It’s Josh Wolf Friday: When the Crowd is the Crime


(Josh Wolf is a freelance journalist and anarchist. He has been jailed for refusing to turn over videotapes of a protest being investigated by federal authorities. Lots has been written about his case. On Friday, December 1, 2006, I ran a reminder of his incarceration. I’ll do the same every Friday until he is freed. If you are a media blogger consider doing the same. Josh needs to know that he is not forgotten. Tom Abate, San Leandro, California; aka MiniMediaGuy.)

My prior posts prompted some people to wrote write that my support is misplaced. They say Josh Wolf is just a recalcitrant witness who has been ordered to provide evidence of a crime to a federal grand jury, has refused and been jailed in accordance with the law. This whole “jailed journalist” thing is a wrong-headed notion to win sympathy.

I heard this from one journalist in a private exchange so I won’t use a name:

“Your position is that the journalist, not the government, has the right to determine whether the journalist — or even just a citizen – has material evidence of a crime, which is an utterly losing proposition. No one has the right, nor should he have the right, to unilaterally impose his judgment as to whether the government really needs his evidence.”

I thank this and the other dissenters. A discussion requires dissent. Otherwise it becomes preaching to the choir. Dissent also forces us to either sharpen our arguments or change our minds. In this case the dissenter points out the best reason to kick up a fuss over Josh’s incarceration: he did not witness the crime that is the basis for the grand jury investigation. The federal grand jury wants to know who overturned and burned a police car. Josh Wolf says he never videotaped that act. He was elsehwhere when that crime occurred, videotaping other, non-violent scenes from the demonstration. So Josh videotaped the crowd. Has the crowd become the crime?

Granted we’ll have to take Josh’s word on this because no one but he and his defense team have seen all his footage. But consider this excerpt from a Nov. 22 report in the San Francisco Chronicle (where I work as a business repoter but am not involved the Wolf case coverage):

“(Wolf’s defense attorney Dan) Siegel  (U.S. District Judge William) Alsup (that) he has looked at the outtakes and found no conceivable evidence of criminal activity. He urged the judge to examine the video in his chambers and release Wolf if he agreed the footage was irrelevant to the grand jury’s investigation. Alsup, who had refused a similar request in September before holding Wolf in contempt, replied that he wouldn’t be able to evaluate the video as knowledgeably as a grand jury or prosecutor who knew what they were looking for.”

I see only two possible explanations for judge’s refusal to screen the videotapes:

  • we have a federal judge in San Francisco who would not recognize an overturned and burning police car if he saw it; seems unlikely, wouldn’t you agree?
  • we have a federal judge in San Francisco who does not want to know that there is no overturned and burning police car in Josh Wolf’s video outtakes.

That sounds more plausible but more disturbing. Because it suggests the federal grand jury wants to know who was in the crowd that day. Even the non-violent parts of the crowd that Josh Wolf witnessed and videotaped.

Since Josh Wolf is in jail for not providing the federal grand jury with evidence of a crime; since he did not witness the burning of a police car, we are left with only one conclusion: the crowd has become the crime.

(I’m starting to hear from other bloggers; I should’ve compiled a list, with links, but let it slip during the busy week. I’ll come back over the weekend and do that here, and in a separate post. Please think about what you can do to call attention to this case — or if you are still unconvinced that Josh Wolf is wrongly incarcerated, write to explain why. These are our free speech rights. We ought to be willing to talk about them.)


(Thanks for pointers from Darlene Fichter, Dana Blankenhorn, comments from John Cass, and e-mails and other feedback from Tish Grier at Corante (past posting), Sylvia Paull, Renee Blodgett, Eric Kavanagh, Scot Hacker and Andrew Manuse. If I missed other commentators it’s from lack of experience at tracking or record-keeping. Feel free to contact me at tomabate_book (at) with comments.)