A Sept. 8 protest called to test the limits of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) agency's policies on freedom of speech inside BART stations ended in a cluster of protesters and journalists being coralled by nightstick-wielding BART officers, detained, and in some cases, arrested. The station was shut down at around 6 p.m. when police surrounded a group of demonstrators who had marched around the unpaid area of the transit station, as well as a group of media who were following them with cameras and voice recorders.
It was unclear at press time just how many arrests were made, but it is clear that things did not go as planned from the perspective of either the protesters or the transit agency. As the demonstration got underway, one of the No Justice No BART protest organizers, Christopher Cantor, told reporters, "We are here to test free speech limitations at BART, but more importantly, we're here to say we don't trust BART, we don't trust BART to protect us, we don't trust BART to interpret the constitution." He also said that none of them were there to get arrested.
Before the banners and bullhorns came out, BART spokesperson Jim Allison told the Guardian that if BART police deemed a gathering inside the unpaid area of the station to be dangerous, "we would ask people to disperse." If they didn't disperse, "we would declare an unlawful assembly." Allison said protesters were free to exercise their first amendment rights to protest inside the areas of the station that don't require a ticket to enter. He said people could do that as long as they were not "interrupting or interfering" with regular service. When the Guardian caught up with Allison after the protest by phone to find out why his statements about the dispersal order were contradicted by police activity, he refused to answer our questions, directing us instead to watch a press conference on the BART website.
"I'm going off duty," he said after calling the Guardian in response to a page, after being asked several times why BART police had not issued a dispersal order before surrounding people and arresting them. "I simply cannot devote the rest of my night to answering your questions."
Here's what Cantor said just before the march around the station got underway:
Before police closed in, the protest featured some 60 protesters chanting things like, "How can they protect and serve us? The BART police just make me nervous." One banner, from a group called Feminists Against Cops, read, "Disarm BART, Arm Feminists."
Things heated up when the protest got closer to the fare gates, at which point police may have determined that protesters were interfering with service. At one point, police tackled a masked demonstrator to the ground. However, when people were detained, they were not standing directly in front of the fare gates.
Police did not make any public statements indicating that the situation had been deemed unlawful before surrounding the group of detainees, nor did they issue a dispersal order. We were told that we were not free to leave.
While I was detained along with Luke Thomas, a reporter from the popular political Fog City Journal, and freelance reporter Josh Wolf, an officer told us that we were being detained on suspected violation of California Penal Code 369-i, which prohibits interfering with the operations of a railroad.
Thomas phoned Matt Gonzalez, former president of the Board of Supervisors and now a chief attorney with the Public Defender's office, to ask about that law. Gonzalez looked it up and told him that there was an exception to that law which "does not prohibit picketing in the adjacent area of any property" belonging to a railroad. So it would seem that the protesters, along with more than a dozen journalists, were being unlawfully detained. When we put this question to one of the officers who stood holding a nightstick and blocking us in, he refused to address the issue directly, repeating that we weren't free to leave.
Members of the press with San Francisco Police Department issued credentials were made to line up and present their press passes to San Francisco police officers, who had been called in to assist. The police officers took away media's press passes, saying it was SFPD property and could be retrieved later -- which meant that if journalists had opted to stay and cover any further police activity, we would have had no way of presenting credentials to avoid arrest. We were issued Certificates of Release and ushered outside of the station, where it was impossible to see what was happening, and therefore, impossible to do our jobs as reporters.
Just outside, San Francisco State lecturer Justin Beck was very concerned that several of his journalism students, whom he'd sent on assignment to cover the protest, were being detained. They did not have SFPD issued press passes and at that time were not being allowed to exit the station.
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