by Sarah Phelan
“What will everyone do now?” asked a fellow Guardian-ista, when freelance videojournalist and blogger Josh Wolf was released. She was referring to those who fought to get Wolf freed after the feds locked him up last summer. Don’t worry, I thought, the war over why Josh Wolf has been freed is about to begin.
Sure enough, war broke out that afternoon.
With Wolf set to speak on the steps of San Francisco City Hall on April 3, after 226 days inside, everyone was asking “So, what’s changed?” Had Wolf, tiring of prison food, thrown in the towel and told the feds everything they always wanted to know about anarchists? Or had the feds, weary of the fired US Attorney General scandal, decided it was time to score Brownie points in Nancy Pelosi’s home town by letting Wolf go, no questions asked?
Sup. Tom Ammiano, fresh from Giants opening game told the crowd, "Josh Wolf did what the Giants failed to do today: he hit a home run!"
With these kind of rumors flying in cyberspace, Wolf’s mother, Liz Wolf- Spada emailed the following statement:: "The government met Mr. Wolf's demands: release him without appearing before the Grand Jury and without having to testify as to the events or participants at the demonstration."
Minutes later, another email binged into our inbox, this time from US Attorney Scott Schools, who's filling in at the Northern District of California office, since Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired Kevin Ryan as part of the scandal that’s still bogging down the US Justice Department.)
“Joshua Wolf complies with Grand Jury Subpoena” announced Schools, “by producing the responsive materials in his possession and answering to questions.”
Curious to see Wolf (would he be buffer, tougher, rougher since being inside?) and hear his version of what had gone down at the jail (if School’s claims were accurate, had water boarding been involved, given Wolf vowed never to testify?) we trekked to City Hall.
The paparazzi were out in full force, taking plenty of photos and notes as Wolf, his lawyers, and Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and Tom Ammiano spoke. But Wolf’s message evidently proved too wordy for the Chronicle headline writers. How else to explain their April 4 head, which screamed, “Blogger freed after giving video to feds"? The headline was, in fact, a misleading half-truth. The full truth was that Wolf had posted his unedited video at his blog and given prosecutors a copy, but had refused to testify about it. Instead, he'd denied under oath knowing anything about the alleged arson of the car, or who Shields was chasing before his skull got fractured.
Never one to miss an opportunity to bash Wolf, Chron columnist Debra Saunders picked up her pencil, dismissed the newly released 24-year-old as “a journalist in his own mind,”—then lost her own journalistic credibility by writing, “Here’s how you know that Wolf was an activist with a camera, and not a journalist: Wolf did not care to chronicle the attack on Shields.”
Laughable as Saunder’s attack on Wolf seems, it’s similar to the Swift Boating of Sen. John Kerry. A smear is easy to make, hard to clear up—and much like Bush and Cheney’s lies about Iraq, is typically used to further a hidden agenda. So, what was the purpose of Saunders’ smear?
The answer to that seems to lie in Wolf’s video, which shows anarchists—and the SFPD--acting badly, and is worth watching, not just because it supports what Wolf maintained all along, namely that nothing he shot had any evidentiary value to the federal prosecutors investigating the protest, but also because it raises long over due questions about how the police were behaving at the demonstration.
Watching the video also helps illustrate why Wolf resisted the one-two punch that a Grand Jury adds to a federal investigation: Wolf wasn’t just refusing to hand over video outtakes of a July 8, 2005 G8 protest turned violent to a Grand Jury. He was also refusing to testify under oath before the Grand Jury about his confidential sources, which in his case were the anarchists in his video. As Wolf argued, handing over his tape and testifying about it would blow his trust with anarchists who had allowed him to film them unmasked at the G8 protest, and with whom he’d cultivated a relationship. It would also make him a de facto investigative tool of the federal government.
In November 2006, Wolf offered to release the unedited video, provided he wouldn’t have to testify about it. The feds turned down his offer, and so Wolf remained caged for civil contempt.
But outside, unrest over Wolf’s incarceration was growing. Federal prosecutors claimed they were investigating the alleged arson of a squad car, but that claim was contradicted by the SFPD’s own paper trail, which showed that one of their inspectors had asked the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force to help investigate the assault on SFPD Officer Peter Shields, an investigation which was under the jurisdiction of SF D.A. Kamala Harris, and therefore would have afforded Wolf the protections of California’s shield law.
The Chron’s Debra Saunders quotes Shields criticizing Harris for dropping charges against Gabriel Meyers, who was the protestor Wolf was busy filming being choked by another SFPD officer, while Shields was busy chasing another protester and getting hit over the head. Seems to me Wolf was illustrating that it’s impossible to be in two places at once, which last time I checked, wasn’t a requirement for those wishing to become journalists.
Wolf says that the legal limbo he found himself in was never about the video tape or an alleged arson.
“The truth is that I was incarcerated for refusing to surrender my video and for refusing to testify about it before a Grand Jury. But things aren’t always as they appear”.
Assistant D.A. Susan Christian also showed up to tell Wolf and the City Hall crowd that the current administration is not immune to the First Amendment.
“Attorney General Gonzalez should instruct all staff of the Department of Justice to protect journalistic integrity, because the Constitution requires it and because it is the smart approach to law enforcement,” Christian said. “Journalists play a vital role in rooting out government and corporate corruption. Threatening the confidentiality of their sources will have a chilling effect, making people afraid to give information to journalists. Journalists are absolutely critical to democracy. 31 states, including California, have shield laws upholding the rights of journalists to protect the secrecy of their sources and unpublished information. Josh Wolf has been courageous in protecting those principles. What happened to Mr. Wolf is stark evidence that we need a federal shield law to make sure this does not happen again.” Amen, sista.