Josh Wolf: “What’s Left?” June 2007, MRR #289

But to live outside the law, you must be honest.

-Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

I recently viewed Josh Wolf’s controversial, unedited video of an anti-G8 anarchist riot in San Francisco posted on his website. My first thought was, Josh spent 226 days in jail in civil contempt of a federal grand jury for this piece of crap? What a waste.

I’ll briefly recap what this is all about, for those of you who have been living in a cave for the past couple of years.

In solidarity with worldwide protests against the G8 summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, Anarchist Action called for an anti-G8 demonstration in San Francisco’s Mission district on July 8, 2005. Around 200 anarchists, most of them wearing masks, started marching down both lanes of Mission Street from the 16th Street BART station a little before 9 pm. The SFPD responded with fully equipped riot police, fleets of cop cars and paddy wagons, and repeated announcements that the demo was illegal.

All hell broke loose when the cops attempted to force the demonstrators onto the sidewalks. The crowd, which had swelled to nearly 300, broke into smaller groups that ran in every direction. The anarchists dragged newspaper boxes into the street to block traffic, trashed the KFC, BofA, Wells Fargo, Skechers, Shoe Biz, and a Shell gas station, burned flags, set off smoke bombs and firecrackers, lit garbage cans on fire, and played cat-and-mouse with the cops by regrouping and splitting up in different parts of the Mission well into the night. In turn, the police confiscated the demo’s sound equipment, made numerous attempts to force people onto the sidewalks, arrested several people, tackled, beat up and clubbed down several more people, fired teargas, and repeatedly drove their police cars at demonstrators and into the crowd.

During this melee, two significant incidents occurred. A demonstrator bashed a cop’s head in with a skateboard, fracturing his skull. And, by accident or intent, a cop car was briefly set on fire. Or, at least, an attempt was made, which was all the excuse the Federal government needed. Called in when the SFPD contacted the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI to investigate the assault on the cop, the Feds used the fact that the SFPD gets Federal funds to help pay for its vehicles to supercede the local DA’s Office and empanel a Federal grand jury to investigate the attempted arson, thus federalizing the case. This being the proverbial elephant’s nose in the tent, it was assumed that the grand jury would go on to investigate who might have perpetrated the assault on a police officer, and who might have instigated the riot.

Josh Wolf attended the anti-G8 demo both as an anarchist and a frequent local IndyMedia news contributor. Needless to say, he knew many of the other demonstrators. Josh recorded some twenty minutes of that night’s donnybrook. He posted a short clip on IndyBay right after the event, followed by a longer, edited clip. He also sold a clip of the demo to local KRON TV news, which broadcast it. The grand jury subpoenaed Josh to testify and to hand over the outtakes, thinking that he might have recorded either the downing of the cop or the cop car’s ignition, and seeking to use Josh’s testimony to identify participants. Josh refused and was cited and jailed for civil contempt on August 1, 2006.

Wolf was defended by the National Lawyers Guild, which contended that, as a journalist, freedom of the press protected Josh from testifying against the people he was reporting on, as well as from having to hand over the unpublished segments of his digital video recording to the government. Josh always insisted that there was nothing incriminating on the rest of the dvr, and offered to have it reviewed in the privacy of a judge’s chambers. US District Judge William Alsup didn’t buy the NLG’s arguments, nor did he accept Josh’s offer, and thus began Wolf’s jailhouse saga, which ended only when a deal was struck. Josh agreed to make his recording of the demo available in its entirety, which he did first by posting it on his website and then by turning it over to the court. The Feds in turn agreed not to demand that Josh testify before the grand jury and name names.

The video recording is grainy, jerky, and murky after dark. Neither the downed cop, nor the alleged attempted arson on the cop car is depicted. Lesser crimes-marking up a city bus advertisement with graffiti, damaging property and obstructing traffic by dragging those chained-together news racks into the streets, setting off pyrotechnics-are shown, though it’s next to impossible to determine who’s doing the minor mayhem. Identifiable, unmasked folks are in attendance at the staging area, when the demo gets under way, and after the demo turns to riot, but this dvr couldn’t be used to indict anyone for anything.

My initial negative reaction to seeing the video however wasn’t because it is unremarkable, poorly shot footage of people either just standing around or endlessly marching around. I wondered why the fuck Josh Wolf was willing to spend so much time in jail defending a bunch of yahoo anarchist dilettantes whose idea of class struggle and class solidarity was to trash one of San Francisco’s solidly working class, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. When tens of thousands of demonstrators shut down San Francisco’s financial district at the start of the 2003 Iraq war-now that was an appropriate target and a righteous action. Anarchist rioting in the Mission was merely a Mickey Mouse stunt.

I say this having called myself an anarchist for fifteen years from 1969 to 1984, having participated in my first riot in 1971, and having donned the street fighting uniform of the black bloc for anti-Columbus Day protests in San Francisco in 1992. Longtime readers of this column know I took part in shutting down the financial district on March 20, 2003, with a small group of friends, without wearing a mask. Earlier in the day the rampaging Black Bloc had been lead by the nose into an SFPD trap that resulted in some 200 arrests. I’d realized long before then to be leery of the whole breakaway/black block/anarcho scatter mob approach as it often proved too reactive, easily manipulated, not very creative, and lacking in strategic intelligence.

Young anarchos in this country have appropriated the tactics of the black bloc from Europe’s autonomen without grasping the strategy behind them. This is typical, as when anarchism embraces Situationism’s libertarian forms (detournement, constructed situation, derive) without any understanding of Situationism’s Marxist content. It’s the reason why anarchists can claim to be in solidarity with working people while trashing their working class neighborhood.

I don’t really want this to turn into yet another anti-anarchist screed. In returning the focus to Josh Wolf though, I’m not at all concerned with the question of whether or not he qualifies as a bono fide journalist. I’m a bit more interested in efforts to challenge the Federal government’s dubious claim of standing in the case. Ultimately, the legal niceties of Josh Wolf’s predicament bore me.

I think what’s important in all of this is the deal Josh struck to release the full, unedited recording of the demonstration in exchange for a promise by the Feds not to call him to testify before the grand jury and identify demonstration participants. I have a facility for identifying human voices by their pitch, cadence and timbre, and I can often recognize a singer within a few notes of a song I’ve never heard. Even though I haven’t been around the Bay Area anarcho scene in years, as I watched the tinny video on Josh’s website, I was able to pick out three people I knew immediately based on their voices. All three wore masks throughout the recording. Josh, as an active participant in the local anarchist milieu, could have easily fingered scores of people who were involved in the riot in testimony before the grand jury, or spent several more months in jail on contempt charges for refusing to do so.

Yet releasing the dvr wasn’t risk free. Clearly, the Feds were on a fishing expedition here. Given the time, a zealous prosecutor, or a Federal government truly bent on a witch-hunt, could have given the recording the full CSI treatment. No doubt, others would have been subpoenaed. Obviously, Josh Wolf was between a rock and a hard place on this one.

The US Attorney’s Office spun the deal Josh made by falsely claiming that Wolf had complied with the original subpoena, a gross distortion picked up by the SF Chronicle when it reported on 4-4-07 that Josh had been freed only after giving up and turning over the video. Finally, a Chronicle op-ed piece on 4-9-07 by Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, claimed that the Feds made a mistake in going after Josh for evidence he never had, that Josh made a mistake in going to jail over material that was not evidence, that indeed the whole thing was a “huge misunderstanding.”

Contrary to the US Attorney’s Office and the Chronicle, Josh didn’t comply with the original subpoena, nor did he give up. He did manage to force the government to back off from making him name names, essentially running out the clock on the investigation. The Federal grand jury is set to expire next month, in July, without having accomplished much other than keep Josh Wolf in jail. Josh made about as principled a decision as was possible, given the circumstances.

Notice I’m not discussing whether Josh “did the right thing.” In 1968, when everybody was carrying around that godawful tome Atlas Shrugged by second-rate writer Ayn Rand, I was reading Nietzsche’s snazzy, slim volume Beyond Good and Evil. I agree with the critique of morality, though I don’t use it to justify a sophomoric nihilism that Nietzsche himself rejected. As any good Marxist well knows, activity precedes consciousness, but once consciousness arises, it influences activity. It is possible to derive and practice principled behaviors from a theoretical understanding of reality. It is then possible to learn from the successes and failures of those behaviors to modify one’s original understanding of the world.

It’s called praxis.

A couple of years ago, the BASTARD conference presented self-admitted police snitch Bob Black conducting a workshop. A number of folks had principled objections to Bob Black’s presence-from concerns about personal and collective security to the argument that, if the state is the enemy, than a police informant is a state collaborator. These protestations were dismissed as moralistic by the conference organizers. The puerile nihilism of the BASTARDs aside, I would contend that anarchism in general fails to grasp the importance of principled praxis. Along with failing to see the forest for the trees, this flaw also contributed to anarchists wreaking havoc in a working class neighborhood in the name of working class solidarity.

It’s nice to know that at least one anarchist is capable of principled behavior.

There I go again, disrespecting anarchism. Not so long ago, I was praising to high heaven the role of anarchism in Seattle 1999 and the subsequent anti-globalization movement. This column’s header is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to that historical moment. Anarchism has a very long history of losing it at the moment of greatest influence, of self-destructing with success at hand, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I guess I’m pissed that I witnessed yet another episode in that sad tradition.

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