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August 24, 2011

Protestors bring transit, civil liberties to forefront

by Nicole Schlosser

Protests in San Francisco are just as much a part of the city’s identity as the sourdough bread and clam chowder tourists clamor for at Pier 39, the Golden Gate Bridge and the infamously icy summers. 

Activists abound, holding demonstrations for the rights of workers, gay people, the homeless, the environment, immigrants, bikers, animals, and against war and restrictions on civil liberties. Whatever your cause is, there’s a protest you can join, at almost any time of day. It’s about as easy as getting a cup of coffee, and the charged, vocal nature of the city is one of the characteristics of it that I love and miss.

I used to work in San Francisco and live across the Bay, and, of course, I used Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for my commute. Because of the nature of the city, I was in no way surprised to hear about the protests of BART police shooting a transient man that allegedly threatened them with a knife, but was floored at some of the agency’s responses to the protestors.

When I read that The Daily Beast and the San Francisco Chronicle were reporting that a BART spokesman supposedly said that riders “don’t have the right to free speech inside the fare gates,” and had thought of the idea to shut down cell phone service and the busiest stations during rush hour, I have to admit, I thought the comment was a gaffe, the actions went too far, and that the protestors were right to be angry. I didn’t think the hackings, first by the group Anonymous, and then by an unidentified culprit, were justified, but I thought there was a good chance the agency may have overreacted, especially when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would investigate BART’s action.

On the other hand, it couldn’t have been easy for BART police and other staff. As the subject came up with friends, I found myself defending the agency for the difficult position they were in and seeing more gray area in the situation than I likely would have in the past. This time, the protests were targeting BART, and, during one of the protests when demonstrators were crowding platforms and blocking train doors, they were interfering with riders’ safety, and BART’s job is to transport people safely and efficiently. Their responsibility is to the riders, and, with so much hostility leveled at them, whether you agree or not with the reasons for it, it must have been challenging to react.

It will be interesting to see what happens with today’s meeting, held by BART’s board of directors and open to the public, to discuss its wireless policy and the FCC investigation. It is the first reported U.S. governmental agency to shut wireless access as a security measure. Will it stick with the policy? Will other transit systems follow suit? What are your thoughts and what do you see coming out of this?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "'The state of SEPTA's 'State of Good Repair'"  here.

Nicole Schlosser

Senior Editor

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  • Jim[ August 24th, 2011 @ 3:00pm ]

    If they're interfering with BART's ability to provide service and thus my ability to avail myself of said service, then I applaud BART's actions designed to restore order and safety!

  • Bob L.[ August 24th, 2011 @ 3:28pm ]

    I can see both sides to this story. Instead of cutting of power to the cell-phone system, which I understand they did, which could have consequences if a true emergency rose that required calling 911. What is the solution, would require some programming, but in any part of town, the cell phone system should be set up to block all types of communications, phone, texting, internet access except allow 911 calls to go through. This will prevent using our iToys and eToys to start a riot, but still let emergency calls go through. Abuse of 911 today is a crime, so protesters dialing 911 are easily traced by there phone number.

  • FinanceBuzz[ August 24th, 2011 @ 4:50pm ]

    I agree with Bob in that they could have blocked all non-emergency calls. That being said, I also agree with Jim about the hampering protesters' efforts to interfere with everyday people's use of the system. The protesters have a right to free speech, but they do not have a right to have access to a platform to distribute that speech and that is what the distributed antenna system for the wireless networks provides. They also don't have a right to interfere with others' use of the system. Most average people don't care about the latest cause du jour that people are protesting. They simply want to get to work, to pick up their kid, to the ballgame they spend a lot of money on for tickets, to visit a relative dying in a hospital, etc. (Personally, when you interfere with my daily life, except for the most egregious objects of protest, you have assured you have lost my sympathy with your disruptive behavior.) If these protesters had setup shop and, no matter how annoying they have been, without disrupting the operation of the transit system, I would be on their side about the shutdown of the wireless. But, given the track record of disruption of most protests, the actions of BART were more than justified to ensure continued service the vast majority of their customers not affiliated with the protesters.

  • Tom J[ August 25th, 2011 @ 7:17am ]

    More of a question - Is BART to be considered a "provider" of cellular service or are they simply extending that service? I don't believe BART receives revenue for extending service so isn't this extension of service more of a courtesy for their customers and not a requirement. If the equipment were simply to malfunction instead of being turned off would the same sort of protesting occur (of course not)! With regards to emergency calls (great suggestions posted above by the way) how was that handled prior to cellular service being available? Seems that the protesters are using this issue as a lightning rod for their real 'beef' which is their dis-satisfaction with the BART police.

  • Richard Layman[ August 31th, 2011 @ 4:13am ]

    Clearly, your musings show little recognition of how government agencies are bound by the Constitution of the United States, specifically the first amendment. Arguably, even privately owned "common carriers" might have the same kinds of requirements. Sure were I in the position of BART personnel, I'd want to be able to limit the ability of my opponents to organize, and shut down the phone service (or jam it). But government agencies have a higher set of laws that bind them operationally.


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