San Francisco officials cut off phone signals to train passengers to thwart protest over police killing

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Commuters entering and exiting a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in San Francisco's financial district. Picture: AP
Commuters entering and exiting a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in San Francisco's financial district. Picture: AP

In the article entitled The London Riots and How They Will be Used to the Elite’s Advantage, I described how the prolonged crises can be used to justify illegal actions and police state tactics – on a global scale. We saw a perfect example of this last Thursday when the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco shut down mobile communications when word got out that a protest was being planned against a police killing. Here’s an article about this extreme response and its relation to the London riots.

AN illegal, Orwellian violation of free-speech rights? Or just a smart tactic to protect train passengers from rowdy would-be demonstrators during a busy evening commute?

Those are some of the questions being asked in San Francisco after officials of the Bay Area Rapid Transit cut off underground mobile phone signals at several stations for a few hours last Thursday.

Commuters at stations from downtown to near the city’s main airport were affected as BART officials sought to tactically thwart a planned protest over the recent fatal shooting of a 45-year-old man by transit police.

The decision has been questioned by civil rights and legal experts and drew backlash from one transit board member who was taken aback by the move.

“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.”

Similar questions of censorship have arisen in recent days as the British Government put the idea of curbing social media services on the table in response to several nights of looting and violence in London and other English cities.

British police claim that young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry messages to coordinate looting sprees in riots.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the Government, spy agencies and the communications industry were looking at whether there should be limits on the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook or services like BlackBerry Messenger to spread disorder.

The suggestions have met with outrage, with some critics comparing Mr Cameron to the despots ousted during the Arab Spring.

In the San Francisco instance, Ms Sweet said BART board members were told by the agency of its decision during the closed portion of its meeting on Thursday afternoon, less than three hours before the protest was scheduled to start.

“It was almost like an afterthought,” Ms 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.”

But there are nuances to consider, including under what conditions, if any, an agency like BART can act to deny the public access to a form of communication — and essentially decide that a perceived threat to public safety trumps free speech.

These situations are largely new ones, of course. A couple of decades ago, during the fax-machine and pay-phone era, the notion of people organising mass gatherings in real time on wireless devices would have been fantasy.

BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow said the issue boiled down to the public’s well-being.

“It wasn’t a decision made lightly. This wasn’t about free speech. It was about safety,” Mr Fairow told KTVU-TV on Friday.

BART spokesman Jim Allison maintained that the mobile phone disruptions were legal as the agency owns the property and infrastructure. He added while they didn’t need the permission of mobile carriers to temporarily cut service, they notified them as a courtesy.

The decision was made after agency officials saw details about the protest on an organiser’s website. Mr Allison said the agency had extra staff and officers aboard trains during that time for anybody who wanted to report an emergency, as well as courtesy phones on station platforms.

“I think the entire argument is that some people think it created an unsafe situation is faulty logic,” Mr Allison said.

“BART had operated for 35 years without mobile phone service and no one ever suggested back then that a lack of it made it difficult to report emergencies and we had the same infrastructure in place.”

But as in London, BART’s tactic drew immediate comparisons to authoritarianism, including acts by the former president of Egypt to squelch protests demanding an end to his rule. Authorities there cut internet and mobile phone services in the country for days earlier this year. He left office shortly thereafter.

“BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said on its website.

Echoing that comparison, vigorous weekend discussion on Twitter was labelled with the hashtag “muBARTek”.

Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specialises in free-speech issues, was equally critical, saying BART clearly violated the rights of demonstrators and other passengers.

“We can arrest and prosecute people for the crimes they commit,” he said.

“You are not allowed to shut down people’s cell phones and prevent them from speaking because you think they might commit a crime in the future.”

Michael Risher, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Northern California staff attorney, echoed the sentiment in a blog: “The government shouldn’t be in the business of cutting off the free flow of information. 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.”

On Saturday at a station where mobile phone service was disrupted, passenger Phil Eager, 44, shared the opinion that BART’s approach seemed exaggerated.

“It struck me as pretty strange and kind of extreme,” said Mr Eager, a San Francisco attorney.

“It’s not a First Amendment debate, but rather a civil liberties issue.”

Mr Eager said many of his friends riding BART on Thursday were upset with the agency’s actions, some even calling it a “police state”.

Mark Malmberg, 58, of Orinda, California, believes that BART could have used a different approach instead of shutting down cellphone usage.

“Even though it sounds like they wanted to avoid a mob gathering, you can’t stop people from expressing themselves,” Mr Malmberg said.

“I hope those who protest can do so in a civil manner.”

– news.com.au, San Francisco officials cut off phone signals to train passengers to thwart protest over police killing

In response to the mobile shut down, BART’s site was hacked by Anonymous and sensible user information was leaked.

myBART site hacked with Anonymous logo

BART is contemplating shutting down the service this Monday, August 15th due to a possible protest. And that’s how the snowball starts rolling.

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