Four Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) stations in San Francisco had their cell phone service shut down on Thursday, August 11, to prevent a planned protest from materializing. James Allison, deputy chief communications officer for BART, reports BART staff or contractors shut down power “to the nodes and alerted the cell carriers,” including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile.
A group called “No Justice, No BART” intended to descend upon BART stations to protest the shooting of Charles Hill, a homeless man who BART police officers killed on July 3. They planned to show up inconspicuously and then come together on the platform and, at about 5 pm, pull out signs and demand the officer that shot Hill be fired. They also intended to demand the police chief be fired for lying at a press conference on the shooting and issue calls for the BART police be disbanded.
BART Police Intelligence picked up on plans for the protest and believed the action would lead to “platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators.” BART thought organizers intended to use mobile devices to coordinate “disruptive activities” and communicate about the location and number of BART Police in stations. So, as BART spokesman said, the service was shut down so the protest wouldn’t “become viral.”
“A cost benefit analysis of where your freedom of speech begins to threaten the public safety” was done, Johnson said. In non-newspeak, this means BART found it appropriate to censor communications to obstruct free speech and assembly.
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote in reaction to the possibly unprecedented move, “BART officials had shown themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who ordered the shutdown of cell phone service in Tahrir Square in response to peaceful, democratic protests earlier this year.” Cutting off service, she added, constitutes “prior restrain on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protestor or a commuter.”
BART Exploits Commuters’ Desire to “Get Home” in Video
Not only did BART cut off cell phone service but they also had BARTtv, their own public relations or propaganda operation, which posts videos to YouTube, go to a BART platform and ask commuters about the protesters’ plans. They sent reporter Mark Jones to talk to commuters. (Note: This author won’t call him a “reporter”—Jones was acting as an agent for a government agency, an operative for BART. He is a walking insult to those who actually are reporters.)
Like good propaganda should, the video attempts to create and shape events and influence public relations as they relate to BART. The video opens by noting protesters planned to interrupt or even shut down BART service. Images of an increased BART police presence on platforms so any protest could be quickly put down are shown.
The video then offers interviews with commuters who each want to just get home. Two of the individuals interviewed have “kids and family.” The impetus of putting these people on screen is designed to invite condemnation of Bay Area citizens, who would dare to draw attention to BART police brutality during rush hour when commuters are headed home after a long day.
Agent Jones asks a white middle class, middle-aged man, who has a family, what he thinks of the protesters’ goals. The man says, “I have no idea what the protesters’ goal is.” Of course, BARTtv doesn’t bother to fill in the blank here and explain why protests are happening. This is all designed to make it seem like some citizens just want to go riot for kicks and get in the way of BART service.
Someone with BART public relations makes it seem like BART was about to be the victim of a “flytilla,” as he makes the unsubstantiated claim that people were going to be flying in from all over the country from a “multitude of groups” to do “surprise attacks” on BART. From that comment, it would be easy to confuse protesters with terrorists (the only difference being protesters have no intention of committing violence that would result in the loss of innocent life).
A middle-aged black nurse appears on camera and expresses relief that BART beefed up police presence on the platforms. She is happy her train isn’t going to be held up and that the madness that occurred during a previous protest is not happening this time. As Agent Jones summarizes, trying to come in and shut down BART for political reasons did not sit well with BART commuters.
Commuters may not like that protesters wished to protest, but family and friends of Oscar Grant don’t like that BART police killed him when he was already handcuffed and lying face down on a BART platform in 2009. Family and friends of Fred Collins don’t like that he was essentially assassinated at a Fruitvale station in 2010 despite the fact that he had put his hands up in the air. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what some nurse or family man thinks about the protests. Needing to get home is not a legitimate justification for obstructing civil liberties.
The production of this video is a conscious manipulation of a situation, a clear attempt to mold the opinion of Bay Area citizens and others in the world. If BART can use commuters to promote the violation of free speech in its facilities, what else can it do? Could they use it to promote “stop and searches” of black or Hispanic youths? Maybe they might produce a video to promote what appears to be a policy of “shoot first, ask questions later.”
CNN Brings on a Criminologist to Address the Shutdown
While little television coverage came as a result of BART’s decision, CNN did do a segment. Out of the many possible guests that could have done such a segment CNN went with Dr. Casey Jordan, an “in-house contributor to TruTV’s “In Session.” (TruTV is a sister network of CNN.)
The segment is not as bad as BARTtv’s. At least viewers get to see riders’ reactions to the fact that they have had their cell phone service cut off. And CNN even puts a “would-be protester” on camera. What is appalling is how Jordan appears to be doing the work of BART public relations in her appearance on the show:
I haven’t been able to find another incident in which this has happened. I think perhaps it is unprecedented, and yet, that’s how these legal issues come to light and get debated. Whether it’s legal or not, it hasn’t been tested in the courts. Public safety exceptions to or encroachments on our personal freedoms do happen. And remember, we just had evidence of that protest getting out of control last month. Of course, everybody wants their personal freedoms. They fear censorship. They’re all worried about living in a police state. Yet when a protest turns into violence and people get hurt, they love to blame the police. So, you can’t have it both ways. The public relations department did make this decision, but I’m sure they did it after consulting their counsel within the police department.
Suppose it is worth it to define “criminologist.” A “criminologist” analyzes crime and criminal behavior and attempts to provide explanation as to who commits crime and why they do it. It’s unclear what “crime” she is providing expertise on for this segment. Protesting is not a crime. If she is here to help viewers discern whether law enforcement stepped over a line, she seems to have quickly determined they didn’t. Additionally, she isn’t bothered by the fact that commuters wouldn’t have been able to use their phones to dial 9/11.
You have to ask yourself, do you have a fundamental right to cell service? How did the world work before 911? I think what the police did, and we saw some of that in the video, is they really made their police presence known at that particular station, where the protest was going to happen. And as much as we are so reliant on our cell phones, the bottom line is, when you can simply shout for help, ask others to help you out, I think there’s still police call boxes, anyone can flag down a police officer, at the same time nothing bad did happen. But if it had happened, we may not see so much public support for that particular tactic.
Who needs 9/11 services on BART? Just load the platform with cops carrying batons and other weapons. People can go up to an officer in a riot helmet and ask for help from the stormtroopers if they needed. If they are bleeding and need help, the police will help get emergency assistance. And if “overcrowding” as a result of the presence results, what does it matter. One wonders why this isn’t standard operating procedure for BART already.
Not convinced Jordan is repeating BART public relations talking points? She says almost the same thing BART deputy chief communications officer James Allison said:
…The framers of the Constitution could not possibly have foreseen the world that we now live in with our smartphones and Wi-Fi and hot spots. The bottom line is: it was a lot different 200 years ago when your protest was standing on a soapbox on the street corner. Now, you can incite people with misinformation with calls to violence and in many ways things can get out of hand.
It really is just a cost/benefit analysis of where your freedom of speech begins to threaten the public safety. And, again, they did use intelligence. This was a — they did verify the protest, and they were simply trying to stop a repeat of what happened last month.
Fascinatingly, the CNN anchor asks Jordan to address UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that the United Kingdom shut down social media services during demonstrations. She doesn’t side with Cameron:
I absolutely agree that it’s a slippery slope. What we saw with the BART situation was temporary. It was perhaps a few minutes to a few hours. I’m not sure. But doing it as total public policy where it is unbridled censorship where you’re shutting down things and only the law mangers at the helm are deciding for how long and what purpose, that is dangerous.
And so, civil rights advocates argue that we could end up living in a police state if this policy starts encroaching on personal freedoms. And yet everybody wants to be safe. I think it’s going to end up in the courts and they will be final determinants of what the state can and cannot do.
Criminologist Jordan thinks Cameron’s calls for a shut down are a “slippery slope” but BART’s is not, which is ridiculous. If BART can temporarily shut down cell phone services, what’s to stop them from permanently entrenching the power to shut down services like Cameron is interested in doing?
Jordan says nothing on why protesters intended to protest. She fixates on the possibility of a “safety issue,” which BART intended to prevent but doesn’t bother to identify the motives of the people, who would have created this “safety issue.” Again, it’s as if BART is the victim of spontaneous protest and the issue of BART police brutality is not related at all.
Making Fraudulence and Deception Sound Truthful
The government-owned BART agency and individuals like Dr. Casey Jordan have the capacity to use communications to make sense of an event. They can manipulate communication so the cause of order is ultimately advocated for and preserved. That cause of order can be made to seem more crucial and important than freedom and liberty. People like Jordan can go on TV and repeat versions of talking points, which ensure the public thinks about something within certain boundaries acceptable to an agency like BART.
Despite what criminologist Dr. Casey Jordan might contend, the clampdown on people who seek to exercise their First Amendment rights does not appear to be temporary. BART said yesterday it was instituting the following rule:
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.
This cannot be a constitutional rule, especially since BART is a government agency. And, as the ACLU wrote, if this is all permissible, “Where do we draw the line? These protestors were using public transportation to get to the demonstration — should the government be able to shut that down too?”
Citizens have the right to freely express themselves. Attempt to silence protesters in any instance should be considered a threat to democracy. That an action could turn “violent” is a possibility that may or may not reasonably exist, but in the case of civil disobedience or civil resistance, where protesters do try to shut down service, that is why law enforcement is there—to regulate. So, in those instances, BART cops can arrest people and defuse a situation.
The Aftermath of the Shutdown
Anonymous has organized in response to BART’s move. The operation—#OpBART—calls for a protest at Civic Center station in solidarity with people who believe it is important to stand up for their rights. They intend to show up in “blood” stained shirts “for remembrance to the blood that is on the hands of the BART police.” And, they ask those not in San Francisco to use black fax, email bombs and phone calls to the BART Board of Directors.
Anonymous is prepared to record the protest to combat any further attempts by media (such as BARTtv) to spin the actions of protesters and make it seem like protesters have violent intentions.
Those angry by the actions of BART are being encouraged to file a complaint with the FCC.
Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher who works on the Tor Project, and Christopher Soghoian, a privacy and security researcher, filed a Freedom of Information Act request (which can be viewed here). Pursuant to the state records act, the request calls for access to:
1. All emails, memos and other records of communications within BART, between BART and anywireless communication carrier, and between BART and any local, state or federal lawenforcement or intelligence agency regarding the “temporary wireless service interruption inselect BART stations” on August 11, 2011.This includes any legal opinions, whether formal or informal, regarding the legality of the interruption.
2. All contracts between BART and any wireless carrier or other company regarding the provisionof wireless telephone service within BART stations.
3. Network maps and other diagrams or schematics detailing the number and placement oftowers, “backhaul” cables, and other carrier equipment located on BART property (includingproperty leased by BART).
4. Surveys, studies and other documents detailing wireless signal coverage in all BART stations orareas outside the station served by towers located on or near BART property (including propertyleased by BART).
5. Documents and other records indicating the class of service outage that occurred on August 11,2011. Specifically, documents that reveal what service classes (including 911 calls) remained available after the temporary interruption