BART, Protests, and Social Media

First published August 22, 2011 –

The San Francisco Bay Area is no stranger to protests and community action. In the past few weeks, demonstrations against BART police have shown that there are new ways of organizing protests, and new ways to try to prevent them.

On Thursday, August 11, the San Francisco Bay Area’s rapid transit system, BART, warned riders, through twitter, to be aware of a possible protest and train delays out of San Francisco in the coming days.

This, in response to recent attempts to protest BART and BART police for the shooting death of Charles Blair Hill on July 3rd. In order to thwart an expected protest that day, Aug. 11, BART police had a large presence at the Civic Center station, with some officers in riot gear. Cellular service was also shut off inside the transbay tube with the hopes that the protest wouldn’t grow due to social media.

Anonymous, an Internet-hacking group and self-proclaimed “civil and human rights activist”, initially called for Thursday’s demonstration to protest against the recent shootings.  During this protest, some BART entrances were blocked and protestors were communicating through cell phones to coordinate where to meet based on police presence.

On Monday, Aug. 15, Anonymous called for a peaceful protest after Thursday’s efforts failed to materialize. What resulted was BART periodically shutting down the stations and cell service where protestors were moving.  From 5pm to 7:30pm, @SFBART kept the public updated on station activity via twitter.

BART authorities defend their decision to take the initiative to shut off cell service to dismantle protest efforts. Though the decision was “gut-wrenching”, BART’s interim General Manager gave permission to switch off service to keep passengers safe and out of danger from growing protests. The Daily Cal reports that Bob Franklin, a BART Board of Directors member, says it is illegal to protest inside the stations. Since that is the case, BART used their power to protect the right of public safety and transportation over the right to free speech through cell phones.

Though BART has explained their decisions, many people have questioned the cell service shut down. @ACLU_NorCal has compared BART to the “oppressive regimes” around the world that are shutting down communication to prevent mass protests.

Anonymous took action again, after finding out about the cell phone shut down and has hacked BART police officer information and made it public, as well as called for more protests.

Like other protests in the Bay Area, these involving BART have created a mass awareness of the public’s distaste of how BART police have handled some situations. They have also opened the discussion about free speech and if BART has the right to control it, even on their own platforms. Social media is providing new ways of inciting action, as well as discussion.