BART Defends Cutting Off Cell Service In Subway

Aug 15, 2011
Originally published on August 16, 2011 7:32 am

Authorities in San Francisco had to shut down several city subway stations Monday after demonstrators tried to stop a train from leaving a downtown station.

The protesters were upset that last week the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency shut down cellphone access in the subway to prevent a protest.

BART police have been the target of protests over alleged brutality. Most recently, two BART officers shot Charles Blair Hill, a transient man they said threatened them with a knife.

That shooting is one of the reasons Jevon Cochran has attended protests.

"They could have detained him in a nonlethal fashion, but they chose to shoot and kill him," Cochran says.

On July 11, protesters who agree with Cochran stormed a BART station and tried to stop a train from leaving. When transit authorities heard there was another protest scheduled last week, they cut off cellphone service in the subway to interfere with the organizers.

And that is what brought many of the protesters out for Monday's demonstration. Anastasia Lozano-Garcia says BART acted like an authoritarian government in a country like Egypt.

"When Hosni Mubarak decided to basically flip the switch and muffle people that were out trying to turn over his regime, and this essentially is what has happened here at BART when they decided to flip their switch," she says.

About a half-hour into the latest demonstration, protesters once again tried to stop a train from leaving the station. BART police cleared them out, but this time BART did not shut off cell service.

The agency faced a lot of criticism for its actions last week. Civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged BART on First Amendment grounds.

Lynette Sweet, a member of the transit agency's board, said it is not BART's "job to censor people."

But Linton Johnson, a spokesperson for BART, defends the agency's right to act when it knows cellphone service will be used to do something illegal.

"We were forced into a gut-wrenching decision of how we were going to stop it given the propensity of this group to create chaos on the platform," he says.

Johnson says the group's website said it planned to break the law. So, BART authorities had to weigh rights.

"This is not a restriction on people's rights to free speech," Johnson says. "This is, in fact, an enhancement of their right to safety."

Using mobile devices to organize groups of people isn't new these days. Flash mobs have used mobile devices to organize fun stuff like group dancing in a public spot. But in other cities, flash mobs have been organized to rob stores and attack people.

The question is whether cutting off cellphone service is the right way to combat the problem.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Subway riders in San Francisco couldn't take the train at several stops yesterday. That's because authorities closed down those stops after demonstrators tried to prevent a train from leaving a downtown station. Their beef with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART as it's known, is that last week it shut down cell phone access along part of the transit network. NPR's Laura Sydell has this story on how it all began.

LAURA SYDELL: San Francisco's BART police have been the target of protests over alleged brutality. Most recently, two BART officers shot Charles Hill, a transient man they said threatened them with a knife.

BART P: (Chanting) No justice, no peace. Disband the BART Police

SYDELL: That shooting is one of the reasons that Jevon Cochran has come to this and other protests.

JEVON COCHRAN: They could have detained him in a non-lethal fashion, but they chose to shoot and kill him.

SYDELL: On July 11th, protesters who agree with Cochran stormed a BART station and tried to stop a train from leaving. Then when BART authorities heard there was another protest scheduled last week, they cut off cell phone service in the subway to interfere with the organizers.

And that is what brought many of the protesters out for this demonstration. About a half hour into yesterday's demonstration, protestors once again tried to stop a train from leaving the station, but BART Police cleared them out.

P: All right, everybody clear, this has been declared to be an unlawful assembly.

SYDELL: This time BART did not shut off cell phone service.

The agency faced a lot of criticism for its actions last week. Civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged BART on First Amendment grounds.

A member of the transit agency's board, Lynette Sweet, said it's not BART's, quote, "job to censor people."

But Linton Johnson, a spokesperson for BART, defends the agency's right to act when they know cell phone service will be used to do something illegal.

LINTON JOHNSON: We were forced into a gut-wrenching decision of how we were going to stop it, given the propensity of this group to create chaos on the platform.

SYDELL: Using mobile devices to organize groups of people isn't new. Sometimes such groups are called flash mobs. Flash mobs have used mobile devices to organize fun stuff like group dancing in a public spot. But in other cities, flash mobs have been organized to rob stores and attack people.

The question is whether or not cutting off cell phone service is the right way to combat the problem.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.