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.
Read the rest of the article at FDL's The Dissenter.