Gray Panthers of San Francisco
May 2007 Newsletter

Josh Wolf's Release is Not the End


Yes, we are happy that Josh Wolf has been set free. But, lurking in the shadows of the Josh Wolf case and its First Amendment implications is another, equally compelling story. Disturbing things occurred during or in the immediate aftermath of the protest in San Francisco’s Mission District, on July 8, 2005, one of many demonstrations that took place globally to protest the G-8 summit underway in Scotland at the time.

That is not to say that the local issues have been unreported. Bob Egelko, legal writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dan Nois, investigative reporter for ABC7News, and Sarah Phelan, writer for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, with others, have reported aspects that are decidedly local.

Public reports by local reporters as well as police and court documents disclose a troubling level of confusion that reigned in the Mission that night. Some of it, undoubtedly, was the result of deliberate attempts by some protest leaders to keep a step ahead of the police. However, a police presence was planned in advance and officers should have been aware that more groups of protesters with different agendas were present at the demonstration.

While vandalism led to the call for backup, the backup responders clearly made no attempt to distinguish who was involved in it. They charged into a splinter group that was actually trying to separate itself from those breaking windows at businesses and attempting to disrupt traffic.

As a result, rather than quell the disturbance they were called to, two officers not assigned to protest duty managed to provoke otherwise peaceful demonstrators, with the ultimate result of a severe injury to one of the officers. Numerous protesters made claims that the officers approached them at a dangerously high rate of speed in their cruiser, and police reports disclose the officers left the relative safely of their car and allowed themselves to be separated among protesters they considered hostile, calling into question their training and intent.

When Police Chief Heather Fong raised these issues a day after the protest, she was given reports by the officer in charge that she determined were not credible. After she made her findings public, rank and file officers began circulating a petition for a vote of no confidence against the chief. She later dismissed the officer in charge of the protest.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamela Harris also played roles in the disagreement that have not been put right. The day after the protest, the Mayor’s inflammatory remarks failed again to make clear that not all of the protesters were bent on violence. This has the potential to bind moderate protesters with more radical elements so it is definitely in the City’s best interests to mend fences before the next G-8 summit which is due to take place in Germany in June.

The DA’s office kept three of the protesters under indictment for their part in the protest long after the DA should have known that, in the opinion of the police chief, the charges were based on reports that contained false statements. In one case, Gabe Mayers (formerly of Oakland) was under indictment for 18 months, held for $500,000 bail that was later reduced to $30,000, and forced to make at least one court appearance a month for 18 months—only to have all charges dropped on the eve of his jury trial. This smacks of punishment wielded outside the bounds of law and fairness.

Even Chief Fong, who found that police reports used to charge these protesters were not credible on other grounds, has remained silent about the charges against these protesters. In a City that claims to value free expression, this failure to reconcile mistakes by public officials that influenced public opinion is unacceptable.

An initiative to resolve these issues was put before the Mayor, DA and Police Chief more than three weeks ago, but no response has been forthcoming. In the “City that Never Sleeps,” are City leaders asleep at the wheel? Or, has the “City that Knows How” simply forgotten?

A precedent for resolving issues between protesters and the police department exists (dating to the White Night riot and an incident of police misconduct afterward) and proves solutions are achievable even under the worst of circumstances. Leadership by elected officials is needed now, before June rolls around.

(back to May 2007 Newsletter front page)