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BART muzzles cell phone traffic during planned protest

Last night, the operators of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) temporarily shut down cell service in four downtown San Francisco stations to interfere with a planned protest over a shooting by a BART police officer, according to a spokesperson for BART. James Allison, deputy chief communications officer for BART told CNET that: “BART staff or contractors shut down power to the nodes and alerted the cell carriers.” Activists planned to protest the shooting, by BART police, of Charles Blair Hill, who allegedly attacked BART police with a knife before they fatally shot him on July 3.

According to CNET News:

“Protesters are angry over what they say is excessive use of force after the death of Hill, and of another man in 2009. A BART officer fired three shots at Hill, a 45-year-old transient, after Hill allegedly threw a bottle at officers and waved a four-inch knife at them. That followed a highly publicized fatal shooting on January 1, 2009, in which a BART officer shot Oscar Grant in the back as he lay on the ground unarmed and restrained. Video from cell phones and cameras went viral and fanned anti-BART resentment and protests. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after claiming he meant to fire his Taser instead of his gun, and he served a two-year sentence.”

The original BART statement said that:

“Organizers planning to disrupt BART service…stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART police.” “A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees, and demonstrators.”

Originally, BART had planned to contact the wireless carriers to suspend service in the stations, by Allison later said that BART itself shut down service and notified carriers after the fact. The move follows the use of Blackberry devices in London protests and after a protest roughly a week after the shooting by Bart police had disrupted service on BART.

BART’s statement about the event last night said:

“Cell phone service was not interrupted outside BART stations. In addition, numerous BART police officers and other BART personnel were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity.”

Cell service in the BART stations was disrupted from about 4 to 7 PM in Embarcadero, Montgomery Street, Powell Street, and Civic Center BART stations. Both KTVU and the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the protest failed to happen as planned.

The ACLU of Northern California said, in a blog post, that:

“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. You have the right to speak out. Both the California Constitution and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect your right to free expression.”

BART’s statement also addressed free speech:

“BART’s primary purpose is to provide safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services,” it said. “BART accommodates expressive activities that are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Liberty of Speech Clause of the California Constitution (expressive activity), and has made available certain areas of its property for expressive activity….”

“Paid areas of BART stations are reserved for ticketed passengers who are boarding, exiting, or waiting for BART cars and trains, or for authorized BART personnel,” the statement said. “No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”

It might be very interesting to see whether the “public safety” reasoning would hold up against First Amendment Rights, in court, in this particular case.

(Note added August 13, 2011: According to CNN:

“The petition site,, started an online petition titled “BART: Stay Out of Our Cell Phone Service!” On Saturday evening the site had more than doubled its signature goal of 1,000.

Also the hacktivist group Anonymous said it would be targeting BART on Monday to retaliate, several news sites reported Saturday.”


(Note added August 14, 2011: Today Anonymous defaced the BART Web site and leaked user data.)

-Bill at

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