Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

How Not to Handle a Protest

Posted by Roobs on August 16, 2011

Yesterday, The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit authority (aka: BART) did the world a public service.  By shutting down stations, previously shutting down cell and data services and all in all pissing people off, it showed other government agencies how NOT to handle a civic protest.  In other words, had BART demonstrated some very basic common sense in crisis management, or at the very least spent the last decade watching protests around the world, it would have known preventing a planned protest from happening isn’t the best way to calm people down.

First, let me just say I like BART.  As a transit service, it has always gotten me where I wanted to go.  I spent six years living in Berkeley, four of which I attended UC Berkeley.  I took BART often to go into Downtown Oakland and San Francisco.  I took BART to sports games at the Oakland Coliseum and took it to and from the Oakland and San Francisco airports.  It’s always been a good travel companion.  But as a masters student in Urban Planning with a concentration in transportation planning and policy, it really upsets me when I see transit agencies behave so ridiculously.  With the larger issues of budget deficits for agencies struggling to maintain operations, transit agencies over reacting as BART has really pisses me off. It distracts from the issues that are very important to the much wider subject of maintaining an efficient transit system and only adds to the questioning of their credibility as an agency.

What happened you ask?  Here’s the back story:

On July 3, 2011, BART Police (the transit agencies police department) fatally shot a drunk man wielding a knife.  BART Police have come under heavy scrutiny as it has displayed a penchant for shooting people. Now, unlike the Oscar Grant shooting of 2009, this man appears to have been brandishing a weapon.  Of course, how dangerous one can be while drunk is up for debate.  Nevertheless, the fatal shooting of this man spurred protest from the community, in part due to the fact that it was just another shooting by BART Police.

On July 11th, protesters planned a rally at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco.  The protest
proved to be disruptive, as most protests are, with some protesters at one point trying to block a east-bound train, a very stupid and dangerous move on the part of protesters, one that no one should support.  BART was naturally concerned and chose to close the station.  Protesters scattered from Civic Center causing some other disruptions to other stations but nothing big at the time.  Had this stopped here, I would not be upset.  BART handled itself within the realms of what I would expect if the image to the right was taking place.  But it didn’t stop there.

Another protest was planned for August 11th.  It was not a secret and BART knew it was coming.  But in a move that should go down as the instigator of what was to come, BART decided it would be a good idea to shut down cell phone and mobile data service in its Market Street facilities in an effort to disorganize and curb protester’s activities.  It worked.  The planned protest was canceled.  The next day, however, the proverbial shit hit the fan.

News of BART cutting cell service went national and renewed a conversation on how far a government agency can go to deal with civil disturbances, such as cutting off social media and means.  But this isn’t good publicity for BART as the last time people remember social media being cut off was during the uprizing in Egypt when then-President Mubarak cut internet service.  BART countered by playing in a legal grey area regarding First Amendment rights.

BART claims that they did not “jam” cell phone service.  Instead, they basically turned off cell phone receivers inside its facilities which they have a contract over.  BART provides cell phone service in its underground stations in San Francisco through contracts with mobile phone companies.  And because you pay to enter the facility (buy a transit ticket), the cell service is not a public good but a private service offered to the public for a price.  Legal experts will likely deal with this in the future as I am sure lawsuits are already being written.

Nevertheless, another protest was planned yesterday (August 15th), again at the Civic Center station in San Francisco.  This time, protesters were rallying against BART’s decision to cut phone service which they view as an affront to their constitutional rights.  Again, BART decided to close the station to prevent protesters from getting in.

Why I am dumbfounded at BART is that choice to close the station.  Why?  After closing the station, protesters didn’t simply stop and go home.  Like the first time BART closed the station, protesters moved their rally.  Only this time, they stayed together in a large rally and marched down Market Street towards the Bay waters edge.  Along the way, BART closed stations the protesters reached: Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, Embarcedero stations.  That’s four heavily used transit stations during the evening rush hour.

BART should have let protesters have their rally at Civic Center station, which yes, would have caused some service disruption.  No, BART is right to deny protesters access to station platforms but they should have let them protest outside the station or even inside before the turnstiles.  They should advertise to protest leaders that they will let them protest in a specific area (because then its the protesters fault if they leave).  There are things that many other agencies do to control protests.  But instead,  BART chose a course of action that caused the closure of four major transit stations in the middle of the evening rush hour causing major transit delays across its service area.  At least they kept cell and data service on this time.

BART demonstrated its tendency to over-react and the problems of yesterday I blame entirely on BART.  Whether it be shoot first and ask questions later or close down stations to stop protests, BART didn’t seem to learn much from the numerous protests around the world.  It’s usually better to let a protest (especially if its planned and you can work with the protest leaders) rally where they want to and then fizzle out on their own.  It’s catharsis.  And yes, it might be inconvenient from a transit service and rider perspective but its far better to let protesters vent their frustration and anger in a controlled setting, losing one station to the temporary disruption, versus forcing their activities out of the space you control and disrupting service all together.

Please add BART’s recent actions into the universal playbook entitled: “How NOT to handle a protest”.

Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. He has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development.

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2 Responses to “How Not to Handle a Protest”

  1. Great review! You actually overviewed some curious things in your post. I came across it by using Google and I’ve got to admit that I already subscribed to the RSS, will be following you on my iphone 🙂

  2. Come on, tell me how you really feel.

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