Taming the Mob

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In the midst of the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, one of the recurring tactics used by repressive regimes to prevent widespread demonstrations was to cut off cell phone service and shut down social media sites. Thus, there is more than a hint of irony surrounding the decision last Thursday by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials to cut off underground cell phone service at several train stations. The reason for the cutoff? To disrupt the coordination of a flash mob aiming to interrupt train service as a protest for the killing of a 45-year-old man by BART transit police.

“Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police,” said the agency in a statement posted on its Web site. The statement continued:

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.

The planned protest centered around the shooting of Charles Hill, a transient killed by BART police officer on July 3rd. Hill had reportedly threatened the officer with knives and a bottle. Shooting witnesses claimed that Hill wasn’t running or lunging at the officer, but no video exists to verify those accounts, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison. The videotape from the train station is inconclusive.

This would have been the second demonstration to protest Hill’s death. On July 11, several people gathered on the train platform at the Civic Center Station at around 4:30 p.m. A march took place with protesters shouting “no justice, no peace.” Some of the demonstrators boarded a train and blocked the doors from closing for 10 minutes while others grappled with BART security guards attempting to stop them. One man also climbed on top of a train before being subdued. Two dozen police in riot gear arrived on the scene and broke up the demonstration, but several protesters moved to the 16th Street Mission Station where they also disrupted service.

During the melee at the Civic Center, commuters rushed to the Powell Street Station, which was subsequently closed due to overcrowding. At the 16th St. station, ”Pigs Kill. Kill Pigs” was written in red paint on one of the columns near the entrance.

In keeping with the latest technological trends, a group calling itself No Justice, No BART set up a Web site with their version of the shooting posted on it, along with a promise that “a BART action like the last one is being planned for early August.” The site warned that “this action may not be publicly announced,” and that their main objective is to get ”the BART police department shut down and disbanded.”

This then was the context for the decision to disrupt cell service, characterized by BART Police Lieutenant Andy Alkire as “a great tool to utilize for this specific purpose.” And even though the protest never occurred, Alkire was unapologetic. ”I don’t believe it was a hoax,” he said. “We had pretty good intelligence that it was going to happen.”

Yet Alkire’s use of the word intelligence seemed somewhat questionable in light of a statement made by BART’s chief communications officer, Linton Johnson, at a media briefing inside the Powell Street Station last Thursday. ”Today we heard rumors there might be protests, and there might be protests tomorrow,” he told reporters. ”We don’t know.” Adding to the uncertainty was Johnson’s admonition that passengers remain aware of their surroundings as they commute–over the next month. ”Report unsafe behavior, do not confront protesters,” he warned. “Stay out of harm’s way.”

Perhaps Johnson fails to note the irony of asking passengers to report unsafe behavior in the midst of a cell phone shutdown. A shutdown which seemingly conflicts with BART’s Web site claim that the agency “accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution (expressive activity)…” even as it contended that ”no person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”

On Saturday, it was revealed the shutdown was not properly authorized, but presented as a “fait accompli” by BART’s chief of police, Kenton Rainey, to BART’s board of directors Thursday, according to BART official Lynette Sweet. Sweet was less than enthused with the decision. “This is a transit agency, and our job is not to censor people,” she said. BART spokesman Jim Allison disagreed. Noting that BART owns the underground network that provides the cell phone service, he contended that BART has the power to shut it down “in the physical sense” and “the legal sense.” Communications officer Johnson was even more defiant. “It is an amenity. We survived for years without cellphone service,” he said. “Now they’re b—-ing and complaining that we turned it off for three hours?”

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  • StephenD

    The points were made. We here in a Free Society hold dear the right to Free Speech. Arrest those fools that commit crimes but do not infringe on our right to speak. We recognize the risk inherent in the practice of this right to free speech, in that some may be offended and some may be in danger. This is the price we are willing to pay. We wouldn't need a law protecting that right if all that was said was not offensive or dangerous; if everything said was innocuous there would be no need for the law at all. We also recognize that as soon as you justify the infringement on our right to free speech it is a short fall to the squelching of all our other rights. As soon as we cannot object or disagree, the person with the Bullhorn gets to make the rules. We say, Not here in America…Not Ever.

  • LB Samms

    Should the demonstrators have a right to shut down access to transportation for people who's livelihood depends on getting to their jobs by public transport? Should the Supreme Court have given radical demonstrators a right to disrupt military burials and to terrorize the mourners? Let's not allow the activists to go outside the rule of law (sacred to our Republic) to make their point—take the question to the Courts. Want to go the direction of Europe—to the Left's brand of anarchy? Yes, choosing which speech takes away rights of others IS a slippery slope, but when the slope leads to destruction of the fabric of society, then society has to make choices. The democratic process—the vote, the courts, ammendment, peaceful demonstration—-is how we deal with those who exceed the bounds of limits. The Founders did not intend an absolute right to free speech, and they set limits, i.e., time of war. Let's not follow the Left in their brand of moral relativism.

    • StephenD

      Of course you are right. But this goes along with what I said, "Arrest those fools that commit crimes." NO OTHER action is justifiable. To squelch our freedom of speech is to take all our rights away. If there is danger to the public then do what needs to be done; dispersing crowds, policing the public transportation areas, etc. But to justify curtailment of your right to speak freely because it may be offensive is exactly WRONG. I hate the thought of those disgraceful Dolts protesting at funerals. They cross the line of decency in everyone's book. Are there any laws by which this can be addressed? All I know is a blanket policy, even with great intentions, can be to our detriment in the long run.
      The risk is that Anarchists and Malcontents get their say. Our response is that it is worth the risk. If they cross the legal line, hit them hard and make the charges stick. Short of that, let them speak!
      Remember what Franklin said, "Those that sacrifice Liberty for Security in the end, find they have neither."

  • Chris Gleason

    The riots in San Francisco, Britain and elsewhere are not impromptu demonstrations about a specific action. They are orchestrated and choreographed by forces at work everywhere to disrupt and confuse, to frighten the populace. They already have the governments and police authorities scared. Time to crack down.

    • http://www.contextflexed.com Flipside

      Yeah. On the governments and the police.

  • alexander

    it is all TESTING………………………………………testing the system….what cops will do and do not…….for 2012………when Bummer will not be reelected….then….then…. they will show their real f(uk)ace

  • http://www.calreview.com Dave Roberts

    Just as no one has the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, anarchists and terrorists do not have the right to use cellphones to coordinate riots on crowded subway platforms.

  • tagalog

    The demonstrators shouted, "Kill Pigs." Ahh, it takes me back to the old days. Kids who long for a repeat of the 60s, head for San Francisco. Make sure to get a round-trip ticket; you probably will want to get back home pretty quick, and make it to the airport or bus station before they get shut down, too.

    Hey punk, where ya goin' with that button on yer shirt?
    Hey punk, where ya goin' with that button on yer shirt?
    I'm goin' out to Frisco to sit and play my bongos in the dirt!