Civil disobedience in the high-tech age: the BART protests

I don’t like using terms such as “high-tech age” or, even worse, “age of technology.” What’s high-tech today will appear quaint in a decade or two (not so long ago, it was considered marvelous to have a computer that didn’t take up an entire room that required supercooling to keep the whole apparatus from fricaseeing itself). But every societal undertaking been affected by the trappings of the Internet, cell-phone service and skilled hackers — even potential confrontations between law enforcement and protesters.

For those of you who have never visited San Francisco or (egad) Oakland, the two cities are joined by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which runs under San Francisco Bay via the 3.6-mile long Transbay Tube and extends south on the San Francisco side and in all directions on the Oakland side. It is a very pleasant commuter experience. The family of of Oscar Grant III would probably not agree, given that Mr. Grant was fatally shot in January 2009 by a BART police officer who was later convicted of murder (reduced to involuntary manslaughter on appeal). Ditto any associates of a homeless man named Charles Blair Hill, who was shot dead on July 8 by a transit cop. Hill came at officers with a vodka bottle and a knife, but Grant was unarmed and face-down on the ground when he was shot in the back. This shooting, which was caught on numerous video cameras, qualifies as an execution by any standard.

Yesterday at 5 p.m., a protest led by the hacktivist (oh, but I love portmenteaus) group Anonymous, which had managed to hack the BART Web site over the weekend and put its own logo on the site, got underway. Anonymous issued a statement on its blog announcing its intention to protest yesterday. This came on the heels of a similar protest last Thursday organized by the group “No Justice No BART,” when system officials shut down four BART stations in downtown San Francisco owing to concerns about the safety of passengers. They had good reason; on July 11, three days after Hill was shot and killed, “No Justice No BART” managed to cripple BART service at the Civic Center Station, disrupting the commutes of several hundred thousand passengers (BART carries over a third of a million passengers every day). This is not a good way to secure public sympathy and smacks of the Cuban-Americans who have been known to pile onto the Palmetto and Dolphin expressways in and around Miami when they get a hard-on over something. If I ever miss, say, a flight thanks to such goings-on, I’ll be sure to rally inwardly or actively against whatever cause inspired the bullshit.

BART offers both Wi-Fi and cell-phone service to its underground passengers. During last week’s protest, officials shut down cell-phone service at what it called “select” stations, a move that galvanized First Amendment advocates, including the ACLU, which in a carefully worded statement declared the move unacceptable (but not unconstitutional). During yesterday’s protest, the BART brass again sequentially shut down the Civic Center, Powell Steet, 16th Street and Embaradero stations and was madly Tweeting about the situation in real time. But this time, cell-phone service continued uninterrupted.

So in the end — if in fact the protests have come to a close — this series of clashes had all the elements that, in the main, would have been unavailable two decades ago: cell phones; the Internet in general; Twitter; Web-site hacking; Facebook groups (I didn’t look them up, but some of the links above mention them).

As far as the claim that BART was unjustified in shutting down cell-phone service — well, that’s a matter of judgment, but I doubt anyone could make a case that BART violated the constitution in any way with its actions. No one has a right to service provided by a private entity. Had people’s phones been confiscated, it would be different. BART did not jam signals, which would have broken FCC laws. Police routinely close streets spanning many city blocks when public safety is at issue, and no one talks about their rights being violated in such instances. Given that some of the protesters were evidently standing in the way of departing trains in last month’s protest — well, that constitutes a safety concern. And in the end it’s doubtful that protests of this sort amounted to any good, especially given that the facts about the shooting of Hill are, to this point, not fully known.

So much for the days of merely throwing rocks and stuff at cops.