June 26th, 2007
Photo by Steve Rhodes
Josh Wolf spent more time in prison than any other American journalist in U.S. history for protecting his source materials — videotapes taken at an anti-globalization demonstration in San Francisco. He was finally released on April 3 of this year. Press reports about Wolf have described him as an anarchist, and he has described himself as an anarchist sympathizer.
Wolf has been all over the media talking about his free speech struggle with the U.S. Government. He was on "Democracy Now!"; received a now-traditional media hazing on "The Colbert Report"; and even had a brief but fairly sympathetic interview in Time.
While we conversed about his case, we also wanted to delve more deeply into the issues that motivated the case in the first place: anti-globalist activism, anarchism, and his new projects to "Free The Media" and give prisoners a voice in the blogosphere.
Scott J. Thompson, Director of Research at the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate, and Jeff Diehl joined me in this conversation, originally recorded for The RU Sirius Show.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: There's been plenty of talk about your case, so we're going to go into some other things, but I think we should talk a bit about the conclusion. I think people found it a bit confusing and anti-climactic.
JOSH WOLF: It was a bit anti-climactic. And it was also reported incorrectly all over the place in the press. The stories ranged from things like: "The government decided they have no interest in Josh Wolf and therefore they are letting him go" (that would've been nice) — to "He finally caved under the pressure." Both of those are factually inaccurate.
Basically, there were two things that the government wanted. One of those things was that tape. I felt that I shouldn't have had to turn that over to the government, but at the same time there was absolutely nothing sensitive or confidential on it. So it was worth fighting for, but once I had lost my fight in the district court level in the 9th circuit, there wasn't really any reason not to publish the tape and simultaneously turn it over to the government. I mean, yeah, those shots of my shoes are a bit embarrassing but they're not worth going to jail over. So once we had exhausted our appeals, we offered to turn over the tape in exchange for my release. But the U.S. Attorney said he wouldn't accept anything but full compliance with the demand of the subpoena. That would have involved testifying before a grand jury and turning over my documentation for my video-editing software... there was a pretty exhaustive list of demands in the subpoena. But on February 14, the judge suddenly ordered the case into mediation with a magistrate judge. During the course of two mediations, we came to an agreement – I would publish the tape and then turn it over to the federal government, and they would not object to my release. And they decided to call this full compliance with the subpoena, although it wasn't full compliance at all.
So that's where we stand right now. The government still has the option to re-subpoena me to try to make me testify about the content of the tapes or what I saw there that night. But I don't think they're going to because they know that I'm not going to testify. I'll go back to jail and it will be an even bigger public fiasco for the U.S. Attorneys office. And they're not really short on public fiascos right now.
RU: You got a fair amount of support from the mainstream press on this. I assume that the government figured you were some punk blogger, and they could yank you out of all social circumstances and throw you deep into the hole, and there would be very little discussion about it. But quite a few journalists expressed their concern in terms of the protection of journalists. Did this surprise you at all?
JOSH: The reception from the journalistic community has been very much mixed — especially in the mainstream journalist community. Even from the alterna-press, there were some mixed receptions. Some journalists realize that if they're coming after me — they're next. And they realize that this whole concept of objective journalism is kind of a misnomer. You can never be objective. But some get very offended by the idea that I should be protected, because protecting me makes it easier for them to be attacked as being part of the same group. And I think that's one of the things at the crux of the public's reception to protests in general. I mean, in this particular protest, there was one violent incident where one police officer was injured probably by one protester. And because of that. the 150 people that were there now get described as terrorists.
RU: The big mainstream media question is "Can bloggers be journalists?" In fact, you wrote an essay with that name. And I think the counter-argument would be that nearly everyone could become a blogger, and then everyone would be protected from giving evidence. So a group could conspire to break laws and members who blog could be protected. Karl Rove could become a journalist and make the same kind of claim!
JOSH: That argument's flawed, because if you are involved in a criminal activity, you don't have to testify because you're protected by the Fifth Amendment.
RU: Good point!
JOSH: But it's true that in Grand Juries they like to get rid of the Fifth Amendment. They say, "Here's a waiver. You no longer have the Fifth Amendment." But I've been reading the Constitution over and over again, and I can't find any section on giving waivers to the Fifth Amendment. And consider the First Amendment — freedom of speech. Why doesn't that include freedom of silence? Why does the freedom to speak not include the freedom not to speak? And so, yes — journalists should be protected in order to protect the act of journalism. But in a larger context, why do we have coercive custody to force people to testify? I mean, it's really a form of very low-grade torture — we're going to hold you in custody until you break down and speak.
RU:: It's definitely something we don't accept from gangsters, but we do seem to accept it from the state. Tell us a little about your prison experience. What kind of prison were you in and what kind of interactions did you have with the prisoners?
JOSH: I was in a federal detention center, which is sort of like a…
RU: (jokingly) It's a country club!
JOSH: It wasn't a country club but it was kind of like being in a really, really low-rent camp. But you can never leave. I kept waiting for the fishing trip, like when you're at camp, you're thinking about the fishing trip. It never came.
SCOTT THOMPSON: That's torture.
JOSH: It was kind of like being in a college dorm, except there were fewer choices. There weren't any girls. Unlike college, there was not much in the way of drugs or alcohol. The guys were all pretty cool. They were mostly a combination of bank robbers, drug dealers, a few white-collar criminals.
The most interesting segment of the prison population are the "Piezas." (A "Pieza" is a Mexican Roadrunner. The term has been adapted to those that are here from Mexico.) Most of these guys had no prior criminal history. They were in jail for crossing the border — an imaginary line. We've decided that's a felony. And they've been getting between three and five years in jail. And while they're incarcerated, they have to work. And they're often fined for their crime. They're fined an amount that just happens to add up to the 12-cents-an-hour that they make while they're incarcerated. So our government has time-share slaves. Instead of getting our slaves from Africa, we're getting people that come to America to build better opportunities for themselves. And they end up spending three-to-five years building government furniture.
RU: This kind of slavery or serfdom becomes even more interesting when you have privately-owned prisons. I imagine that you were in a state-controlled prison.
JOSH: It was a federally-owned prison. I think there's somewhere between three and five privately-contracted prisons in the federal system. A lot of states, particularly in the south, have more private prisons than public prisons. It's very disturbing that we have contracted out our prisons because there's a certain public oversight that's expected — or at least should be expected — when it comes to a government-run operation. But when you give prisons to the Wall family to run, it becomes a private business. And lots of things that are private in private businesses remain private. When that involves controlling human movement, it becomes really dangerous
RU: I think having a profit interest in incarceration is about as skeevy as you can get. Although I certainly know some libertarians who would disagree with me. Did you wind up finding any compatriots in prison? Did people discuss politics? And did people there know why you were there?
JOSH: Most everyone was aware of it. Of course, the level of understanding varied. In its simplest terms, I was there for refusing to cooperate with the government. I was going to jail for not being a snitch. Having not committed a crime and then also "not snitching" – that's pretty respectable in the prison hierarchy. I think the only person above that was probably Greg Anderson because he's a friend of Barry Bonds. Not snitching on Barry Bonds… that was like… "Whoa! And he's a trainer! And people in prison are into working out so that's a sort of demigod-like position.
In terms of the politics, I found compatriots at different levels. I spoke about political activism. I had a few books about anarchism that were sent to me that were passed around the prison. It's kind of interesting that those got in. They didn't try to censor it.
RU:: They didn't understand what they were, probably.
JOSH: They weren't going to allow a press release to come out that the prison was censoring reading material.
RU: Tell us about the project you are developing involving prisoners.
JOSH: I've started prisonblogs.net. We want to pair up individual prisoners with sponsors on the outside who agree to type up what they have to say and post it on their own blog. There are lots of military blogs, which the government's currently trying to crack down on. So now we'll have prison blogs. The media oftentimes can't get access to what goes on behind those walls. And the people I've encountered have amazing stories about prison culture and their oppression at the hands of the guards – stories that don't get out to the public.
RU: Are they ever allowed to blog at all? Also, wasn't there a law passed against interviewing prisoners — a sort of blockade against prisoners communicating to the media?
JOSH: It can be different between the states and the feds. In federal prisons, you can interview prisoners — I've seen prison interviews. At the facility I was in, they refused any filmed interviews, but they permitted phone interviews. I don't know exactly what the state rules are, but I know Schwarzenegger just vetoed a bill that would've opened the gates a little further. But I'm dealing with what prisoners can do, in terms of self-publishing. I know they can't get publish with a byline and they can't get paid for it. Now I don't know whether a blog counts as publishing with a byline, but...
RU: …Is there evidence that this will be allowed?
JOSH: There's no evidence so far to indicate that they won't allow it. Some prisoners have blogs right now. We've found about a couple-of-hundred. But there are no avenues for prisoners who want to blog but don't necessarily come from tech-centric backgrounds or families. They don't have a chance to get their voice and artwork out there. So this will sort of democratize the media for a class and a group of people who are cut-off and denied all the opportunities that, say, middle-class Americans have – people who already have their YouTube, MySpace, and Flickr accounts.
RU: There's been a lot of talk about your case in the media, but there hasn't been a lot of discussion in the media about the demonstration that lead to the case. How would you characterize the issues that were at stake at the demonstration and your interest in that?
JOSH: The demonstration was against the G8 Summit that was going on in Gleneagle, Scotland at that time. I happen to align myself philosophically against globalization. With The WTO, the G8 and these other sort of private groups, large governments plan how to exploit smaller governments and small helpless communities and individuals. It's a winner-takes-all, king-of-the-hill sort of approach to planning our future. So I'm opposed to that. And I did take to the streets with my camera in order to document this demonstration that I knew wasn't going to get a lot of attention. In terms of the activities that were used in this demonstration, I think most of them were not necessarily tactically sound. I think there's a time and a place for people to drag newspaper stands into the streets in order to stop, say, a threatening stream of riot cops that are about to attack. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to drag a newspaper stand in the street when the cops have already called off the riot squad. So there were numerous things going on there that I felt were not tactically sound. I wouldn't have engaged in them myself. But I do support a diversity of tactics. And I feel there should be balanced between the privacy of those involved and the need to expose the news of what they're doing to the world.
RU: Some of these tactics have been associated with a concept or a group that's called "black bloc." Basically, the idea seems to be what we used to call "trashing" back in the early 70s – when I did it. (Laughs) The idea is violence against property. Is it ever effective? Was it effective in Seattle? And isn't it stupid to keep doing the same thing over and over again?
JOSH: Any discussion about the effectiveness of tactics that involve breaking the law becomes very sensitive. Just describing what is effective is opening the door to conspiracy to commit terrorism. So it's a very shaky topic to get into.
I think it's not effective to try to cause economic damage to large corporations, because the amount of isolated damage that is done at these sorts of protest is really a rounding error. It's like, "Oh, we had to spend $500 to fix this window and cover up this spray paint."
RU: It's sort of embarrassing, really.
JEFF DIEHL: It's the public exposure. It suddenly gets the media eye looking at this movement or…
RU: It worked once in Seattle, maybe.
JOSH: I think if a Starbucks is coming into your town, and it's the first Starbucks, and some people who don't like it decide, "We're going to do something to prevent this Starbucks from being built" — then I think that could be tactically sound. I'm not saying that people should do it, but it does make some tactical sense.
But to simply go and hit all these windows — you know, smash up a few Starbucks — it can create some attention. In the post 9/11 world, that attention is too easily connected to groups like al-Qaeda. So I don't think it's going to further the cause of trying to achieve a non-hierarchical, mutually fair, non-capitalistic society.
RU: That's the question. Do these tactics have any place at all in successfully changing things, or are they really just getting their rocks off?
SCOTT: Around 1987 - '88, on Haight Street, there was an attempt to build a Walgreens. That nascent structure was dynamited by malcontents. And it turned into...
RU: We're not getting a confession here, are we? (Laughter)
SCOTT: No, I was living in Chicago at the time. Anyway, they realized that the community really doesn't want a Walgreens.
JEFF: There was a philosophical argument after the Battle of Seattle. That action basically got the mainstream — and the public's attention around this whole anti-globalization issue. Hardly anybody had even heard about it. Some would argue that there wasn't much of an anti-globalist movement before Seattle
JOSH: Not in America, no.
JEFF: And some would argue that the spectacle of the damage created the success there, so the damage was necessary.
RU: But it was also mixed with the fact that a lot of demonstrators showed up. That – in itself — was unusual. But a peaceful demonstration definitely could've been ignored, like many other large protests.
JOSH: Look at what the Weather Underground was able to accomplish during the Vietnam war. They had a tactical place and were somewhat effective. But the enemy has been changed from communism to terrorism. So acts that the government can easily label as terrorism can very quickly become counter-productive. I think that's part of the reason that we have this vague war on terrorism — anyone that does anything disruptive can be treated as a terrorist.
SCOTT: Right now, the government is attempting to label any oppositional show of force of any kind as terrorism.
We're surrounded by cops of all stripes. We're surrounded by security guards of all kinds. We're surrounded by all sorts of military people, and they are the only ones that are allowed to use brute force against an unarmed populace that dare not even organize on a premise without a permit. It's just completely a violation of the whole idea of the right of freedom of assembly in the United States
JEFF: Josh, obviously it's not to your benefit to be thrown in jail again. But if we can't even talk about tactics, then the authors of the Patriot Act have won, right? This whole area has been bracketed off for people who are involved in opposition. And historically, this has been the only type of activity that has ever caused any significant social change – confrontation, destruction of property, or violence.
JOSH: Our founding fathers were engaged in terrorism or direct confrontation during the Boston Tea Party. That would be labeled terrorism now. If the Boston Tea Party happened last week, what do you think George Bush would say about it?
RU: They'd be in Guantanamo.
It's interesting that you brought up the Weather Underground, because there are two things to think about with their tactics. Number one: historians show that the reason Nixon didn't nuke Hanoi during the Vietnam war was because he was frightened of what the anti-war movement would do to America. He wasn't thinking of the Quakers. He was probably thinking of the Weather Underground; the freaks who burned down the Bank of America and stuff like that.
But on the other hand, fear is a very effective tactic for organizing reaction. We see it now, particularly, under the guise of terrorism. Basically, the current unofficial Republican slogan is "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
The Weathermen sort of had this theory that youth was a class that could be excited and organized for revolution. It was possible to believe that in the early 1970s. I don't know if there's even a receptive audience for this kind of thing any more.
SCOTT: I think there's actually a very receptive audience. I think that many people might be experiencing a real disappointment and disaffiliation from the "mainstream left" — these people that organize some of the mass demonstrations that are always held in the same place. And we all get together and we all get photographed by the same helicopters flying overhead. They've seen us all before. Nobody ever thinks, at the last minute, let's change tactics. Let's hold it n front of "The Chronicle" building, and scare the hell out of those people.
JEFF: Well, you wouldn't have a permit for that.
SCOTT: Of course. You must have a permit. The populace dare not spontaneously get together and show its discontent with the powers that be.
JOSH: Protests have been reduced to nothing more than processions. They have a cathartic effect. Everyone feels like they're doing something. And in a sense you're doing more than just voting. But civil engagement begins at voting, it doesn't end there. And protests are just one step further. But in order to really make a change, people have to actually really get their hands dirty and do something. That could involve writing a law, and then working your butt off to actually get it passed, if that's the course of action that you choose. Or you could make a blockade around a business that you think needs to be shut down; you could start a picket line and yell at people when they cross it and make it so that business can't continue its enterprise. Or maybe you think it's most effective to burn down the bank like they did at U.C. Santa Barbara in the late '60s. All of these tactics have limitations and they all have values. It really just depends on what you think is going to work and why you think it's going to work.
RU: I question whether any of these things — demonstrations, riots — are really effective anymore. And you've been involved recently in trying to work with the system. You've been helping to create a law to protect journalists. Do you see any contradiction between being an anarchist sympathizer and trying to get the federal government to create a law to protect journalists?
JOSH: I'm sure many other people do. My political philosophy is that the best society would be one where the precepts that we followed were formed through consensus. But we don't live in that society. We live in a system of laws made by people who claim to represent us, but so often don't. For instance, on the night Nancy Pelosi was elected, her own constituents passed a law saying that they want the President impeached. And Pelosi immediately made a statement that impeachment was off the table. So clearly, these people don't represent us. But at the same time, they still make the laws that we live under. If I can help pass a law that would've prevented me from going to jail for seven months — a law that defines journalist as anyone who's gathering and disseminating information (with a very limited exceptions that involve imminent harm to human life) — then why shouldn't I work for that? Sure, it's a band-aid. It doesn't deal with the fact that we have a repressive grand jury system that needs to be abolished. It doesn't deal with the fact that the right to a fair trial just doesn't exist.
RU: I agree with you because I'm a reformist. The way I view human nature — I don't think that the anarchist ideal is very likely to work in the foreseeable future. But still, any attempt at change is a discussion of tactics. I mean, Nancy Pelosi's argument is about tactics too, really. She's saying, "Well, I'm actually in the Congress and in order to pass laws, I have to use these tactics. I have to take impeachment off the table because it's not going to be accepted in mainstream discourse and if I go for it, I'm not going to be able to change anything."
JOSH: But whether impeachment is accepted or not, she's elected as a representative. And this is one of the clearest cases where the city she represents voted for a resolution to impeach George Bush on the very day she became Speaker of the House? Is she a representative of the Democratic Party? Is she a representative of San Francisco? It doesn't look like it. How indirect is this representation, and how indirect should it be?
RU: She's either sold out or she considers herself wiser, tactically, than the people she's representing. And you can have either interpretation.
SCOTT: I think this highlights the bankruptcy of representational government in this particular time. I think you can count on one hand the number of representatives who actually pay attention to their constituency. These people in Congress are only taking orders from very wealthy donors or powerful corporate people. They don't really listen to the people that don't make a certain amount of money, or don't have any money. They don't listen to the people they should be listening to. It seems to me that that there's no sense of civic responsibility in this country. We're not taught civics. People have a tendency to think, "Well I just don't really want to think about that. I don't want to worry about that. I elect X, and he or she will take care of everything for me." And he or she is actually totally in the hip pocket of the powerful interests.
JEFF: Josh, you had this thing happen where you got a lot of attention. And this was maybe a big chance to publicize a lot of the views of the circles that you were in before the protests – people with certain shared goals related to anarchism and so forth – stuff that doesn't get much publicity in the mainstream media. I could see some of them being a little bit disappointed that you're focused on passing a law.
JOSH: The way I see it — there are a lot of things you can and should do. And to embrace as many of them as possible really can't hurt. I mean, maybe you can say, "Hey, we shouldn't pass a law because these band-aids – these reforms – because they are going to make the system more livable, more tolerable. And we should actually do things to increase suffering in order to foment a revolution." A lot of people take that view. But I don't see it that way. I think anything that reduces suffering shouldn't be ignored.
RU: Some people might not object from that old "heightening the contradictions" argument. They may just make the argument based on decentralization. Don't ask for the protection of the federal government. (Of course, as we know from the medical marijuana situation, the federal government trumps everyone else.)
JOSH: I think it would be a great thing if San Francisco absolved itself from the federal government. It didn't work in the Civil War, but that was fourteen states trying to go. If San Francisco said, "Yo. We're sick of the Patriot Act. We're sick of you raiding medical marijuana clinics. We're sick of the fact that two people that love each other don't have the right to get married. We're doing our own thing now, what would the federal government's response be?
RU: Armed invasion?
SCOTT: The federal government will soon be dealing with that and not just from California. Many states are going to move away from a federal system. Or that's always a fear…
RU: I think that's going to be a while. (ironically) The Balkanization of America could take a few days. It might happen someday.
SCOTT: But you know, in 1986 - 87, if you had suggested the Soviet Union would not exist in three years, people would've said you're out of your gourd. That's not possible. Now look at it.
RU: I just saw Chalmers Johnson on PBS yesterday. He has a book out that is basically about the fall of America. It's apparently coming up next Tuesday, right after you listen to the R.U. Sirius Show.
SCOTT: The fall of America's coming up next Tuesday?
JOSH: Let me put it on my calendar.
RU: Tell us a little bit about your Free The Media project.
JOSH: I'm trying to build something called the "Free the Media" coalition. It will be at MediaFreedoms.net. (There's an alpha site up right now.) Basically, I'm trying to create an environment for discussing issues of media literacy. I'm planning a sort-of Open Source forum as well as meat-space satellites at various college campuses. We'll get into the role of the news media. We’ll talk about how independent or alternative media – along with established media — really fill in the marketplace of ideas. So we're trying to build a dialogue with independent journalists, establishment journalists, and then everyday viewers to try to shape the future of the media. And we'll look at what sort of protections and new formats and new ideas should exist. And it will also involve raising public awareness of issues and gathering funds for worthwhile stuff. The next time, a journalist in a legal situation like the one I found myself in might not have the backing of The Chronicle or the New York Times.
RU: There seems to be a sort of techno-anarchist paradigm, if you will, that has emerged over recent years. You might call it the decentralization of the means of production of reality. You have democratization through open source and Wikipedia and blogging and all those kinds of things. Do you see the use of this technology as a tactically effective way of bringing about a post-hierarchical society or is it peripheral?
JOSH: Well, that breaks into all sorts of schisms very quickly. I mean, we have blogs that allow people to post their own radio shows and put up their own videos. And that really does democratize the information. But then, simultaneously, we have these large corporate constructs coming in and controlling and censoring much of that dialogue. When Digg decided that they weren't going to permit the copyright code for the HD-DVD...
RU: Well, their was a popular revolt and they backed down.
JOSH: They did back down. But how often do things get censored without any revolt happening at all? Flickr was deleting someone's comments, at some point, because they said they were combative in nature.
RU: Well, wait a second! You just deleted somebody's comments.
JOSH: I actually never deleted any comments...
RU: Oh. But you kicked somebody off your site, didn't you?
JOSH: Someone made a particularly vile comment, and I said I'm reserving the right to delete comments that look like this.
JEFF: Did you set a principle about what type of comments you would allow in the future?
JOSH: I basically set a principle that I was reserving the right to remove comments, rather than saying what I would allow. I haven't actually removed anything. But when one commenter attacked another commenter with a sexually vile comment about sand in her vagina with no provocation – I start to wonder. I mean…
RU: Well, was it consensual sand, or... (laughter) forced sand. [Awkward silence] Errr… let's move on.
JEFF: What more is there to say, really, than "sand in the vagina?"
A Conversation with Justin Kan of Justin.tv
Dispatch From a Surrealist Autocracy
Dear Internet, I'm Sorry
The Perversions of "Perverted-Justice"