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.