SAN FRANCISCO , CA - When history has written the final assessment of the Bush administration, I trust there will emerge a list of those who made great sacrifices to slow the degradation of our national values that it caused. I also trust that high on that list will appear the name of my friend and personal hero, Josh Wolf, a young video journalist who now languishes in a federal prison in Dublin CA on trumped-up charges that he impaired the cause of Homeland Security.
The charges against Wolf date to a protest rally held in San Francisco 's Mission District against corporate globalization, in July 2005, that dissolved into chaos. Wolf shot video of the protest, and the resulting confrontation between the protestors and police, and sold portions of his coverage to KRON, an independent Bay Area television station.
Unfortunately, during the mêlée, a San Francisco police officer was severely injured and the police claimed that protestors attempted to set an SFPD cruiser on fire though later investigation showed the damage was limited to a broken taillight.
In their prosecution of the case against some of the demonstrators, government lawyers made the claim that Wolf may have evidence relevant to their case and demanded that he turn over his raw, unedited footage of the event. Wolf answered the claim with a personal assessment that there is nothing in the unedited video that was not disclosed in the edited version that the prosecution had already obtained from KRON; and, Wolf claimed exemption from their subpoena under a CA shield law which was designed to protect journalists, their sources, and raw materials, such as interview transcripts and unedited audio or video tape, Sixteen other States and the District of Columbia also afford journalists protections under similar laws.
But, in the upside-down world ruled by George W. Bush since 9/11, where State's rights and legal precedent have given way to extraordinary power-grabs by the federal executive branch in the name of Homeland Security, the simple fact that the SFPD accepted some funding from the Department of Homeland Security gave the government the right to move the case from State to Federal Court where federal protections afforded journalists were already diminished under the Patriot Act and Executive Orders issued by the President
The last time I stood face-to-face with Wolf in front of San Francisco's Federal Building at the start of a press conference, he knew that he was staring down the barrel of a force that had caused more-seasoned journalists, with the resources of large, national news organizations behind them, to blink in the wake of a contempt case in which New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for her refusal to divulge off-the-record information and confidential discussions with her sources during an investigation of who disclosed the name of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame.
Both Wolf and I knew that his case was not going to attract a national spotlight nor afford him a large grant of public opinion to work in his favor. In fact, we agreed, it was probably because of his low profile and limited resources that the government was using the case to establish legal precedent to support their new interpretation of freedom of the press. But, in that respect, I knew the government lawyers were underestimating Wolf.
As reporters and his legal staff assembled, Wolf was pensive and expressed concerned about his mother and the effect worry about his safety in a federal prison might have on her. He also mused over the irony of having to defend his rights over video that he believed to be worthless in the prosecution of the government's case. But, we both knew the issue was much bigger than the images in his video; and, I knew Wolf had already made up his mind to fight so I just muttered a reassurance that mothers are nearly-always stronger than their children know. "She'll be proud of you," I said, and then Wolf was called to speak.
I only had a chance to talk to him briefly by phone after I heard he was released following his first thirty days of incarceration. We agreed to meet for lunch as soon as he got caught up, but he never had time. I soon learned on an Internet blog that he was in NYC for interviews when he received word that the government was giving him 48 hours to report back to prison where he remains on an indefinite timetable.
I admit that Wolf is not a man who commonly projects a heroic image. Like me, he is small in stature in a world where most heroes are depicted as tall. His shock of black hair is so thick that a comb barely shows its passing and it stands in stark contrast to pale skin that suggests a nocturnal existence. His black, thick-rimmed glasses barely contain his eyes that dart about like his conversation and it is painful to think about that youthful energy trapped behind bars.
Still, I know there is worth in his resistance. The waste of his time and potential are not of his choosing; but, for me, they are symbolic of this period of American history lead by a rogue President and his administration who are, in my mind, already unworthy of our heritage and the sacrifice of those who suffered and died to make us free.
Josh Wolf, American patriot and hero? I suspect Wolf would be the first to laugh at the prospect. But, what else do you call a young person who is willing to defy misuse of power and overwhelming odds to uphold the values of freedom even at the expense of his own? Humbled by his courage, I find little I can do but pray that Wolf, and America , will soon again be free.