Months after local videographer and blogger Josh Wolf was released from federal prison where his seven-month stay was the longest in history for an American journalist for refusing to turn over unpublished materials to criminal prosecutors the San Francisco Police Commission finally has decided to analyze the incident. That inquiry comes just as Wolf embarks on a campaign for mayor, which he hopes will create a dialogue about the lack of police accountability and the overzealous federal intrusions that marked his story.
Wolf, 24, told the Guardian that he’s still baffled by what transpired after he filmed the July 8, 2005, anti-G8 protest, which involved a heavy anarchist turnout, "got rowdier than local officials would have liked," and left a San Francisco police officer with a fractured skull an incident that Wolf calls "unfortunate" but of which he claims to have absolutely no knowledge
"I’ve read the evidence that was presented in my case, but to this day no one has pointed out anything that constitutes terrorism," Wolf said.
The day after the protest, Wolf was contacted at his home by members of the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with two San Francisco Police Department officers. The four agents who showed up Wolf’s door, one of them dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, demanded that he hand over all his video outtakes after local and national TV stations aired edited footage that Wolf posted on his blog. The aired film included scenes of anarchists setting off firecrackers, turning over newspaper racks, and spray-painting a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. office. It also showed an SFPD officer holding local resident Gabe Meyers in a choke hold while another agent waved his weapon at the crowd and shouted, "Leave or you’re going to get blasted. I’m a fed, motherfucker."
"If any time the SFPD decides it doesn’t want to deal with some local issue, does it have the autonomy to contact the feds, and if so, doesn’t that jeopardize all the laws that the voters of San Francisco have passed?" Wolf asked July 11 as the Police Commission discussed a resolution supporting the First Amendment rights of the "new media," which is how Web-based disseminators of news, such as Wolf, are being described.
Earlier this year, police commissioner David Campos tried to pass a resolution in support of the then-jailed Wolf, but the proposal got no traction until Theresa Sparks was elected as president in May. By then Wolf had been free from jail for a month, leading Campos and Sparks to shift their focus toward investigating exactly why Wolf’s case got federalized in the first place as well as the implications for other groups that are protected locally but at risk federally.
As Campos told the commission, "A lot of people in San Francisco have been talking about how we as a department interact with the feds, to the extent that it has an impact on medical cannabis providers and immigrants and on First Amendment rights, as in the case of Josh Wolf."
Under state law, reporters’ sources and their work products are protected. A recent case involving Apple suggests that the law also extends to bloggers and independent reporters. But under federal law, reporters have no such protections, which is why former New York Times journalist Judith Miller was jailed in the Valerie PlameCIA investigation and San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada faced potential jail time in the BALCO affair, as did freelancer Sara Olsen in the court-martial of Army Lt. Ehren Watada.
But while these journalists refused to comply with subpoenas that were clearly related to federal matters, there was no such obvious connection in Wolf’s case. An investigation into the assault on SFPD officer Peter Shields normally would have been undertaken by local police and District Attorney Kamala Harris. Police records show that SFPD inspector Lea Militello requested "assistance from the FBI/JTTF regarding investigation of a serious assault against a San Francisco police officer." Federal investigators justified their involvement by maintaining that there had been an attempted arson on an SFPD squad car purchased in part with federal funds, even though SFPD records indicate only that the car’s rear tail light was broken.
"There was nothing incriminating on my tape," Wolf told the Police Commission, recalling how he offered to prove his statement by letting the federal judge view it in his private chambers, an offer the judge refused. "But because I had no federal protections, I had to decide whether to engage in a McCarthyesque witch hunt," Wolf added; he long had suspected that the feds wanted to profile anarchists about whom he has intimate knowledge.
Campos and Sparks hope that last week’s Police Commission discussion will be the first in a series about the protocols and procedures that the SFPD follows in deciding whether to refer matters to federal authorities. Both stress that asking for such a study does not mean they do not care that an SFPD officer was hurt. As Sparks told us, "At this point we don’t know what the deliberations behind everything that night were or how many people were deployed. For us to comment on a police officer being injured is inappropriate unless we have all the information. And all we’re hearing is anecdotal stuff. Our job is not to take sides but to figure out what the policies were, are, and what they should be."
Police Chief Heather Fong has agreed to report to the Police Commission in August on policies and procedures related to the SFPD’s General Orders, the city’s ordinances on immigration and medical marijuana, and protection of journalists’ rights. Sparks predicts that the report will tell the commission "what the SFPD’s policies do, how that compares to the Board of Supervisors’ resolutions, and whether we need to rewrite them or write new rules for the police."
Commissioner Campos told us he hopes the report will clarify whether the police have an obligation to report to the feds if an investigation involves damage to property bought with federal funding. "If it’s the case that we are obligated, then we need a discussion. Do we want to accept funds if doing so ties our hands and forces us to do something that San Francisco doesn’t want to do? For instance, if we accept funding, then does that mean we have to cooperate with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]? If so, then a lot of us, myself included, would be up in arms and would say, ‘Let’s not.’ To the extent that it comes down to money, I’d hope that we’d make the choice that we’d rather not take the money than get in bed with the federal government."
Wolf, who was not convicted of any crime but served 226 days for being in contempt of a grand jury subpoena, was released April 3 after he agreed to post all his unedited footage online an action the feds claimed as evidence that he had submitted to their demands. But Wolf pointed out that he agreed to do so only after the feds promised that he would not have to testify about anyone whose actions or words he had captured on tape. He also pointed out that he released the tapes to everyone, not just the federal government.
Since being released Wolf has announced his intention to run for mayor of San Francisco this fall, saying he was inspired by the recent Progressive Convention called by Sup. Chris Daly "in which they had a great platform but no declared candidate."
Wolf’s candidacy pits him against Mayor Gavin Newsom, who expressed neither support for Wolf nor criticism of his detention. That stance is in contrast with that of Harris, who is also running for reelection this fall and publicly criticized the US Attorney’s Office in March, a month before Wolf was released. In August 2006, Newsom returned unsigned the resolution of support for Wolf’s plight that was sponsored by Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi, Tom Ammiano, and Daly. The resolution, which passed on a 91 vote, with Sup. Sean Elsbernd voting no and Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier absent, declared that the city "resisted the federal government’s intervention in the City and County of San Francisco’s investigation of the July 8th, 2005 G-8 protest; expressed support for the California Shield Law; and urged Congress to pass Senate Bill 2831, the Free Flow of Information Act."
Asked about Newsom’s position on Wolf and related matters, spokesperson Nathan Ballard reminded the Guardian that the mayor authorized a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the assault on Shields. "We take these attacks seriously and will take the appropriate actions necessary to ensure that the person or persons responsible are prosecuted," the mayor said shortly after the assault. As for Wolf, Ballard said by e-mail, "I am not aware of any public statement [by] the Mayor on the case of Josh Wolf. The Mayor is generally supportive of the concept of a better shield law, but he has not taken a position on this particular bill at the present time."
As it happens, Wolf, who has made numerous media appearances since his release, including on The Colbert Report, could find himself in the unusual position of having more name recognition than any of Newsom’s other challengers. And with Congress currently considering a federal shield law, the cause for which Wolf went to jail remains in the news. As media activist Rick Knee put it, pointing to the "Free Josh Wolf" button that he continues to wear on the lapel of his tweed jacket, "Josh may be out, but the issue is still with us." *