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BART Pulls Plug on Cell Phone Antennas - You Can Always Count on BART to Step In It
The San Francisco Bay Area, historic birthplace of the Free Speech movement and a pioneer in the digital age, is now apparently the first place in the United States to have had its electronic communications deliberately disabled in order to pre-empt a political protest. As an act of prior restraint against potential protester free expression, the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency cut power to the underground mobile phone antennas within the BART system for several hours on August 11th, thereby denying tens of thousands of evening commuters access to broadband internet networks, telephone service, and even 911 calls. Civil liberties organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as the hacktivist group known as Anonymous, are now vociferously objecting. Without even realizing how premature it was to smirk and brag to the corporate media about having disabled the antennas after service was cut, BART appears to have stepped in another big pile of shit as it so often tends to do. Besides the public shaming it is now receiving across the internet in an ever-growing number of articles and op-eds, FCC, legal, and hacktivist repercussions for the agency may be yet to come. The protest BART hyperventilated about never even happened.
[muBARTek graphic above by LulzSec draws a parallel between the anti-free speech actions of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek and BART, warning the transit agency of upcoming hacktivist retaliation via Anonymous' new OpBART campaign]
At first, when called out on the phone service shutdown last night, BART police Lt. Andy Alkire bragged that disabling the antennas was "a great tool to utilize for this specific purpose." BART PR spokesperson Linton Johnson was seen smirking about the service cut on television newscasts (when he wasn't trying to shift responsibility for the decision out of his press department). Today however, from the New York Times to CNET to Fox News to Al Jazeera, the internet is flooded with hundreds of stories about the apparent first-ever anti-protest disabling of cell phone antennas in America — and it's not likely BART officials think their decision to disable the phone antennas is so cute and funny any more. BART board members have yet to make a public statement regarding the matter.
Not surprisingly — to anyone who has followed BART's record of police violence, cover-ups, and evolving stories over time — the agency has lied repeated about having cut power to the communications antennas to which they have access. A BART official first denied that the agency had even disabled mobile phone service. Later, regarding whom at the agency ordered the service shutdown, Lt. Andy Alkire told a TV news station that the decision came from the media relations department. Linton Johnson attempted to deny knowledge of where the decision came from, but then admitted that his department "suggested" it when confronted with Alkire's statement. This morning, BART followed up by releasing a written statement claiming that it had asked mobile phone carriers to cut service for them. BART's deputy chief communications officer James Allison then fessed up that "BART staff or contractors shut down power to the nodes," adding that BART notified cell carriers after the action was taken. A spokesperson for Sprint, however, said that Sprint "learned about the service disruption from the news."
BART continues to insist, as reported in AP wire stories, that only four stations in downtown San Francisco had their service disabled (Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center), but service was also notably down at 16th Street Mission station in San Francisco and downtown Oakland underground stations. It has not yet been confirmed if antennas were disabled in other underground stations throughout the entire BART district.
BART's spin machine has attempted to flip onto protesters complaints expressed about decisions BART made during the July 11th Justice for Charles Hill action in downtown San Francisco stations — namely that BART ran trains through crowded stations at dangerously high speeds during the demonstration — in order to justify their own disabling of the antennas, by first claiming in an advisory about a potential August 11th protest that their primary motivation was safety and, in another release the following day, that demonstrators would create "unsafe conditions." In an attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and danger around BART protests, Linton Johnson encouraged the public to "Report unsafe behavior, do not confront protesters. Stay out of harm's way." Of course, protesters at BART actions have never hurt anyone, emphasizing through repeated exhortations that demonstrators not even "deny passengers egress from trains or station," yet BART police continue to beat and kill passengers.
And so it appears BART's primary rationalization for their action rests on their disingenuous claim to have been acting on behalf of passenger safety, rather than to block the content of a protest which would be more problematic legally. Trying to personalize the sense of sheer terror demonstrators create, BART police deputy chief Benson Fairow played his role by telling the media, "It was a recipe for disaster.... The fact that they started to conspire to commit illegal actions on the station platform was our concern. I asked myself: If my wife, mother or daughter was on that platform, would I want them to be in that situation?" In another news outlet, Fairow made use of his family in a more gruesome manner: "would I want my wife or daughter to get kicked (onto BART tracks) in a protest that we could have avoided?" It is unclear how protesters with working mobile phones would be more likely to cause his wife to be shoved onto train tracks than protesters without phones. Yet still, on the basis of this anecdotal fear factor BART would have us believe the decision to cut mobile phone service throughout the system was made, a supposedly sensible trade-off between very real speech and very imaginary harm to passengers.
Senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Kevin Bankston confronts another excuse that BART seems to feel removes itself from culpability for the deliberate service disruption. "BART makes the point that a few years ago you couldn't even use your cell phone in the BART stations, but that's beside the point. At this point, they have made a policy of allowing it on the platform. To withdraw that ability to express yourself ... under a desire to prevent particular political speech between protesters was a shocking disregard of the free speech rights of every BART passenger and indeed, was a prior restraint on any expressive activity they would otherwise have engaged in."
Additionally, Bankston points out other First Amendment implications of BART's decision to disrupt phone service. Given that BART claimed that the cell phone shutdown was initiated because "organizers... stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police," Bankston says the public should be concerned because "it was targeted specifically at blocking one type of speech.... In lawyer-speak, it's not content neutral."
The EFF as an organization issued a statement today, writing plainly that "cutting off cell phone service in response to a planned protest is a shameful attack on free speech. BART officials are showing 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. Free speech advocates have called out British Prime Minister David Cameron for considering new, broad censorship powers over social networks and mobile communication in the UK, and we are appalled to see measures that go beyond anything Cameron has proposed being used here in the United States. Cell phone service has not always been available in BART stations. The advent of reliable service inside of stations is relatively recent. But once BART made the service available, cutting it off in order to prevent the organization of a protest constitutes prior restrain on the free speech rights of every person in the station, whether they’re a protestor or a commuter. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Censorship is not okay in Tahrir Square or Trafalgar Square, and it’s still not okay in Powell Street Station."
The ACLU of Northern California likewise declared that "we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly. Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States? ... Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it's halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco. You have the right to speak out. Both the California Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect your right to free expression."
Despite BART's bragging and self-congratulation immediately after the fact, their tuned changed as BART learned that civil libertarians were objecting to their decision to pull the plug on underground mobile phone antennas. BART released the following statement this morning:
08.12.2011 Statement on temporary wireless service interruption in select BART stations on Aug. 11 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. 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. Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations. In addition, numerous BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity. BART’s primary purpose is to provide, safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services. BART 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), and has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity. Paid areas of BART stations are reserved for ticketed passengers who are boarding, exiting or waiting for BART cars and trains, or for authorized BART personnel. 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. Updated: August 12, 2011 1:08 pm
Note that BART's original version of this statement, before the update, claimed that "BART asked wireless providers to temporarily interrupt service at select BART stations," not that "BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations" as it reads now. Official statements posted on their own website are no more likely to be true than off-the-cuff remarks made to the media by defensive agency representatives. As for when exactly "certain areas" were made available for protesters is an open question. And never mind that BART is a public agency authorized by the State of California or that courts have ruled that even private property such as shopping malls can be considered public for the purposes of allowing political free speech and may not prohibit certain types of speech based upon its content.
BART hit the panic button on this one. They literally pulled a Mubarak. So desperate to avoid further publicity regarding its violent and unaccountable police force, and determined not to be pressured by demonstrators into taking any disciplinary action against any of its own, BART took the unprecedented and historic step of being the first in the nation to disable mobile phone service for tens of thousands of people based on "rumors" of an impending protest. Although, of course, even on that point, BART can't seem to get its story straight. Lt. Andy Alkire said, "We had pretty good intelligence that (a protest) was going to happen." Deputy Chief Benson Fairow, who eventually took credit for owning the decision to cut phone service, stretched it even further by claiming that "I am 99% certain (the protest) was going to happen. We saw people who were clearly ready to take action, with backpacks and tools." They saw people with backpacks on trains? Scary. What tools? This reporter toured through the system at the time, and the only thing witnessed even close to anyone possessing "tools" was some unsuspecting male passenger being hauled off of a train at Civic Center station by a gang of riot police because some green-vested BART employee who had been called to duty for protest surveillance thought the audio turntable parts in an open bag the man was carrying seemed suspicious. If anyone was present expecting a protest, it was simply due to the media hype BART had stirred up.
BART lies and lies, and only admits to the truth when it is forced to by undeniable evidence. Even then, it fails to hold the bad actors in its midst accountable. The more you know about the agency, the more this pattern reveals itself. Whether and when the agency or any individuals within it will be taken to task for the misdeeds and lies of its officials and police officers remains to be seen, but you can continue to expect that BART will do everything in its power to avoid doing the right thing the first time.
[UPDATE: Less than a week after the cell phone shutdown, BART spokesman Linton Johnson was loose-lipped enough to admit to the media that someone within BART police — presumably the chief or one of the assistant chiefs — had asked for ideas to deal with the ongoing protests, "good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional," as Johnson was bragging about the shutdown being his brainchild.]
To let BART know how you feel about the lack of accountability within their police department or the agency's attempted silencing of dissent, see http://bart.gov/siteinfo/contact.aspx. You can also confront the BART board of directors in person at their bi-weekly board meetings — the next one is scheduled for Thursday, August 25th.
[If you find yourself unable to get enough of BART's PR machine, you can always visit BART-TV for this gem about the events of August 11th: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsKEvd6gH0A. Apparently, BART has come to believe that they can no longer trust the corporate media to 100% get their message out — 98% is just not enough. And since BART steps in it as often as they do, perhaps the agency does need its own propaganda channel to encourage hate for protesters.]
Bay Citizen has gotten a hold of BART Directors Lynette Sweet and Tom Radulovich. Both weighed in on the controversy. Radulovich played into the safety rationalization of BART PD and PR, that cutting mobile service somehow prevents people from being pushed onto the train tracks. Sweet seems adamantly opposed, and contradicts statements by BART police deputy chief Fairow that "It was certainly run through through channels. A lot of thought went into this."
A BART director said Saturday that the controversial decision to shut down cell phone service to thwart a planned protest did not go through the proper channels at BART.
Lynette Sweet said that BART's Chief of Police, Kenton Rainey, briefed the Board of Directors Thursday before the demonstration was scheduled to begin. But the tactic -- which has drawn unfavorable comparisons to the repressive Mubarak regime in Egypt -- was presented as a “fait accompli,” she said.
“I was offended that something this large -- and I don't think staff understood how large this was -- wasn't brought to us for discussion,” said Sweet. “We’re the policymakers.”
Sweet said the BART board would investigate the incident –- and hold discussions about the transit agencies policy on shutting down cell service.
“This is a transit agency, and our job is not to censor people,” said Sweet.
Another BART director, Tom Radulovich, told The Bay Citizen Friday that he had mixed feelings about the decision to turn off the cell service.
“My gut tells me there’s something wrong with it,” Radulovich said. “But I also understand the fear about protests around trains. It puts themselves and other people in danger -- it’s very easy for someone to get pushed onto the tracks.”
The Washington Post has their second or third piece on the incident and also spoke with Director Sweet:
Two days later, the move had civil rights and legal experts questioning the agency’s move, and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the decision.
“I’m just shocked that they didn’t think about the implications of this. We really don’t have the right to be this type of censor,” said Lynette Sweet, who serves on BART’s board of directors. “In my opinion, we’ve let the actions of a few people affect everybody. And that’s not fair.”
In the San Francisco instance, Sweet said BART board members were told by the agency of its decision during the closed portion of its meeting Thursday afternoon, less than three hours before the protest was scheduled to start.
“It was almost like an afterthought,” Sweet told The Associated Press. “This is a land of free speech and for us to think we can do that shows we’ve grown well beyond the business of what we’re supposed to be doing and that’s providing transportation. Not censorship.”