Our Longreads Member Pick:
Quebrado, by Jeff Sharlet
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This week, we’re excited to share a Member Pick from Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth, contributing editor for Rolling Stone and bestselling author of The Family, C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. “Quebrado” is a chapter from Sweet Heaven, first published in Rolling Stone in 2008, about Brad Will, a young American journalist and activist.
QuebradoJeff Sharlet | Sweet Heaven When I Die, W. W. Norton & Company | Aug 2011 | 37 minutes (9,133 words)
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad
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.
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