Protests prompt closure of several BART stations

Protesters demonstrate in San Francisco in response to a recent BART decision.
Anna Vignet/Senior Staff
Protesters demonstrate in San Francisco in response to a recent BART decision.

BART’s controversial decision to cut underground cellphone service during an attempted protest last week has since resulted in a breach of the transit agency’s computer system, another protest and a federal investigation.

Organized by the group No Justice No BART, the first protest was scheduled for Aug. 11 to denounce fatal shootings at BART stations but was disrupted when the transit agency decided to disable cellphone reception in order to prevent protest organizers from communicating and causing a disruption in service, according to BART officials.

In response to that decision, protests broke out at several BART stations in San Francisco Monday evening, prompting officials from the transit agency to close off four stations and disrupting passengers headed to or from other Bay Area cities, including Berkeley.

Once protesters began to cause a disturbance by crowding the platforms and preventing others from getting on the trains, BART police — aided by the San Francisco Police Department and Sheriff’s Department — closed the Civic Center station at around 5 p.m., according to Bob Franklin, a member of the BART Board of Directors.

When that station was cleared, protesters moved to other train stops, resulting in the closure of the Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero stations as well. All the stops resumed their normal schedules by approximately 7:30 p.m.

Though people at those San Francisco stations were unable to leave for the most part, BART trains continued to let passengers off at every stop.

“If you were leaving from Powell and going to Berkeley, you were impacted,” Franklin said. “At downtown San Francisco, at various times (stations) were shut down to new passengers, but passengers who were leaving could get off.”

In an earlier response to the cellphone service cut, Anonymous hacked into the myBART website — an email service that offers event discounts — on Sunday and compromised contact information, including names, email addresses and passwords, for approximately 2,400 members, according to a BART statement.

The Federal Communications Commission also responded to BART’s cellphone service disruption and plans to investigate the incident.

“Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation,” said FCC spokesperson Neil Grace in a statement. “We are continuing to collect information about BART’s actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised.”

Franklin said the discussion with the FCC is ongoing but that BART has been providing necessary information and explanations for the cut in service.

According to Franklin, BART’s decisions to disable cellphone usage last week and close the stations during the Monday protest were made to prevent a disruptive protest similar to the one on July 11 — held in response to the fatal shooting of Charles Hill — from occurring.

Demonstrations have occurred intermittently in and out of BART stations for the past two years decrying the deaths of Oscar Grant III on Jan. 1, 2009, and Hill on July 3, both of whom were shot by BART police.

According to Franklin, during the July 11 demonstration, protesters blocked passengers from entering or exiting BART trains, and one person even climbed on top of a BART car — an act that might have led to electrocution. The backed-up BART trains resulted in extremely crowded stations and cars and delays of up to 30 minutes, Franklin said.

On Aug. 11, Franklin said, BART officials realized protest organizers were using their cellphones to communicate police locations to each other and assembling based on such reports, and they cut off cellphone access to prevent the protest from escalating.

According to BART spokesperson Jim Allison, the decision to stop cellphone service was made by BART police, signed by the general manager and carried out by interrupting the cellphone signal, which would normally go down to the platform levels. Phone carriers were not involved, though they were informed, Allison said.

Despite disabling cellular phones at and in between the four San Francisco stations, Allison and Franklin both said courtesy phones that would connect callers with a station agent were located in the stations.

Franklin added that it is illegal for people to protest inside the BART fare gates and on the platforms for safety reasons.

“We have free speech areas where we encourage people to go,” he said. “But when you’re impeding the access of people in wheelchairs, people can’t walk around, you’re not letting people on and off trains — we had to intervene.”

Jean Hamilton, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3993, agreed that maintaining service was a top priority but said she was unsure whether or not the decision was fully thought through.

“I’m not sure whether it was reasonable or not under the Constitution,” Hamilton said, “But we know long-standing that any time you give a service to riders, there’s hell to pay if you end that service.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that an Aug. 11 protest was organized by the group Anonymous. In fact, the protest was organized by No Justice No BART.

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  • Guest

    “I’m not sure whether it was reasonable or not under the Constitution”
    I’m sure that the Constitution discusses the actions of the federal government, not local transit agencies: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
    or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
    speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
    assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    Congress has definitely not made any such law.

  • Anant Sahai

    I was actually at the Civic Center  BART station on the platform during the protest. This article (along with most press reports it seems) is misleading. The protest was completely nonviolent and in no way did “protesters … cause a disturbance by crowding the platforms and preventing others from getting on the trains.” 

    In terms of crowds, there were maybe 20-50 protestors *total* on the platform. (felt closer to 20 than 50, but I didn’t actually count people.) There were generally more BART police and reporters/cameramen present than protestors. The reporters could be overheard saying that too. Even the total number of protestors + police + reporters + bystanders was less crowding than I have seen in the Powell Street station during BART rush hours. And nothing compared to say New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, or Shanghai during their rush hours.The protestors were also extremely polite and never blocked the path of anyone in a wheelchair or anything else. My overall impression of them was that they were a bunch of sweet and sincere kids. (To give you the tone, a group of three young women on the platform were making red construction paper hearts and writing uplifting protest messages on them. I took one saying that I loved “free speech”.) In terms of preventing others from getting on the trains, that is also bogus. I was there. The one time they did anything even close to that, one or two guys waited for folks to exit a train and then stood with signs in *one* door of *one* car on BART. Nobody was waiting to get on through that door, and yes, that one door was blocked — but that was due to the crush of reporters and cameramen circling the door to get a good shot. The other door of that one car remained completely clear. Anyone who had wanted to get on that train could easily have done so. Once the BART police moved in front of that door, the protestors were moved away from the train.The only people stopping people from getting into stations or catching their trains were BART officials. They made trains stop stopping at Civic Center. They closed the stations (even those stations that had no protestors there) and then they blamed the protests. As the Civic Center protest was winding down (when the police declared it an unlawful assembly), individual protestors were seen actually politely asking BART officials when the next trains to the East Bay were coming so that they could just take the train home. That should give you some idea of the polite attitude of the protestors. The officials *told* them that they had closed the station and that they should walk towards Powell station. Once protestors started doing exactly that, they shut down Powell station too. As I walked on Market, I saw the police *pre-emptively* stop traffic on Market street well in advance of any protestors getting there. Any disruption to commuters and drivers was all due to the complete over-reaction of BART to a small peaceful protest.

    • At the protest in July, there were people climbing on top of the trains while they were stopped at the downtown stations, as you can see in this video:

      The police presence and station closings during the most recent protest were clearly in response to the previous protest (and the real expectation that similar activities would happen again).  The police have a legitimate reason to try to stop protestors from doing such stupid and dangerous things.  It’s better to have too many police on the scene than to have one anarchist moron killing themselves on top of a BART train.

  • Anonymous

    Another example of clownish behavior by idiots.

  • I can’t remember which amendment says that “The government shall build and maintain hardware to extend cellular phone coverage into all underground metro stations” ??

    • Anonymous

      Okay ,but the fact that they did this knowing there was going to be a protest is just wrong. Everybody knows the power of a protest,Protest bring awareness to the public. About messed up crap things in are society, what is Bart so fearful of ? You sound like a conservertive we should switch places. Come down to Florida and I will go to California.

      • Why is it wrong?  The protestors quite clearly intended to disrupt BART service and strand thousands of commuters in the city for an extended period of time.  I see no reason for BART management to not make an attempt to prevent them from achieving their goals.

        Your freedom of speech does not equal a right to forcibly readjust other people’s lives.  The fact that the protestors need to resort to these shady tactics is clear evidence that they know that no one cares about their cause.

      • Guest

        BART permits protest, but not in crowded underground stations.  Previous events have resulted in confusion and risk.  It is not legal to use public communications to plan or commit crimes.  This is prohibited by the mails, the broadcast media, and the telephone network.  BART doesn’t have to abet illegal activities.

  • Guest

    “climbed on top of a BART car — an act that might have led to electrocution.”
    The electrical connection is at the bottom of the car.

  • Guest

    BART should never have extended cell-phone service to underground stations in the first place.  Terminate it permanently.  No one has a free-speech right to a service provided voluntarily.