BART spokesman Linton Johnson at a press conference. Screen shot is from BART’s propaganda video on the protests (photo: BARTtv)

To prevent a planned protest from going “viral,” Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco shut down cell phone service at four stations on August 11. The hacktivist group Anonymous responded with plans that included a peaceful protest on August 15. Anonymous drew attention to a move that many believe has no precedent because no government agency has cut off communications out of fear that a protest might happen before.

BART’s public relations department has been in overdrive since the service was temporarily shut down. Some of BART’s arguments appear to be working. BART has whipped up support among commuters, who do not want to be inconvenienced by protest on their way to or from work. Media appear to have bought into BART’s propaganda. In accounts of Monday night’s protest, media suggested law and order was disrupted and chaos broke out when protesters began to take over platforms and force BART police and San Francisco Bay Police to shut down BART stations. One report’s headline even cutely read: “Anonymous’ Stages Real Life Denial-of-Service Attack on BART.

Why did Anonymous and others want to block and delay transportation? That is the question some irritated citizens have asked. “If you believe in free speech, walk twenty-five feet over to the escalator and go up to the street and you can talk there all you want,” is a good representation of how irate some people became at the thought that people would protest in BART stations.

The reality is commuters should not be duped into becoming angry with anyone seeking to protest at BART stations. Commuters upset over the closing of stations by protests should complain to BART.

BART pre-emptively chose to shut down stations Monday night even though protesters had done nothing to disrupt service. As hip-hop journalist and activist Davey D said on Democracy Now! on August 16:

…Being at the protest yesterday and seeing that BART shut down the Civic Center, when there really wasn’t anything going on, said to me that this is a dog and pony show and that they’re trying to win the battle of public opinion by getting the mainstream media to follow their talking points, make it seem like it was a real big crisis when it really wasn’t. If I show you the footage from what took place at the Civic Center, you would question: why did you close the Civic Center when there was nothing going on? That, to me, said a whole lot about their motivation. And their motivation wasn’t public safety. It’s to win public opinion and maybe set a precedent for other agencies later down the road.

BART has manufactured a conversation and steered the public into a debate on whether having to keep the public safe gives them the justification to close off space to protest and shut off mobile services to ensure protests do not happen. Like Davey D suggested on Democracy Now!, if BART thinks it is justified to shut off service to stations when protests are to occur, does it find it would be justified to prevent the forming of flash mobs that go on to trains and do dances on BART platforms? Does BART think it should shut off service if fights break out in stations after Oakland Raiders football games?

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology who blog at Technosociology, appeared on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on to discuss the shutdown (along with the recent riots in the United Kingdom). She highlighted how the shut down cut off 911 services and wondered what would have happened if there had been any emergencies. She pointed out that protesters really shouldn’t need communications to organize. On the other hand, collectively punishing commuters, which is what BART did by shutting service down, likely led to various people being unable to make calls to family, friends or colleagues on their way home from work.

The media has couched discussion of BART in a debate that pushes citizen to think they have to choose between freedom of speech or safety, freedom of expression or smoothly running BART services. Citizens should not have to choose between the two because one does not have to choose freedom or safety. It is possible to have both.

Protests in public are one of the few ways people have to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, to force those in power to take notice of what is creating discontent among citizens. Commuters can groan and moan about getting home late because of some protest, but what about the homeless men or the youth shot by BART police? Shouldn’t someone speak for them?

In the aftermath of the August 15 protest, BARTtv produced another propaganda video that openly shows their contempt for freedom of speech and the freedom to peaceably assemble. This video focuses on the August 15 protest. The video emphasizes how protesters “disrupted” service at Civic Center station. The video describes how protesters marched to other stations “forcing” the closure of at least two BART stations.

Previously, BARTtv exploited individuals who all had kids and family to get home to in order to belittle the rights of people to organize. In this video, BARTtv cast a crotchety older men who complains about the “difference between freedom of speech and the freedom to have a riot,” a soccer mom with two kids who claims officers told her a station would be open that was then closed ten minutes later and a young African American woman with a child, who thinks stopping the traffic is wrong.

This time the narrating voice, who claims he is a reporter, does manage to say what people are there protesting. But, he emphasizes that not all people in the station were there to protest the cell phone service shut down or the police shooting death of a homeless man named Charles Hill, which means what? Unless a protest has 100% participation from all present it is illegitimate?

It is incredibly disturbing how people are so willing to consent to the use of authoritarian tactics to control speech. Those who want to demonstrate could go up to the street level, but who will pay attention to protesters there? On the platform, where people are loading and unloading, is where protesters will have the greatest chance of getting their message across to people, who should know about the atrocities BART officers have committed.

What is at stake with the unprecedented move of shutting down cell phone services does not just involve a struggle over who controls communication. It also involves a battle over the right to dissent. BART’s claims that violence and disorder would break out if there were protests is part of the demonization of protest in America that has become part of law enforcement operations throughout the country. It is part of scaring away protesters.

As described in detail by Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler in their book Hell No! Your Right to Dissent in 21st Century America, intelligence gathering, surveillance of protestors’ preparations, manipulating media to paint participants as dangerous, delaying permits, displaying riot gear and massive force, penning in crowds, using barriers or netting to cut off marches, tear gassing, shooting rubber bullets, blasting sound machines and using quick arrests or lengthy detentions are all methods law enforcement has used and is using to suppress dissent.

Shutting down communications is just another tool for police to crack down on citizens’ right to demonstrate. It is a part of the increasingly popular trend of preemptive policing. When BART shut down services under the guise of safety, it was using information, demonstration plans and details on organizers and possible participants to make a decision that they wanted to do everything possible to make sure a protest was not allowed to happen. They were using “intelligence” to predict how many would show up and, as is typical, they were way off on their predictions because no protest happened on August 11.

Viewed in the context of this trend, BART’s action is not terribly abnormal. As Hell No! notes, in April 2000, in Washington, DC, police chief Charles Ramsey claimed police had found a workshop for manufacturing Molotov cocktails and homemade pepper spray when all they had found was paint thinner for art and peppers for cooking. In August 2000 in Philadelphia, police raided a warehouse where organizers were preparing for a protest at the Republican National Convention. Police believed the protesters were preparing C4 explosives and water balloons of hydrochloric acid. Nothing was found but organizers were arrested and jailed until the convention was over. Also, in 2000 in Philadelphia, the mayor called demonstrators, who planned to protest the convention, “idiots” and warned that coming to Philadelphia “to disrupt” and “make a spectacle” would “get a very ugly response” from police.

BART isn’t an exception. It’s part of the rule. However, because BART took an action that collectively punished all who would be in those four stations during those few hours, it is different from the tactics mentioned. Most preemptive policing is exclusive to protesters who are likely to exercise their First Amendment rights. In this case, BART chose to silence all people, which is why there has been such a backlash.