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Four San Francisco BART stations shut down during protests

A demonstrator holds out his cell phone and shouts "can you hear me now?" as BART police officers shove him with their batons and yell "Get back! Get back!"
A demonstrator holds out his cell phone and shouts "can you hear me now?" as BART police officers shove him with their batons and yell "Get back! Get back!"Photos by Thomas K. Pendergast

Four Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations in downtown San Francisco were shut down during rush hour Monday afternoon because of protests against BART officials and police.

A demonstrator holds out his cell phone and shouts "can you hear me now?" as BART police officers shove him with their batons and yell "Get back! Get back!"
A demonstrator holds out his cell phone and shouts "can you hear me now?" as BART police officers shove him with their batons and yell "Get back! Get back!"Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast

The Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero stations were all closed sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. as the protestors chanted “No justice, no peace! Disband the BART police!” and others repeated “can you hear me now?” into their cell phones over and over again.

“I live in Oakland and so I’m familiar with the murder of Oscar Grant and with the murder of Charles Hill by BART police,” said one protestor, Jevon Cochran, 21. “I also heard about the protest that was suppose to happen this past Thursday where the police mobilized heavily to prevent the protest but not only that, they went so far as to shut off cell phone service in all the BART stations to prevent the protests from happening.”

Oscar Grant III, was 22 years old and unarmed when he was fatally shot by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on January 1, 2009, at the Fruitvale BART station as Mehserle and other officers broke up a fight in which Grant was involved.

Mehserle, 29, claimed that the shooting was accidental because he meant to reach for his Taser to stun Grant into submission but drew his pistol by mistake, not realizing which weapon he was holding until he pulled the trigger.

Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2010 and given a two-year prison sentence.

Charles Blair Hill, 45, was fatally shot by BART police on July 3, 2011 at the Civic Center BART station. BART police officer James A. Crowell was later identified as the shooter and had only been with the force 18 months when Hill was killed. After being on administrative leave for three days he is now back on the force.

The Bay Citizen news website reports that at a witness to that shooting said one of the BART officers was armed with a Taser but didn’t use it and Hill was not running or lunging at the officers with the knife but he was “definitely a Taser candidate.”

A similar protest on July 11 at the Civic Center BART station led to the closure of three BART stations during that incident.

On August 11, demonstrators again showed up at the BART station to protest. This time, however, cell phone service was temporarily suspended in several BART stations to prevent protesters from communicating with each other.

Word of the impending protest reached BART’s media relations department, which asked wireless providers to shut off service at four downtown San Francisco stations to prevent “disruptive activities.”

“That’s just disgusting to me,” said Cochran. “It’s what happened in Egypt and places like Tunisia when those dictators in those countries were trying to put down the protests that led to revolutions there. And that should not be happening here in the United States.”

A statement release by BART the next day said protest organizers planned ‘to use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators. BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.

‘Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations.’

On Sunday the international hacker group Anonymous retaliated for the suspended cell phone service by hacking into the BART website and publicly releasing personal information for about 2,000 myBART.org users, including information like usernames, passwords, email addresses, phone numbers and house addresses.

Anonymous also organized a protest for the next day at the Civic Center BART station to protest what they described as censorship by the transit agency for shutting down the cell phone service. Anonymous asked demonstrators to wear red to suggest that BART police had blood on their hands and masks of the English revolutionary Guy Fawkes, who was involved in a failed plot to assassinate King James I by blowing up Parliament in 1605. Although perhaps more than a hundred protesters showed up, it appeared that most did not wear either red or the masks.

BART police eventually declared the protest an “unlawful assembly,” cleared the station of both protesters and commuters then shut it down.

“Once we get to a situation on the platform where the platform is unsafe based upon crowded noise and we can’t have safe passage for our passengers, for our employees and for the protestors themselves, we have to close the station, clear the platform and create a safe situation.” said Dan Hartwig, deputy chief for BART police. “We are not opposed to them expressing their first amendment rights. We have to keep it safe.”

Hartwig said BART’s cell phone service was not shut off this time.

After closing the Civic Center, BART officials closed down the other three downtown San Francisco stations.

“It’s not just a race issue. This last guy (Hill) was of European descent so our community needs to be safe and I feel that the real thugs out on the streets right now are the cops,” said protestor James Foley of Oakland.

Grant was black and Hill was white.

“One of the last ones (protests) shut down the BART trains. I think that that’s actually what it takes,” Foley explained. “You have to create a large stall in society to make people face a problem that most people ignore. When people are blocking an intersection that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re just trying to be seen, trying to be heard in a society that would normally just ignore the issue because a lot of people don’t have as much interest in it. Most people don’t see themselves as potential victims of police violence.”

Several commuters did complain to the demonstrators about not being able to go about their business and use the BART trains.

Another protestor expressed opposition not only to the police shootings, but to BART’s shutting down its cell phone system during protests the week before.

“It was a dangerous act because if people needed to use their telephones to communicate for emergency purposes there is no way for BART knowing whether or not that situation will present itself and it got lucky,” said Jeremy Miller of the Idriss Shelley Foundation. “They played a dice game with people’s lives that were just innocent people either standing up expressing their views or maybe just in transit and that’s unconscionable.”

A reporter pointed out to him that others might actually hold the protestors accountable for any unsafe situations, due to the fact that they initiated the action and BART was then forced to respond.

“Freedom of speech was never put in place to protect safe speech. Safe speech doesn’t need an explicit freedom attached to it. It was always in place to protect speech that was against the grain” Miller responded. “That is the essence of freedom of speech and it’s one of the fundamental principles of living in this country. And so that is a direct assault on that principle.”

By 8 p.m. BART police reported that there were no arrests.

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