Brad Will 1970-2006: A Lifetime of Journalism and Activism

Paloma Esquivel
October 30, 2006

Reporter Bradley Will captured the final moments of his life on camera.

Will, 36, a journalist for Indymedia, traveled to the Mexican state of Oaxaca in early October with a video camera and a microphone to tell a story left incomplete by the mainstream media. Since May, when Oaxaca's teachers first took to the streets of the state's capital in a general strike, the state has become the stage for one of the largest popular uprisings in recent Mexican history. Oaxaca teachers have been striking yearly to demand small benefits for neglected schools -- a few more books, a small salary increase, a decent classroom.

After nearly a month of encampment in the central zócalo (square), right-wing Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortega, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, responded to their peaceful demonstrations by besieging the square with state police. Rather than quell the demonstrators, Ruiz's action unleashed the festering anger and frustration of the citizens of Oaxaca. Ruiz took office in 2004 in a disputed election, and he quickly cut funding for many state social programs and put restrictions on marches and protests. On June 14 he ordered police to drop tear gas on the tents of teachers, children and families, but rather than quiet the protesters, his violent reaction transformed the strike into a massive popular movement of students, farmers, indigenous communities, and social leaders.

Soon after the protests started, thousands of Oaxaca's poorest united to create the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) and establish an autonomous zone in the city's center. They have demanded that Ruiz step down and a truly representative government be established.

Ruiz was not deterred. He refused to step down and continued to violently threaten protesters. Many local activists say he is responsible for sanctioning government sponsored right-wing paramilitary groups who have for months terrorized the residents of the autonomous zone. Since the protests started, ten people have been killed, most of them APPO supporters.

The popular struggle in Oaxaca has been only lightly covered in the United States -- a few interspersed articles that sought to balance the people's outcry with the perspectives of those who have ready access to the media to make their voices heard.

Last week, the big U.S. outlets reported the protests' imminent demise, saying that some teachers had reached a compromise to return to work that upcoming Monday. But while mainstream journalists had tailored an ending to the storyline, Will and other independent media continued to follow the people on the streets. For weeks Will had been posting communiqués from Oaxaca on Indymedia for free.

His final video, shot on Oct. 27, available on several independent media websites, films a group of protesters struggling with state forces. In the footage, we can see Will's shadow as he moves along a graffiti-covered street. A single shot is fired and he ducks behind a truck. We see the gunmen, later identified as two police officers, a city personnel director and the public safety chief. Will gets up and resumes filming the protestors on the street. One protestor throws a rock at the gunmen, and there's another shot. Will falls to the ground, his camera in hand. Before it's all over, the camera captures 12 more shots. Before the day is over, Esteban Zurita López, a butcher and father of six children, and Emilio Alfonso Fabián, a schoolteacher, are also dead.

The next day, Vicente Fox, president of Mexico, used the deaths and compromise as a pretext to send in federal troops to finally quash the resistance. On Sunday almost 4,000 federal forces moved in equipped with riot gear and shields, and buttressed by water cannons and helicopters. The troops marched into the zócalo. The demonstrators defended themselves with rocks and sticks. By the end of that day, the Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported federal troops killed two more protesters in the confrontations: Roberto López Hernández, an employee of the Mexican Social Security Institute, and Jorge Alberto Beltrán, a medical worker.

On Monday, an Associated Press report on the events didn't call Will by name and didn't mention the paramilitaries, the government-sanctioned violence and the 1 million protesters who took to the streets in recent months.

"Strike-weary residents took to the streets Monday," it read, "to thank federal police for intervening in violent demonstrations that had held their city hostage for months." And it quoted President Fox: "Today in Oaxaca social order and peace has been restored.''