Many people have been writing us to ask what we thought of the BART shutdown of cell service in response to rumors of protests on the evening of Thursday, August 11th. Be sure to check out (and spread) this facebook invite Monday's action (called by the hacker collective Anonymous) in response to BART's cell phone blackout. Further clarification from Anonymous has been released.
On Thursday, like many of you, we watched the bars on our phones disappear as we entered BART stations around the Bay Area. But to be honest, we didn't give it a second thought. We have spent the last 3 years trying to bring accountability and respect for civil rights to an organization that knows nothing about either of those things, and we've grown accustomed to the ridiculous and intrusive security measures BART enacts to try to stifle our voices. It is comforting to have our work validated, and to see people (around the world!) raise an outcry about this.
We would like to highlight some aspects of this free speech scandal that we think deserve particular attention.
1) BART has an institutionalized problem with accountability. When the media asked BART about whether service was blacked out, BART's spokesperson Linton Johnson flat out denied it, but as it turns out, it was Linton's idea (see 1:20 in this video)! But even as BART was forced to admit the truth, they tried to downplay the extent of the shutdown, claiming jamming was limited to certain stations, and trying to shift blame to the cell phone providers for the suspension of service. After that blatant diversion was exposed, BART revised its public statement to admit that they did unilaterally cut power to communications equipment in their system. Now, of course, they are trying to shift the debate and argue that they had the right to shut down your phone service, because people practicing their first amendment rights are tantamount to a terrorist threat. Ask yourself why, if they were protecting passengers as they claim, BART officials did not want to take credit for shutting down cellphones when they were originally asked about it. And if BART personnel are this incapable of showing integrity or taking responsibility for their actions, should we really trust them with police powers?
2) BART just doesn't get civil rights and civil liberties. It will take a lawsuit/subpoena to find out how the decision was made to cut off our phones. But one thing is already clear: no one at BART was prepared to be asked questions about it on Thursday. Which means it never once occurred to anyone at BART that it would even be an issue if they chose to suddenly turn off our cell phone service. The problem is not just that BART is willing to break the law to hamper your freedom of speech. It's that they are capable of making that kind of decision while not appreciating - in any way - that what they are about to do is actually a big deal.
3) BART's overreaction is part of a pattern of dangerous behavior. Just as BART administrators have no appreciation for how heavy handed or illegal their counter-protest tactics were, or what the consequences might be, BART Police Officers routinely overestimate threats posed to them by passengers, and respond with disproportionate and illegal force. These overreactions result in injury and death. What crime did Oscar Grant commit to deserve his execution? According to court testimony, he was literally beaten and executed for exercising his freedom of speech. What crime did Jerrold Hall commit? He was shot in the back of the head with a shotgun for walking away from an officer who falsely accused him of stealing a walkman. What crime did Charles Hill commit? Gunned down for being drunk in public. BART police brutality not resulting in death occurs on a frequent basis as well. Consider the case of a boy who was tasered while handcuffed in the back of a BART police cruiser, for saying "fuck you" to a BART cop. Consider the BART cop who beat a man whose cell phone ringer was set "too loud". The list goes on, and on, and on.
4) BART administrators are unable to take their epidemic of police killings and violence seriously. New York City Police Department’s transit police force, with 2,400 officers - over ten times as many as BART - has not had a fatal officer-involved shooting in at least 10 years, while BART has had one per year for the last three years. With each new incident, BART's response fits the same pattern we saw with the cellphone shutdown. First they lie and deny. If they can't pass the buck, they blame their victims, and claim that the force was reasonable and necessary. Once thoroughly exposed, any behavior that they were too embarrassed to admit is then literally commended by their spokespeople as "in the interest of the customers" or "necessary for security". Then they hunker down, and wait for things to blow over, because BART police officers are never disciplined or fired, no matter how egregious their misconduct. For example, despite BART's own independent investigators recommending that officers Tony Pirone and Marisol Domenici be fired for mistreating Oscar Grant and his friends and even calling Oscar Grant a "bitch ass n----r", both are still on the force, and have even been promoted. And the administrators that protect crooked cops like these don't get fired either. Should we be surprised that BART administrators show impressively little regard for the free speech (or any other rights) of their passengers?
5) Based on past experience, and our knowledge of how BART operates, it's naive to think that much will be accomplished by going through the "appropriate channels". The day to day tasks (really, everything about BART) are carried out by a staff of full-time administrators, an insular, incestuous, barely-competent and highly paid little cabal that operates out of BART headquarters in Oakland. These administrators are theoretically overseen by the BART board of directors, a motley crew of elected public servants who serve mostly as figureheads (it's worth pointing out that the BART police and the administrative staff did not consult the BART directors before deciding to shutdown our cell service). These Directors are part-time (as in a few hours a week) employees, most of whom also hold down full time jobs as well as serving in other positions directing other public agencies. So although the Board of Directors is supposed to be in charge of the BART administration, in reality they don't have the time, inclination, or the ability to really run a transit agency, much less ensure any accountability from the BART police or BART administrators.
6) Because BART is not capable of changing itself, forces external to BART will need to impose change upon it. To this end, we encourage BART employees to to step forward as whistle-blowers and help us expose corrupt and criminal behavior at BART. We encourage civil rights organizations to file lawsuits. We encourage state congresspeople to hold hearings and initiate investigations, and to pass a bill removing this transit agency's authority to run its own Police Department. We encourage the US Department of Justice to investigate BART and specifically the BART police department. We encourage individual BART police officers to leave the department (it's a dead end - career wise), and make their resignation letters public and political. And we applaud Anonymous for stepping in on the side of civil rights and civil liberties.
Most of all we encourage you, BART passengers and Bay Area residents, to join us, to mobilize, to protest, to take action, and not to trust *anything* you hear from BART. Take advantage of your civil liberties (while you still have any) to disrupt "business as usual" at BART, until BART administrators get out of the business of police brutality and murder, gross corruption, suspension of civil liberties, and violations of our civil rights.
* All of this information can be backed up, and we are busy inserting links which will take you to background information. If you have questions of any kind, or would like a direct statement, or would like to get involved in organizing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org