In Memory of Brad Will: Old Friend, Mad Revolutionary, Taunter of Death

The memories poured out of my head like a flood all day. They overpowered my dreams and spilled all over the sheets. I can’t be present with the people around me. My head keeps slipping into that ethereal place between life and death,memory carrying me back more then a decade and then flashing to photos on Indymedia. Photos of Brad Will with a bullet in his chest, lying dead on the dusty street with strangers standing over his body. I have to write this down so I can come back to life and figure out what the hell to do next. It’s so strange when our friends die, how they get frozen in time while the rest of us keep moving and getting older. For the rest of my life, Brad is always going to be that scruffy-faced, fire-breathing rebel taunting the cops on the streets of the Lower East Side; that madman on the roof of 5th Street Squat getting in the way of the wrecking ball on a cold February morning cause he was determined to keep them from demolishing his home; that badass motherfucker who wasn’t scared to be right on the front lines and scream in the face of authority. Brad was always tempting fate and putting himself in the line of fire, in a way where it was never clear if he was heroically brave, a raving lunatic, or some complex interplay between the two.

I met Brad Will at Dreamtime Village outside Madison, Wisconsin, during the summer of 1995. He was loud and obnoxious and full of himself and had an explosive, mischievous laugh and told great stories. He had been traveling around with a group of guys, performing guerilla theater in the streets, inspired by the idea of creating Temporary Autonomous Zones and conjuring up spaces to shake up modern capitalist notions of normality and productivity. We reveled in the power of our freaky friends, the magic of the nomadic traveling circus, and the beauty of our underground anarchist culture.

We crossed paths again shortly thereafter at Blackout Books, the infoshop on Avenue B where our people hung out. He’d gotten a space on the second floor of 5th Street Squat and was getting it ready for winter, excited about joining the Lower East Side squatter community, sheet rock dust in his hair and a grin on his face. We were both in New York that late fall when Steal This Radio, the squatter pirate radio station, went live for the first time at ABC No Rio. And we were both there for those roving Friday night parties when the station broadcasted its signal from a different squat every week to evade the FCC. It was the place to be, the best party in town, a radical talent show and celebration. I have warm memories of it being cold outside and Brad Will wailing on his guitar in rooms full of people.

I went down to Central America that winter to do solidarity work in Guatemala and Chiapas and ran into him the following summer in Chicago during Active Resistance, the anarchist gathering organized to the protest the Democratic National Convention in 1996. I have this memory of sitting around a small fire on the outskirts of the city and our friends were singing “Angel from Montgomery.” I remember Brad rubbing my travel-weary shoulders. He had strong hands, and when I complimented his strength he flexed the tendons in his forearms and laughed that crazy laugh of his, squinting through his spectacles. It’s etched into my memory cause that was his freaky style.

We were both riding freight trains but he knew more about the history of the railroads and hobo culture in the U.S. One day on a street corner in Chicago he schooled me about the Dust Bowl and the Depression, migrant farm workers and the Wobblies, incredulous that I didn’t know my own history. He busted out his guitar right there and belted out a string of Woody Guthrie songs, looking straight into my eyes as he sang the words:

I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Well its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground,
Cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine

After Active Resistance he gave me the key to his room at 5th Street Squat, and I kept it tucked away in the pocket of my filthy black Carhartts. I showed up at his squat covered in diesel grease in the middle of the night off a Chicago train. I stayed in his room for a month before I left town to head west. The next time I saw Brad Will, it was the following winter and his image was on a screen from the video of the 5th Street Squat eviction that Seth from C-Squat had sent to my house in Oakland. There had been a sketchy electrical fire in late February, the police forcefully evicted everyone, and then they used the fire as an excuse to demolish the building without giving anyone a chance to get their possessions out.

But they never got Brad out of the building. In the video that crazy motherfucker was on the roof trying to keep the wrecking ball from slamming into the building, waving his arms frantically or triumphantly. It was hard to tell. The footage was grainy but made it more dramatic. They pulled him out and brought him to jail but he burst out as a man on fire. He did a one-man tour talking to groups about the demolition of his building, gentrification, and corruption of the city. He was enraged and desperately wanted the world to know what had happened.

We organized a talk for him at Epicenter in San Francisco. It was the same era as Prisoners Literature Project, when local activists and traveler kids would show up to fill book requests to prisoners from a donated library. Brad was shaking as he told the story and everyone in the room was visibly moved.

Earlier that day Brad had showed up in town at my girlfriend’s house with a big crate of fresh asparagus because his family in Stockton were asparagus farmers.
Even in his rage and anger, I remember Brad Will as generous and bearing gifts.

A couple years later Brad lived at Dos Blockos Squat on 9th Street. It was the early days of the More Garden’s Coalition being organized out of Aresh’s tiny apartment on Clinton St. The city was evicting community gardens all over the city, and we were doing direct action street theater by City Hall on a regular basis. There were benefit shows almost every week at Dos Blockos, full of freaks, outlaws, junkies, and hoodlums that called that place home. During the eviction our friends bolted big metal spikes onto the roof of the Dos Blockos so the city couldn’t land a helicopter and storm the building. It was a crazy time.

The following fall the People’s Global Action Caravan showed up in New York from all over the world to protest the World Trade Organization and Brad was with us in the streets outside of the public relations firm Burson Marsteller, protesting their corporate whitewashing. Brad and I were wearing suits with red paint on our hands asking visibly sketched out employees if they could “help us get the blood off our hands.”

On the Halloween Critical Mass Ride, hundreds of costumed freaks shut down Times Square for the first time ever—a crowd of bikes held high in the air, cheering and laughing. I remember Brad Will creating a spectacle blowing huge fireballs from his mouth and a cop grabbed his bicycle from the ground next to him. I’m not sure how, but Brad was slick enough to drop his torch, grab the bike out of the bewildered cops hands, and speed off into the crowd. Later, we were riding down Broadway and Brad biked by, grinning and laughing that crazy laugh of his, and disappearing into the mass.

I don’t remember the next time I saw Brad Will. After the WTO protests, he made his way around the world to organize in anti-globalization protests in DC, Quebec, Genoa, Miami, and Cancun. He loved being in the streets. He had a strong sense of right and wrong. And he loved fighting the good fight.

I remember Brad Will on fire in the streets during the DNC in Los Angeles in 2000. There had been a police riot earlier and we were getting shot up with rubber bullets and tear gas, making our way back to the convergence space beaten and weary. Looking down from the second floor I saw Brad Will amidst a sea of people in the courtyard, singing a Desert Rat song, fiercely, loudly, proudly:

 

So I called upon you brother, and you asked what I would do,
And I told 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,
I will wash their pepper from your face and go with you to jail,
And if you don’t make it through this fight I swear I’ll tell your tale.

I will stay with you in the prison cell in solidarity
And I will not leave that cursed room ‘til you walk out with me
For we the people fight for freedom, while the cops just fight for pay,
And as long as the truth is in our hearts we’re sure to win someday.

I will not falter when that iron fist comes out of the velvet glove,
I will stand beside your shoulder to defend this land we love.

 

Shortly thereafter he got passionate about documenting revolutionary movements in Latin America and got involved in the Indymedia scene. He made good
money doing stage set up in New York. He would work long hours for travel money and to buy video equipment, spending large chunks of time in South America documenting multiple revolutions. I remember sleeping with a cast of motley characters at the Indymedia office in midtown Manhattan; it was often two a.m. as we sat below fluorescents and with coffee and deadlines, and Brad and his partner Dyan saving up money to head down South. At some point they lived at that warehouse on Walker Street where I crashed on their couch a couple times. Then later Brad had a cheap little apartment in Brooklyn that he shared with a couple activist friends who were also in and out of town. He’d always offer me his place to crash at when we’d run into each other.

The night they arrested Daniel McGowan5 , and our friends gathered at Bluestockings to figure out what to do, I spent a long time walking around the neighborhood with Brad Will. We were scared for our friend, suddenly looking at a life sentence for being a “terrorist” but had never hurt a soul. We talked
about the terrifying political situation in the early 21st century, and how it was getting worse. Brad talked about his past clashes with the law catching up with him, how he made enemies in high places, how it was only a matter of time before they would try to pin something on him. The wind was blowing hard on Allen Street that night, the cold settling in for the winter.

We spent hours on Brooke Lehman’s roof his last summer, just the two of us, looking over the city. We talked about the revolutions in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Mexico, how brutal the global political situation was, and how it was inevitably going to explode and spill over into the streets of this country. We talked about the mental health support work I’d been doing. With our radical asses in universities and hospitals, it wouldn’t be so easy for them to pull us out when the fight comes. We expressed our mutual love and respect for each other and the paths we’d taken.

I saw Brad Will a month before he died. He showed up at an Icarus mental health skillshare at the Judson Memorial Church. Daniel McGowan was there too, fresh off house arrest. The sun was shining and good things were afoot. Old friends were teaching workshops amidst the younger crowd. Brad was getting ready to head to Mexico. I asked if he was going to Chiapas, and he replied in that incredulous, obnoxious voice of his, “What are you kidding, man?

I’m going to Oaxaca. Haven’t you been reading the news? There’s a revolution going on in the streets down there!”

• • •

I can still hear his voice saying the words. And he still feels so alive to me. I’ve been hearing his voice talking to me constantly like a running dialogue. And I know from experience that memories fade, that voices fade, that the only way we can keep our people alive is by telling their stories.

It’s almost one a.m. on Monday morning, and I spent the night with all these old friends, and we’re all heading into the streets early to the Mexican consulate to shake shit up, Brad Will style. We’re still all in shock and don’t know what the fuck to say to each other, but we have each other, and we are so strong and beautiful.

So I swear I’ll keep telling your tale, old friend, you’ll be there in the streets with us wherever we’re fighting for justice.

5 As a result of multiple arsons against lumber company property motivated by activism, McGowan was forced to accept a plea bargain under “enhanced” charges of eco-terrorism. He was recently released from prison and sent me an email right before this book went to press. It put a huge grin on my face!

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