The Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s Aug. 11 shutdown of underground cell phone service to several downtown San Francisco stations, after a rumored protest, which failed to materialize, sparked a real-life protest at the same stations Aug. 15.
Though this time, cell phones remained on, debate continues about the civil liberties implications of the Aug. 11 shutdown.
The rowdy but nonviolent roving protest was directed both at the shutdown and at BART police’ fatal shooting July 3 of a homeless man, Charles Blair Hill, after he allegedly lunged at them with a knife.
Demonstrators carried signs, “I believe in free speech,” “Stop police brutality,” and “We are family members of the stolen lives.” Some demonstrators also highlighted the Jan. 1, 2009 killing of unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant III.
The action was reportedly initiated by the internet activist group Anonymous, an international network which earlier attacked sites that shut down donations to Wikileaks after it released floods of formerly secret documents about U.S. dealings abroad.
A day earlier, Anonymous was the focus of harsh criticism after it hacked into BART system communications, releasing personal data on thousands of participants in an alert service for special events reachable from BART trains.
As police closed downtown stations one by one, protesters moved on to the next one, gathering above ground by station entrances, clustering on underground platforms and briefly shutting down Market St., the city’s main thoroughfare.
The action, which started about 5 p.m. during commute hours, was over by about 7:30 p.m.
Debate continues to swirl around the Aug. 11 cutoff of underground cell service.
BART asserted that it “temporarily interrupted service” at particular stations “as one of its many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” BART spokesperson Linton Johnson said protests are banned on station platforms for safety reasons. He said courtesy phones and intercoms still functioned in areas where cell service was cut off.
But Bob Franklin, president of BART’s board of directors, said the action was unprecedented in the U.S. “When personal safety collides with First Amendment rights, that’s the national debate,” he said.
Speaking on public radio station KQED’s Forum program Aug. 16, BART board member Lynette Sweet, whose district includes part of San Francisco, expressed concern that the system’s policy-making body had no say in the action.
On the same program, Michael Risher, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told listeners, “When we have the government shutting down a communications network to prevent assembly, protests, criticism of the government, that really goes to the core of the First Amendment.”
ACLU-NC has posted an online petition on its web site.
The Federal Communications Commission said it plans to investigate the incident. In a statement, the FCC said, “Any time communications services are disrupted, we seek to assess the situation. We are continuing to collect information about BART’s actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks.”