Arrested journalist Josh Wolf
recounts his day in police detention

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in News, Opinion

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Published on March 20, 2008 with 3 Comments

Journalist Josh Wolf, who was arrested yesterday while covering an antiwar protest in San Francisco
marking the fifth anniversary of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq,
recounts his seven-hour detention by the San Francisco Police Department.
Photo by Luke Thomas

By Josh Wolf, special to Fog City Journal

March 20, 2008

“You’ll be the first one cited and released,” the officer reassured me as I protested my unlawful detention.

While I was the first to be led away in handcuffs, this wasn’t the “catch and release” operation the cop had suggested it was. I actually wouldn’t be released until six that evening.

It was 10:30 a.m, and I was just about to take a break from filming and grab something for breakfast. I knew I should’ve eaten before I left, but had wanted to begin filming as early as possible.

I attended the protests as a journalist, and had been actively working to stay out of the officers’ way as I filmed the various actions commemorating the five-year anniversary of the war. I don’t pretend to be neutral; I marched down the streets in a state of rage and sadness the day the bombs were first dropped, but I was clearly acting as a news gatherer at the time of my arrest.

The police didn’t care, and throughout the day several other journalists would find themselves imprisoned for reporting on the day’s dissent.

In my case, I was documenting a die-in at the intersection of 3rd and Market. Approximately 30 people laid down in the street and had remained in place for about 20 minutes when the police formed a circle around those participating in the die-in. Having covered numerous San Francisco protests in the past, I knew to place myself outside the police encirclement. For some reason an officer decided he wanted me arrested and I found myself being dragged by the back of my head into the arrest-zone. I explained that I had no intention of interfering with police business and had been pulled into the circle inadvertently, but my complaints went unanswered and I soon found myself placed under arrest and transported onto a bus operated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

The bus was loaded with protesters along with another videographer, and we were taken to the county jail at 850 Bryant. Once in custody, the atmosphere morphed into a surreal environment that could only exist in San Francisco.

As the bus pulled into the jail, Deputy McConnell from the Sheriff’s department came aboard and told us he had two requests: he asked us to keep the sally-port clean so that inmates from the general population aren’t forced to clean the area later, and instructed us not to use any electronic equipment that we may still have in our possession. He then offered some rather sympathetic words of advice to one protester who had chosen to identify herself as a Jane Doe.

Throughout the day, many of us had an opportunity to talk to Deputy McConnell and we learned that he had served in both Gulf Wars and that he marches with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He told us he had been arrested in a protest in the East Bay and many of us quickly developed a respect for our jailer in a way that might almost resemble a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

With few exceptions, the rank-and-file Police officers and Sheriff’s deputies that I dealt with exhibited a level of professionalism that deserves to be commended. I did witness isolated incidents of brutality, and there are other reports that seem to indicate this was a problem throughout the day, but the people that I encountered personally were just doing their jobs.

The Police Department’s arrest process and the several hours we spent detained was shameful, but I’m inclined to suspect that this malfeasance rests on those in charge.

We were processed almost immediately upon our arrival. It was a pleasant surprise seeing a gaggle of police working so diligently to process our citations. Around noon it appeared that the arduous task of completing our paperwork was complete and a citation had been affixed to everyone’s personal property. Those amongst us who were elderly had been released, and we assumed the rest of us would be let back out in short order. Having nothing left to do, the cops began to congregate in small circles and practiced the fine art of killing time.

More arrestees arrived later in the day, and they too were quickly processed. Once again, the police worked hard to get the paperwork squared away, and those over 65 were quickly set free. Once finished, the police returned to their task of doing nothing. I grew frustrated, and became hungrier and hungrier. I’m sure many of us felt the same. A man named Eric asked if he could get his snacks out of his bag and the officer gladly rifled through his sack and tossed the walnuts, Luna Bar, and apple to him who then shared the bounty with his fellow detainees.

At 2 p.m. we were given a glass of water; at 4 p.m. the deputies brought us “dinner.” With ravenous hunger we devoured the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the slice of cheese, and the cookies we were provided. The chants had died down earlier, but picked up again with renewed vitality. Many of us began to suspect that we were still in custody as part of an effort to keep us off of the streets. This suspicion was partly confirmed when more than one officer joined in a chant of, “let us go.”

A bit later, a new chant emerged from the crowd. “Who’s filing a complaint with the police commission?”

“I am, I am.”

I don’t know if it was simply a coincidence, but within a matter of minutes people were finally processed out and I imagine that most of us were free by 6:30 p.m. A man who had been arrested while crossing the street on his lunch break, quickly sprang for his cell phone to explain to his wife why he hadn’t come home.

I grabbed my camera and hurried off to the ANSWER rally cursing myself once again for having not eaten breakfast.


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recounts his day in police detention
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  1. I have read Josh Wolf’s column and Daniele Erville’s comment with alarm.

    In August 2004, while I rode blissfully through the streets of Manhattan on the last Friday-of-the-month Critical Mass bicycle ride — then doubling as a protest of the Republican National Convention which was soon to start at Madison Square Garden — my sister got caught up in a police dragnet. She spent the next 22 hours in a greasy pen where she and other detainees were served baloney sandwiches (a deliberate insult to those who were vegetarian). Two days later, the person who put me up was then arrested along with her partner, even though they had been walking their bikes on a sidewalk. They, too, spent close to 24 hours in pens.

    Then on October 31, 2007 authorities took steps to curtail Halloween activities in the Castro here in San Francisco. While ostensibly only one or two BART stations were closed, in reality, many buses were pulled out of service throughout the city — all without public hearings in City Hall or elsewhere. I found this out when I left work at 6 p.m. on the 31st and went out to wait for the 44 bus at Irving and 9th Avenue. When no bus came after about half an hour, I called 311 and found out that numerous buses along that line and throughout the city were out of service.

    Then in early November 2007 the Cosco Busan hit a piling and spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. A clean up got underway that involved restricting access to public beaches to members of clean up crews, many from out-of-state.

    Now, protesters and those recording the protests are arrested without provocation. And local authorities are considering the creation of “free speech pens” for people who wish to protest the Olympic torch, and abuses of human rights on the part of the Chinese government, as it passes through San Francisco.

    Broadsheets published in the years prior to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War were all about the alarm that Americans felt in the years after the Interregnum, the Glorious Revolution, and the French and Indian War when the British were trying to reestablish hegemony in North America. While the British may have been trying to extract taxes to pay for the wars and the defense of North America against the French and Native Americans, Americans perceived their efforts to govern more directly as a threat to the systems of self-governance that had evolved and the political freedoms to which they had become accustomed during the 100 or so years when the mother country had been in turmoil.

    I identify with the authors of those revolutionary broadsheets and am alarmed because I have no doubt that the forces of totalitarianism are watching and recording just how easy it is to trim the rights of American citizens and residents — even in the most protest-happy of cities.

    We already know the steps that the Bush administration has taken to restrict our rights, especially rights guaranteed under the Fourth and Sixth amendments regarding searches and seizures and right to counsel for the accused — and the most frightening abnegation of habeas corpus. On top of this, we must view with alarm the creation of the “Northern Command,” which first came into operation at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado in 2002, combined with the efforts of the Bush administration to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Posse Comitatus was a piece of post-Reconstruction legislation that was passed to restrict the ability of federal soldiers to police civilians — yet the Northern Command is tasked with providing “military assistance to civil authorities, including consequence management operations.”

    Am I paranoid or merely vigilant? I believe I am vigilant. Remember, people now in positions of power have already lied us into one endless war. I believe they are capable of worse.

  2. No. Josh Wolf is not some kind of victim here because he was detained longer than he counted on and had to miss happy hour at Edinburgh Castle. Wolf was arrested, as he expected to be, because he obstructed a public intersection and refused to move when asked to. To cry “victim” is disingenuous at the minimum. What if he had been a right wing protester refusing to move from the entrance of an abortion clinic? He would have been removed and arrested and rightfully so.

    Do Wolf and others have a right to protest this war? Absolutely, and I believe strongly in their First Amendment right to do so. Was it efficacious to bottle up downtown in that way? I seriously doubt one mind was changed about the war one way or the other. But I bet that some Hispanic janitors and cooks were late to work that day because the buses were blocked.

    But here’s the silly part. This protest in San Francisco is really no more than preaching to the choir. Who in this town is for the war, I mean, seriously? Think back 40 odd years to Martin Luther King’s march on…where was it? Selma. Alabama. Did he march in Watts where he would have been received with little or no opposition? No, he took it to the heart of the deep South, where the danger was very real. And he risked not just seven hours of detention but his very life. Wednesday’s protest in SF was little more than street theater by those who had very little to risk and now are simply whining about a few hours of arrest that they knew was going to happen.

    Courage of their convictions? I ain’t buying it.

  3. As one who willingly participated in the noontime nonviolent direct action, I also want to share my observations of the police. I also witnessed one incident of unnecessary brutality when a woman, who was walking her bike close to the outer perimeter of the circle where i was lying down, was manhandled and complained “you’re hurting me, and i didn’t do anything!”
    She a) had not been lying down with us, and b) the exhortations to leave or be arrested were not heard by many through the police’s muffled PA system, including myself.

    Aside from that, though, one cop thanked us for protesting, and the one who walked me to my awaiting handcuffs and paddywagon told me that if there were no police surrounding us, we might well, in fact, have risked not being too safe out there, a point well taken which I acknowledged him and thanked him for.

    I didn’t appreciate, like all of us, being purposely left in our respective outdoor “pens” for hours while a dozen or more police officers were sitting there playing cards or doing nothing, instead of discharging us. I asked one about why this had to be the case, what with all of them there, sitting at their table waiting to do just that, and all I got was: “it’s the command from above…”
    It was definitely some contrived idea–to keep us out of the streets?– since there was plenty of personnel on hand to do the job.