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2011-08-16

Bay Area Rapid Transit Accused of Censorship for Blocking Wireless Services to Foil Protests

Guests

Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.

Davey D, hip-hop journalist and activist. He runs the popular website "Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner" at DaveyD.com. He is co-host of Hard Knock Radio on KPFA in Berkeley.

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The operators of the San Francisco area subway system are facing intense criticism for temporarily cutting off underground cell phone and mobile-internet service at four stations in an attempt to foil a protest. On Thursday, authorities with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) removed power to underground cell phone towers at four stations to disrupt a protest against the recent death of Charles Hill, a homeless man who was shot dead on a train platform by a BART police officer in July. Police say Hill threw a knife at an officer. According to media reports, BART may be the first government agency in the United States to shutter mobile-internet and phone service in a bid to quash a demonstration. Some have compared the move to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s blockage of internet access across Egypt in January during the popular uprising against his rule. The Federal Communications Commission says it will investigate BART’s decision. We go to San Fransisco to speak with Davey D, a hip-hop journalist and activist who has been covering the protests. He runs the popular website "Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner" at DaveyD.com and is co-host of Hard Knock Radio on KPFA in Berkeley. We’re also joined by Catherine Crump, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The operators of the San Francisco subway system are facing intense criticism following their decision last week to temporarily cut off underground cell phone and mobile-internet service at four stations in an attempt to foil a protest. On Thursday night, authorities with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, removed power to underground cell phone towers at four stations. The decision was made in an effort to disrupt a protest against the recent death of Charles Hill, a homeless man who was shot dead on a train platform in July by a BART police officer. Police say Hill threw a knife at an officer. According to media reports, BART may be the first U.S. government agency to shutter mobile-internet and phone service in a bid to quash a demonstration.

Free speech advocates across the country have condemned the move. Some have compared it to the decision by former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak who shut down internet access across Egypt in January in an attempt to stifle the growing protest movement. On Twitter, critics of BART’s action took to using the hashtag "Mu-BART-ek."

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission announced it will investigate BART’s decision. FCC spokesperson Neil Grace said, quote, "We are continuing to collect information about BART’s actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."

On Monday, BART officials were forced to close four stations during the evening rush hour as free speech advocates attempted to disrupt the evening commute. The protest was called by the activist hacker group Anonymous that had hacked into the BART website over the weekend and released personal information about 2,000 transit riders. Later in the program, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the actions of Anonymous and political hackers, but first we’re going to look at this free speech controversy in the Bay Area.

For more, we go to San Francisco to speak with Davey D, hip-hop journalist, activist, who’s been covering the protests. He runs the popular website "Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner" at DaveyD.com and is co-host of Hard Knock Radio on KPFA in Berkeley. We’re also joined in New York by Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. And in a moment we’ll be joined by an anonymous member of Anonymous; he’ll use the pseudonym X. He was at the BART protest last night.

Davey D, before we talk about the whole free speech issue, explain what happened at the beginning of July. How did this police killing take place, the killing of a homeless man? What do you know?

DAVEY D: Well, what we’re talking about is Charles Hill, who was homeless and was approached by a couple of officers on the Civic Center BART station. And that’s where it gets murky. According to the police, he had a knife, and he had a beer bottle. And he supposedly put the officers’ lives in danger, so they shot him. But conflicting witnesses say that the officers weren’t in danger and that if he had anything, he could have been easily disarmed.

And just considering the record that BART has had in overreacting and being brutal towards many of its passengers, that sparked these protests. Obviously, BART has footage, but it wasn’t released. And that raised a lot of concern amongst people, because they’re feeling like the first time that—when Oscar Grant was shot, the footage showed that the BART police were in the wrong, in many people’s opinion. So why didn’t we see the footage for this to immediately quell any sort of concern with the public? And I think that’s what kind of brought about the type of protests that you saw.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, there have been a series of protests since police killed Hill on July 3rd?

DAVEY D: Yes, there’s been a couple of them. There’s been a couple of them. And the most notable one was the one in which the BART trains were shut down. I think what happened with BART is that they were caught off guard. What happens is, with the police and many of these agencies, they’ve gotten very used to protest being something that is brought about because people sought permission. This time people didn’t seek permission. They went out, and they protested. And the end result was the downtown BART lines being shut down. And that really upset them. So when the second protest came, the one that we’re talking about last week, or the scheduled one, they decided to shut down all the cell phones. And that, of course, brought about last night’s protest.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey, who spoke to the media shortly after the shooting on July 3rd.

CHIEF KENTON RAINEY: The suspect was—in fact had a bottle, which was used as a weapon. He was also armed with a knife. A confrontation occurred as a result of the suspect’s aggressive actions. And fearing for their safeties, one of the officers discharged his duty weapon, striking the suspect. Paramedics were summoned and responded to the scene. CPR was performed on the suspect before he was transported to the San Francisco General Hospital, where medical personnel pronounced him dead about an hour later.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the Linton Johnson, the BART spokesperson [correction: BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey]?

DAVEY D: Well, if you rewind the tape and listen to the type of explanation that BART had for the shooting of Oscar Grant, we don’t take BART’s word at—we don’t take BART’s word when they immediately give it. They’re always going to be suspect, because we feel that, initially, they lied about a lot of these incidents. So, of course they’re going to give the best story forward, that he was armed, the police were in trouble, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff. Nobody buys it. It’s like, if that’s really the case, show us the footage. Let everybody see it. Let’s have the transparency that I think the citizens of the Bay Area and around the country would really like to have. And so, that didn’t really happen. And so, once you started to hear that there were witnesses that had conflicting reports, then it was really on and popping. Everybody feels that they’re covering things up and they’re not really being forthright.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to correct that. That was the BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey who we just heard. So let’s talk about the protests.

DAVEY D: Right. Well, I mean, even—whatever the agency, I mean, BART police chief, you know, BART spokespeople, it’s the same bag, as far as most people are concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the protests that just took place and the shutting down of the internet service at four BART stations, Davey D.

DAVEY D: Well, there was a scheduled protest last Thursday, and in reaction to the protest that actually shut down the BART trains, they decided that they were going to shut off cell service. And then they used the excuse that public safety—and I think that’s what raised a lot of concern: public safety for who? We’ve had flash mobs go up on the BART train and do dances on the platform and disrupt traffic for a little bit; we haven’t seen them shut down the cell phones for that. I’ve been on the BART trains where there’s been fights after Raider games and after other sporting events; they haven’t shut down the BART trains for that. So, in this case, you have people protesting the police, and now they want to shut it down and say it’s public safety. I think the key word there is "public safety," because then that sets a precedent for anybody to shut down cell service under the guise of public safety. They could shut it down in front of a ballpark, they could shut it down if you’re on the streets, they could shut it down at any rally, under the guise of public safety.

The other point that I think we need to also consider is the fact that they were saying that the protesters were coordinating with the cell phones. Well, first of all, most protesters don’t really need cell phones to coordinate. A good protester, at least the ones out in San Francisco, have been protesting long before there’s been internet, Facebook, Twitter and all that, so they got their game on lock. But with that being said, the police can also coordinate with communications devices, as well. And just considering the type of laws we have on the books, from PATRIOT Acts and all types of things that allow the police to peer and follow you on Twitter and Facebook and all that, I think that any sort of protest that people are doing, the police probably have infiltrated you, either in your rank-and-file membership or even—or definitely online. So they know what’s going on at any given point.

I think the problem that we’re dealing with is that we’re finding, all around the country, that folks are playing with the law and trying to figure out how they can have an advantage by shutting down the ways in which the citizens of this country communicate with one another. And this was a testing ground. If we can shut down the BART service here and get away with it, maybe we’ll do it in New York, and then we’ll do it in Chicago, and then we’ll do it at a ball game, and maybe in front of, you know, the college campuses, all under the guise of disrupting and threatening the public safety. So I don’t buy it. And I think that, you know, just being at the protest yesterday and seeing that BART shut down the Civic Center, when there really wasn’t anything going on, said to me that this is a dog and pony show and that they’re trying to win the battle of public opinion by getting the mainstream media to follow their talking points, make it seem like it was a real big crisis when it really wasn’t. If I show you the footage from what took place at the Civic Center, you would question: why did you close the Civic Center when there was nothing going on? That, to me, said a whole lot about their motivation. And their motivation wasn’t public safety. It’s to win public opinion and maybe set a precedent for other agencies later down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: BART spokesperson Linton Johnson appeared on the San Francisco radio station KQED Monday and defended BART’s actions.

LINTON JOHNSON: Well, here’s how I respond to anybody who questions this gut-wrenching decision that we were forced to make by a group that had proven in the past that they were wanting to create chaos on the platform and were going to make it even more chaotic had we let it happen. As you will remember, there was somebody who jumped on top of the train car. My heart stopped. That moment when I saw that happen, I was scared to death that that guy would hurt himself or kick in a window and splatter glass all over one of our other passengers, violating another constitutional right that people aren’t talking about, and that is the constitutional right to safety. And on the platform, the constitutional right to safety is paramount. The right to be able to express your opinion ends, basically, at the fare gate, where you have to have a ticket. So the paid area is where it ends. And the reason for that is because we can’t have chaos on the platform, because people get hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: BART spokesperson Linton Johnson on KQED in San Francisco. Catherine Crump also with us, joining Davey D, staff attorney at the ACLU. Can you respond?

CATHERINE CRUMP: There’s no question that what happened in San Francisco sets a terrible precedent. It’s the first known incident that we’ve heard of where the government has shut down a cell phone network in order to prevent people from engaging in political protest. Cell phone networks are something we’ve all come to rely on. People use them for all sorts of communication that have nothing to do with protest. And this is really a sweeping and overbroad reaction by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: What other information do you have about what police are doing with cell phones around the country, at the ACLU?

CATHERINE CRUMP: Yeah, cell phones have been in the news frequently recently, not just—because they’ve become such a vital part of our lives. One big issue these days is the use of cell phones as tracking devices. Police around the country are using cell phones to track people’s movements. And frequently, they’re not even getting a warrant based on probable cause. Just last week, we filed 365 Public Records Act requests around the country with police departments, big and small, to try to get a better perspective on the degree to which cell phones are being used as surveillance tools. So these new devices are raising all sorts of constitutional issues that we’ve just never had to confront before.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean they don’t even get warrants when they’re tracking your phone? How do they do it, then?

CATHERINE CRUMP: They frequently go to court, and they show a lower standard than the full probable cause standard. They show that it’s irrelevant to an ongoing investigation, which is far less than showing that they have probable cause to believe that tracking someone’s location will turn up evidence of wrongdoing. The constitutional ground here is really unsettled, and the police have been taking advantage of that to engage in really massive amounts of cell phone tracking without meeting the full probable cause standard. And we believe that violates the Fourth Amendment, which gives you a right to be free from unreasonable searches. And we don’t think there’s anything reasonable about tracking people’s locations without showing probable cause.

AMY GOODMAN: The ACLU met with the police chief yesterday in San Francisco?

CATHERINE CRUMP: We did. And what we were really looking—

AMY GOODMAN: You met with him?

CATHERINE CRUMP: I did not, but my colleagues did. And what we were really looking for out of that meeting was a guarantee that this would never happen again. And unfortunately, the police chief was not able to provide that kind of assurance. And so, we are going to continue exploring what options we can do to try to guarantee that this never happens again.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he say?

CATHERINE CRUMP: You know, it was a very short and inconclusive meeting that didn’t give us any sort of reassurance. And we’re really in new territory here. We’d really like to see a policy change, that they put into writing that this doesn’t happen frequently. We’ve put on our website a place where people can go to take action to ask—to ask for this sort of thing not to happen again. And we’re continuing to see what other sorts of pressure we can put on the government here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Catherine Crump, staff attorney at the ACLU. Davey D, hip-hop journalist and activist, runs the popular website "Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner" at DaveyD.com and is a co-host at Pacifica Radio KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio in Berkeley. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll also be joined by others, including an anonymous member of Anonymous, which hacked the BART website, and we’ll talk about the information that they released. Stay with us.

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