Image by Carlos Latuff
by Gabriel Freeman
Eat The State
Last week (October 27, 2006), Brad Will, a founding reporter of the New York Independent Media Center and an old friend, was killed while videotaping the mass crackdown by state police against the people's movement in Oaxaca. His killers were quickly identified by residents of the neighborhood as local officials and off-duty police, working (presumably) for the governor of Oaxaca, Ulysses Ruiz. The governor's office immediately announced that the four had been arrested, but several days later this report turned out to be false and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Brad was a videographer who covered everything from tree-sits in the northwest, housing squats, the WTO and IMF protests, and for the last two years, mass movements throughout Latin America.
Brad lived the last seven years of his life at the crossroads between activism and journalism. When we both witnessed the birth of the Indymedia movement here in Seattle in 1999, I thought it might be some strange shotgun marriage between activists who didn't believe that the most important stories were being covered (Brad) and unemployed journalists who were looking for a place to publish their stuff (me). Yet in only a matter of months after WTO we saw Indymedia centers spread to more than 100 cities around the world. Suddenly it seemed like journalism was more addictive than crack and rapidly turning into a world-wide pandemic.
I met Brad, typically, at a mass protest (WTO). He was introduced to me as a Critical Mass bicycle activist, squatter, and tree-sitter. There is a famous picture of Brad at a New York squat in 1997, when he climbed a building about to be demolished and emerged on the roof as the wrecking ball began to swing.
Yet only a few months after WTO, he was back and carrying a camera for the freshly minted New York IMC. Our paths would cross again and again in some old warehouse or garage turned into an IMC, and we'd trade stories about the friends we had seen since the last big gig. I stayed in his apartment in Brooklyn during the New York RNC in 2004 and we would sing and drink late into the night.
Brad believed that the way to cover a story was to live it as his subjects did, and to let them speak for themselves. This led him back up into the trees and all over Latin America, but now he would be carrying a camera and a microphone. These may not seem like the most formidable of weapons, but in the hands of a determined reporter and a steadfast publisher, they can occasionally change the world. To be an unpaid reporter is a little like a cross between being a priest of some long forgotten religion dedicated to the pursuit of truth and Diogenes searching for his honest man.
I don't believe for a second that Brad would have consciously chosen the fate of a martyr, even in a cause as noble as the pursuit of truth. Certainly he always knew the risks and accepted them with good cheer, but the Brad I knew loved life too much to think that way. He was an eat, drink, and be merry kind of guy. If he could have chosen his own demise, I suspect he would have chosen to go out with a guitar in one hand, a jug of wine in the other, while serenading a pretty girl. Brad was the kind of guy who always brought a guitar to an action as well as his camera gear. Some of you who were involved then might remember him as the guy who wrote the (first) extra verses to the anthem of the time, Desert Rat's Tear Gas song, the verses about the oceans and trees. Yeah, that guy. Wiry, dark hair and goatee, steel-rimmed glasses and a guitar, always ready with a joke or a song. You might have met him back then.
There is a much older and vibrant tradition of journalism in America than the prevailing post-WWII fashion a la the New York Times. For most of the history of the republic, newspapers reflected not only the values and views of their publisher, but also (sometimes) those of the community that they were trying to sell their papers to. This culminated in Joseph Pulitzer's turn-of-the-century quasi-populist New York World, and his famed dictum to his editors that "the job of a great newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Brad believed in exactly that kind of journalism. Ironically, it's the same dream that most young reporters straight out of journalism school hope will lead them to writing the history of their times.
The dream of Indymedia was to put the power of the press into the hands of ordinary citizens, who would then go and cover stories that the commercial media ignored. Anybody with an insane determination to go where the majors wouldn't go and a willingness to push off everything in their lives at the drop of a hat could now become Ernie Pyle. The Jeffersonian dream that any printer's apprentice could publish a newspaper took on new life on the web and suddenly, hope itself became contagious. And in the last few years we've seen a vast army of bloggers in our wake following the example of Ben Franklin and his printing press. Perhaps the most ironic thing about his death is that Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other big dogs of the media are calling for investigations into the circumstances of his death. Only five years ago we weren't even considered legitimate in their eyes. Brad would have had a good laugh at that.
Brad Will was 36 years old and left behind parents, three siblings, and a vast number of friends all over the world. If you want to know more about him or his memorial go to nyc.indymedia.org or to friendsofbradwill.org.
Lewis Lapham once said on the death of his friend, the great libertarian essayist Walter Karp, "he never earned more than $30,000 in any one year, and he received few of the ornamental honors, subsidies, and flattering reviews that the journalistic profession bestows upon the virtues of solemn orthodoxy... .The world didn't trust Walter Karp and rewarded him with nothing in its gift."
--Gabriel Freeman, KBCS News. Seattle's Indymedia has fallen on hard times due to lack of money and volunteers. On Saturday Dec. 2 at the Douglass-Truth branch of the Seattle Public Library (23rd & Yesler Way) there will be an attempt to revive its many working groups and become, more than just a website, but a functioning IMC. If you want to be the media, come check it out.