Monday afternoon, I came out of work and saw a couple hundred people standing outside of BART. I knew they weren’t a demonstration. Must have been the fact that they were all on cellphones and had briefcases that clued me in.
“BART’s closed?” I asked someone. He looked up from his iPhone.
“Yeah, those stupid protesters shut it down,” he said. Up above, helicopters whirred. It sounded like a war zone.
“They went that way about ten minutes ago,” a woman said. I walked a block in the direction she pointed but didn’t see or hear anyone except one lone guy in a Guy Fawkes mask with a megaphone. I couldn’t make out anything he was saying.
I texted a friend I thought might be on the demo, but she wasn’t. She didn’t know where they were. I figured it was probably near over anyway – it was called for 5:00 and it was now past 6:30. I walked four blocks to the temporary Transbay Terminal, where the NL bus, which goes near my house, was just pulling up. I climbed on and got a seat, one of those four-tops with two rows facing each other. There was a guy next to me and two women across from us. They were all African American. Two of them were trying to go to West Oakland Station, and someone apparently recommended that bus, which doesn’t go that close. I’d like to believe there is one that actually goes to West Oakland, which is probably the most popular station in the East Bay, but I can’t be sure there is. West Oakland, after all, is a poor, mostly African American part of town, and there have been big cuts in bus service in Oakland and Berkeley, another casualty of Proposition 13 and Schwarzenegger.
The guy next to me was in a big hurry and fuming about how long it was taking for the long line of passengers unfamiliar with the routine to pay their fares and get on the bus. The two women were talking about how the protesters were.
“I hope they’re not doing this just because BART shut down cell phone service,” one said. “I mean, how dumb can you get?”
“Well,” I said, “they did kill that guy for no reason.” Two months ago, BART police killed Charles Hill, a drunk, homeless man who had been reported as acting unruly on the platform. The cops said Hill threatened them with a broken bottle. Witnesses said the bottle he was carrying didn’t break until he fell after being shot. They also said he was moving slowly, and the cops shouldn’t have had any trouble subduing him without using their guns.
Every article in the mainstream press refers to Hill as “knife-wielding” but my understanding is that they found the knife in his pocket after he was dead; it wasn’t in his hand.
And of course, this is the third passenger killed by BART police in two and a half years. 21-year-old Oscar Grant was killed on the platform at Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Eve, 2009, and in a much-less publicized incident, Fred Collins was shot in the back at Fruitvale Station in July 2010.
BART’s reaction, rather than any expression of contrition or maybe a reorganization of their obviously troubled police force, has been to take drastic actions to quell protests of these killings. The first protest at Fruitvale Station, where Oscar Grant was killed, was noisy but peaceful until the police shut down the station, not allowing passengers to exit there. That prompted the march which turned into a mini-riot and ended in hundreds of arrests.
The occasion for Monday’s action was that the week before BART shut down cell phone service in four stations to foil “flash mob” organizing. They claimed they did it because the protest threatened to become “chaotic,” a nebulous code word suggesting violence and disruption, where in fact the protesters were, from what eyewitnesses told me, only holding banners and leafleting.
The cell phone shutdown caught national attention in a way that neither the killing of Hill nor the light sentence given to the officer who executed Oscar Grant in cold blood did. (Johannes Mehserle, the white cop who shot the African American Grant, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years. He actually spent 12 months in jail.)
The ACLU was on every national talk show last week, proclaiming this the first time that the “U.S. government” has interfered with cellphone service in order to prevent protest. They compared it to thegovernments of China and Syria shutting down internet access to quell dissent. The hacktivist group Anonymous chose to punish BART by, along with taking down the website for several hours last Sunday, publishing names and phone numbers of people who did nothing more than buy a parking permit from BART. BART responded to the hack by calling in the FBI, and Anonymous upped the ante by publishing the personal information of BART cops.
Meanwhile, the passengers on my bus could not be convinced that any of it was worth the disruption to their lives.
“There are other ways to do it,” said the guy who was so late. “Call your congressman.”
“That never works,” I argued. “Nothing has ever been won without protest. Think of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, Social Security, all of it.”
One of the women across from me looked semi-impressed. Her friend shook her head. “It’s not worth it,” she said.
I mollified them by saying, “Well, back when I was organizing this kind of thing” (not that I’m done with my activist career, but they didn’t need to know that) “we always had a rule that we didn’t disrupt the evening commute. Blockades and traffic disruptions should always be first thing in the morning. Most people won’t mind if you make them late to work.”