returning to New York to raise funds by taking temp jobs—Brad was a lighting grip—and throwing all-night benefit parties. In Brazil they worked with the Movimiento Sin Tierra, landless poor people who’ve squatted and won rights to more than twenty million acres of farmland. By “working with” they meant living with, documenting the struggle for the sake of the revolutionaries back home. In Buenos Aires they joined up with a movement of workers who’d reclaimed factories shuttered by Argentina’s economic meltdown. In Bolivia they met a radical coca farmer named Evo Morales who would soon become the country’s first indigenous president. This wasn’t the East Village, Brad realized, or a tree platform in Oregon. There was real power at stake, real potential, real politics.
Now he had a mission. He wanted to show American activists how to join the fight wherever they could find it, or start it. Video, he determined, was his medium. In 2004 he scraped together three hundred dollars for a used Canon ZR40 and headed back south, this time on his own. He was ready to start telling stories, ready to become a reporter.
In 2005, in a central-Brazilian squatters’ town of twelve thousand landless peasants called Sonho Real (Real Dream), Brad filmed an attack by twenty-five hundred state police who charged through lines of praying women and opened fire on the crowd. Brad was the only reporter on hand. He hid in a shack, filming, and waited for the worst. The cops found him, dragged him out by his hair, and beat him almost to unconsciousness. Then they smashed his camera and arrested him. “The U.S. Embassy refused to do anything,” says Brad’s friend Miguel. “They said, ‘Yes, we know, but he is not an important person to us.’” But his American passport still carried weight with the Brazilian police. They let him go. He’d managed to keep his tape hidden; soon it would be broadcast throughout Brazil, a perfect example of Indymedia in action.
But it didn’t seem like a victory to Brad. Police would later say that two squatters had been killed, but hospital workers said they had twenty bodies in the morgue. “i feel like i am haunted,” Brad wrote to his friend Kate Crane. “i keep seeing a thin woman’s body curled up at the bottom of a well, her body in a strange position—i can’t escape it.”
The Mexico to which Brad traveled in early October 2006 seemed like a nation on the verge. Of what, nobody could say. But something was about to break. It was an election year, and a new force in Mexican politics, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), appeared certain to win the presidency. Vicente Fox, a conservative who had deposed the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, was constitutionally forbidden from running again. His anointed successor was Felipe Calderón, an angry man obsessed with oil and secrecy, the Dick Cheney of Mexico. On July 2 Mexican television declared the race between Calderón and moderate Andrés Manuel López Obrador too close to call. The next morning Mexico’s electoral authority made Calderón the winner. Only they hadn’t counted all the votes. Two million Mexicans poured into the streets to protest. Calderón’s only hope was to seduce the PRI, his right-wing party’s traditional enemy, into a coalition against the leftist PRD. Part of the payment the weakened PRI demanded was the preservation of one of its traditional bases of power: Oaxaca.
The people of Oaxaca are among the poorest in a poor nation, but the state is rich in tourist dollars, and the PRI knew how to harvest them. In 2004 the PRI installed as governor a rising star of the party named Ulises Ruiz. Ruiz was a cash machine, skilled at tapping the state to kick funds up to the national party organization. What he wasn’t so good at, it turned out, was actually governing. The strongest challenge to his rule came not from another political party but from Oaxaca’s seventy-thousand-strong dissident faction of the national teachers’ union.
Since 1980 the teachers had struck every spring. It was a political ritual: Teachers marched, demanding basic necessities; union leaders, loyal to the PRI, negotiated a few concessions; everybody went home. Ruiz didn’t get the script. When the teachers built a tent plantón in Oaxaca’s central square, he sent his police to attack, helicopters swarming like giant bees. First came pepper spray, then concussion grenades, then bullets. On June 14, 2006, at least three teachers were killed. From that day on Oaxaca was in open revolt. “Con los huevos de Ulises, yo haré los huevos fritos!” women chanted in the streets—”With Ulises’ balls, I’m going to make fried eggs!” The protesters seized twenty-five city halls around the state; Ruiz retreated to a bunker. In August he began sending convoys of paramilitaries into the night, opening fire with automatic weapons. The teachers and their allies locked down the city with more than one thousand barricades.
And yet the American press ignored Oaxaca. That made it a perfect story for Brad, or so he told his friends. They tried to talk him out of it. “The APPO”—the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, in effect its revolutionary government—”doesn’t trust anyone it hasn’t known for years,” Al Giordano, the publisher of an online newsletter on Latin American politics called Narco News, told him. “They keep telling me not to send newcomers, because the situation is so fucking tense.”
“i think i will still go,” Brad wrote back. When he showed up at an Indymedia headquarters in Mexico City en route to Oaxaca, they told him his white skin would make him and anyone standing near him a target.
“You’re treating me like my mom,” Brad said. “What are you made of? This is what it’s about. This is the uprising.”
And yet he’d learned a certain caution. John Gibler, a radical print journalist with deeper roots in Mexico, remembers Brad showing up in Oaxaca’s central square, a tall hipster American with a fancy camera—Brad had sunk his life’s savings into it—that made him look like a professional. Which is what he was becoming—a Venezuelan network, Telesur, told him they’d buy whatever he sent them. “The media painted a picture of a gung-ho idealist who didn’t know which way was which, but the guy was not clueless,” says Gibler. “That first day I said, ‘Hey, Brad, you wanna come along to the barricades tonight?’ He looked at me, and he said, ‘I can’t wait to get out there, but people are getting killed. I need to get a feel of the place. Walking around at night without that is not a smart move.‘”
He found a place to sleep (the floor of the headquarters of an indigenous-rights group) and a place to stash his videotape—he’d learned in Brazil that a hiding place was a requirement for an Indymedia journalist lacking the protections of a big news agency. “I liked his style,” says Gibler. “Whatever was going on, he’d get the action shot, then he’d move into what was really happening. He’d go away from the center of attention.” He ate with the APPOs, as the protesters were called, marched with them, slept on the ground beside them on hot evenings. He told them about his politics before he asked about theirs. He laughed a lot, his ridiculous guffaw. Slowly the APPOs began to trust him. Brad was on the inside of whatRolling Thunder, an anarchist magazine back in the States, would call “the closest our generation has come to seeing an anarchist revolution.”
Brad’s Footage on October 27 begins on a suburban street, strewn with rocks and sandbags, a pillar of black smoke rising in the background. Minutes before, there’d been a battle, paramilitaries with automatic weapons versus protesters with Molotov cocktails. Brad zooms in on a silver van consumed by flames. Then he cuts back to the crowd, old men in straw hats, teenagers in ski masks, big women with frying pans. They begin to shout: “The people, united!” Bullets pop from a side street, and the fight careens into a narrow lane of one-story buildings. “Cover yourselves, comrades!” someone shouts. The protesters advance car by car, lobbing Molotovs that bloom from the blacktop. The sky darkens, bruised blue over dusty green trees. A dark-skinned boy in a black tank top kneels and aims his bottle-rocket bazooka. Bullets are cracking. Brad remembers a war photographer’s maxim: “Don’t get greedy.” That’s when you get killed. He turns off his camera.
When he starts shooting again, the protesters are crouching outside a white building in which they believe a comrade is being held prisoner. They batter the door, darting out into the open to deliver dropkicks. “Mire!” Brad shouts. “Look!” From down the street, more gunfire. Brad runs. Next to him someone is hit. “Shit!” Brad shouts. “Are you okay, comrade?” someone asks. Brad zooms in on an old woman fingering her prayer beads.
Then the final footage, played around the globe on YouTube a half a million times: a red dump truck used as a barricade and a battering ram, a wounded man led away, gunfire answered by bottle rockets. “Diganle a este pinche guey que no saque fotos!” somebody shouts. “Somebody tell this fucking guy to stop taking photos!” Brad keeps shooting. He steps up from the street onto the sidewalk, his camera aimed dead ahead. The compañeros are crouching; Brad rises, a pale white gringo above the crowd.
“I watch this, and I say, ‘Brad, stop! Don’t do this!’” says Miguel. “I ask myself if he really knows where he is. I ask myself if he knows he can die.”
Bang. A bullet hits Brad dead center, just below his heart, exploding his aorta.
Brad falls down.
Bang. Brad falls down. That’s how his friends experience it now, watching the tape over and over, trying to understand. Bang. Brad falls down. Warcry has watched it at least one thousand times. These days she works as a caterer; her activism is watching her best friend die over and over, searching for a clue. She is not alone. There are others, hunched over the frozen images. They study his death; they debate it; if they prayed, they would pray over it. They believe in it: It is evidence, an answer, the promise or the rumor or the echo of justice for their friend, their martyr. They do not like that term, it seems old, religious, not revolutionary. But “martyr” means “witness,” and Brad died with his camera in his hands. Bang. They slow the tape down, frame by frame, zoom in 800 percent, chart every pixel. There, on the left side of the screen, above the hood of the red dump truck, in the green of the trees, a tiny white starburst, visible for a fraction of a second. Brad falls down.
“Ayúdeme!” he screams, his Spanish too polite and formal for what he means: “Help me!”
“Tranquilo, tranquilo,” someone says. “Take it easy.” A photographer gives Brad mouth-to-mouth, and he gasps and opens his eyes. There are last words, but nobody knows what they are; the men who rush him to the hospital in a Volkswagen that runs out of gas don’t understand English, and Quebrado, “Broken,” has forgotten how to speak his mind. His old girlfriend Glass was in Hawaii when she heard. She’d been e-mailing Brad a lot. She missed him, and it seemed he missed her, too. They’d met in New York right before he’d left for Oaxaca to go on a bar crawl. He’d had a girlfriend with him, but in the pictures from that night it’s Glass on Brad’s arm.
The day he died, she was sitting in a park, singing songs she learned from Brad. She didn’t care if she looked like a crazy woman. By then, for a while anyway, she was. She’d burned out. She’d quit the fight, she was looking into sustainable living. But she still remembered the songs. She sang the anarchist anthems, then Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo Lullaby.” She sang Brad’s favorite, “Angel from Montgomery.” She tried to hear his voice. He’d be John Prine, she’d be Bonnie Raitt.
I have to e-mail Brad, she thought. This is so great! Then her phone rang. “This is Dyan, right?” a stranger’s voice said. “Can you call Brad Will’s mom? He’s hurt.”
“What? How?” The stranger wouldn’t answer. “What do you mean?”
“Call Jacob,” said the stranger. He gave her another stranger’s number. She dialed. “I was told to call this number about Brad?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s been confirmed,” said the voice on the other end.
“Oh, he’s dead.”
Glass walked into the road and began tracing a circle, screaming, all the songs gone.
In Oaxaca the APPOs combed Brad’s long hair and dressed his body in white. They draped a gold cross around his neck and laid him in a coffin. There were no fiery speeches, just weeping. Then-president Fox used the death of the gringo as an excuse to invade Oaxaca with four thousand federal police. The U.S. ambassador blamed the violence on schoolteachers. The APPOs fought on, but by December the uprising was dead, twenty protesters had been killed, and Brad Will was a story Oaxaqueños told one another. “He was with us from the beginning,” they said, though he’d only been there three weeks.
And Brad’s killers? It seemed like an open-and-shut case—a Mexican news photographer had even taken a picture of the men who appeared to be the shooters, a group of beefy thugs charging toward Brad and the APPOs with pistols and AR–15s. The Oaxaca state prosecutor, a Ruiz loyalist, grudgingly issued warrants for two of them, police commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar and Abel Santiago Zárate, known as “El Chino.” But at a press conference two weeks later, the prosecutor announced a new theory: Brad’s murder had been a “deceitful confabulation” planned by the APPO. In this version of events Brad was only grazed on the street. The fatal bullet was fired point-blank by an APPO on the way to the hospital—a physical impossibility, according to the coroner. No matter. At the end of November a judge set the suspects free.
Brad’s parents traveled to Mexico to request that the investigation be turned over to federal authorities. They won that fight, only to be fed the same story with a half dozen variations, including a PowerPoint presentation intended to prove that Brad was a “master of technique” so skilled he could hold his camera steady at arm’s length in front of him even as he swiveled to face his real killer, behind him. Believability wasn’t the point. “In political crimes in Mexico,” says Gibler, who came to act as the family’s translator, “there’s an impeccably neat history of immediate obfuscation and destruction of evidence. The authorities immediately flood all discussion with conspiracy theory. There’s a tradition of exquisite incompetence, so that later only speculation is possible.”
The wills are not, by nature, speculative people. At sixty-eight Hardy Will is a solid, fit man with white hair worn in a boyish curl. He still drives more than an hour both ways Monday through Friday, to his factory in Rockford, Illinois. Kathy Will’s health is beginning to fray, but she bounces like a loose electron around the Wisconsin lake house in which they now live, where I visit them one night in the midst of a blizzard. Designed and built by Brad’s great-grandfather, a lumber heir, the home is a mansion of broad, dark cypress beams, filled with Asian antiques from the travels of long-gone Wills. The house had left the Will family and begun to fall to pieces, but Hardy and Kathy bought it back when Brad was a boy and spent years restoring it, dreaming of a home to which their children would always want to return. Now it is perfect, spotless, disturbed only by neat stacks of documents, arranged on the great oak dining table like settings for a seminar on Brad’s achievements as a boy, Mexican politics, and ballistics.
It’s on this last matter that the case still turns. That is, in their new dream, the one in which their child’s killers will be held accountable, which is almost as unlikely as Brad coming in the front door, home from his adventures. But if justice were to be served—if the Wills are ever to be able to say, “This is what happened, this is how Brad died, this is the man who killed him,” they must determine what sort of bullet killed him and where, exactly, it came from. The initial coroner’s report said the bullets were 9 mm, which would rule out the .38s carried by the men Brad filmed. But a reexamination of the evidence has revealed that the bullets were .38s after all. Hardy shows me a photograph of them, two squat slugs hardly dented. “They only passed through soft tissue,” he says.
But from how far away? The government says Brad was shot nearly point-blank. The Wills are certain he was shot by the policemen at the end of the street. Proving that, they believe, may be the first step toward bringing their son home, reclaiming his memory from the murk of a broken revolution.
I’ve come bearing what passes for good news to the Wills these days: a frame-by-frame analysis of Brad’s last minute made by Warcry, who has entrusted me to act as her courier for a package that also includes a video of Brad belting out “Teargas Anthem/Washing Machine Song,” collectively composed after the 1999 Seattle protests and so named for the heavy thump-thump of sneakers tumbling in a washing machine, being cleansed of the tear gas that clings to fabric and leather long after a demonstration. Brad sang one of the verses he’d contributed:
… and you asked what I would do,
And I told you the truth dear sister, when I spoke these words to you
I will stand beside your shoulder, when the tear gas fills the sky.
If a National Guardsman shoots me down I’ll be looking him in the eye.
Warcry also sent a fifteen-page report that begins: “All POSSIBILITIES must receive due consideration (even the unlikely ones offered to us by the Mexican government) but our search for Brad’s killer will be most effective if we narrow down the variables to themost likely PROBABILITIES.”
“Well, this is what we’ve been waiting for,” says Hardy. We gather in a TV room, the three of us standing as Warcry’s distilled images play on a giant screen. “That’s it!” Hardy exclaims. The white starburst of the gunshot appears, expands, drifts, visible for a fraction of a second, blown up into giant, pale pixels—possibly the bullet that’s about to hit Brad. Proof, Hardy believes.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Kathy.
“Should we watch it again?” Hardy asks.
Yes. Rewind. Pause. Kathy’s head drops, and she backs out of the room. Rewind, Pause; Brad falls down, over and over. “Yes,” says Hardy quietly. “This is what we need.”
Then I ruin it. Warcry also has stills, I tell Hardy, images of a man in a yellow shirt she believes is holding a sniper rifle. This confuses Hardy. Warcry is still operating on the belief that the bullets were 9 mm, not yet aware of the new evidence that they were .38s after all. Hardy believes his son was hit by an incredibly unlucky shot fired from a two-bit police pistol a block away. “Show me the pictures,” he insists. “She can’t be right.”
It’s eleven-thirty at night. I call Warcry; she’s up, waiting to hear from the Wills. Send the sniper pictures, I tell her. Kathy serves us apple pie while we wait. “This could really change everything,” Hardy says between mouthfuls. We gather around his computer in his study, a dark room looking out on a frozen lake, to wait for Warcry’s pictures. We’re surrounded by animal heads from African safaris and memorabilia from Hardy’s Yale football days. I pull up the image, a man in a yellow shirt at a distance, a long gun barrel rising above his left shoulder. Hardy peers down, then sighs. He walks over to a well-stocked gun cabinet, removes a rifle, and turns around, aiming at me, posing perfectly as the man Warcry believes is his son’s killer.
“It’s not a sniper rifle,” he says, looking at the gun in his hand. “It’s a carbine.”
A clumsy old weapon that would have been no better for targeting Brad at that distance than a .38. The puff of white smoke is the best piece of evidence they’ve seen in the year since Brad died, but they still can’t explain how he was shot twice at long range by an inaccurate gun.
Hardy slumps into a seat in the corner, thinking of one more theory—one more chance at certainty—dashed.
Kathy brings us tea. Like Brad, she has soft, sleepy eyes and a broad smile. “I like talking to people,” she says. “I’ll talk to anyone. I guess that’s where Brad got it from.” Hardy is exhausted. The clock has passed midnight, and he must drive to his factory in the morning. He says goodnight, but Kathy sits up, watching Brad’s old videos—Brad fleeing tear gas in Miami, Brad dancing in the street in Quito, Brad quietly explaining to a camera why he fights.
“It’d be laughable if they weren’t serious,” she says, the room dark but for the glow of the screen, a paused video image of Brad.
Hardy was always the skeptical one, shielding his wife from the ways of the world, but now it’s Kathy who’s grasping the roots of her son’s political discontent. She doesn’t have the ideology, still doesn’t get the politics, tsk-tsks when she sees Brad sitting in front of an upside-down American flag—a crisp Stars and Stripes snaps on a pole outside the house, and there are three bands of colored stones, red, white, and blue, on her finger. It’s not anything that Brad said that has changed her point of view. It’s what the Mexican government says, its PowerPoint about her son’s “technical mastery,” its surreal “pivot theory,” the lies they told her to her face. “What they’re really telling me is that Brad was there for a very good reason. Believe me, I didn’t want him there. But he was absolutely right. He was right about all the injustices. I didn’t know it then. I really didn’t know. I know it now.”
We watch Brad’s videos together for a while, no longer talking. Too long, maybe; outside the snow is deep, drifting up to the Wills’ door so that we can barely open it. My car has disappeared, as has the lake and the road and the world beyond.
Kathy knows just what to do. “You’ll stay here,” she tells me, and takes me up the stairs to an empty bedroom, its windows ticking gently against the wind and a draft threading across the floorboards.
“You have everything you need?” Kathy asks, standing by the door, as if she’s going to turn the light off for me.
“Good. You’ll sleep well. This was Brad’s room.”
One of the most common clichés about radicalism in America is the myth that it’s all about the parents—activists rebelling against or proving themselves to Mom and Dad before they settle down and become Mom or Dad. That wasn’t Brad Will. Had he come through that firefight on October 27, 2006, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned it to his mother. Instead, he’d’ve told her about the great Mexican food he’d had, and she’d’ve said that the lake was flattening in the cold, and that soon it would be frozen, that maybe when he came home for Christmas he could go ice-skating. His video likely would not have been seen outside activist circles in the United States, the echo chamber of the already persuaded.
But the bullet that killed him ended up broadcasting what he had learned far beyond his usual channels, all the way back to where he’d begun. With Brad’s death, knowledge came to Kathy Will. It was the most awful kind of knowing: a new understanding of the world as it is, almost blinding her to the glimpse she had caught, maybe for the first time, of the world as Brad had imagined it could be.
“The last possible deed is that which defines perception itself,” writes Hakim Bey in the long and wild poem that had turned her son on to those possibilities. “An invisible golden cord that connects us.”