It’s a good thing BART is in the transportation business because when it comes to dealing with more routine concerns, its leaders conduct themselves with the subtlety of a runaway train.
Certainly it’s no picnic dealing with groups of protesters whose fuzzy ideology shifts from a message of anti-violence to outright anarchy, but BART officials seem to have come down on the wrong side of just about every issue that’s crossed their tracks in the past few weeks.
Or to put it another way, BART’s policy in dealing with demonstrations and First Amendment rights seems to be like a series of unscheduled stops.
BART may not be able to determine who the bad guys are (though the protesters are usually the ones wearing masks and carrying signs), but the agency should definitely be able to identify credential-carrying journalists (who usually have notebooks, microphones and cameras). Yet last week, BART’s police reacted to another station protest by handcuffing and detaining reporters at the scene, including The San Francisco Examiner’s Andrea Koskey.
The words “overreaction” and “stupidity” come most immediately to mind, though BART police have already used them up. Making matters worse is that police were only dealing with a small crowd of demonstrators, suggesting that BART police cannot remain calm under pressure — providing more fuel to the idea that the agency should get out of the security business altogether.
The lack of judgment among BART officials continues to amaze. Reporters were kept in handcuffs after their media credentials were handed over. And while I admit that removing journalists from seeing further incompetence by transit officials must be tempting, as a general rule it tends to backfire, with media members being fickle about being manhandled by police.
Still, I understand why BART’s leaders remain edgy. For the better part of two years, the agency has faced criticism for police-involved shootings. And now, every Monday and sometimes Thursday, its police force has to don riot gear and face angry crowds at its downtown San Francisco stations. And more and more of the crowds are being made up of those poor souls we call commuters.
I realize the situation isn’t as simple as putting another train on the tracks; protest rights and First Amendment conflicts are not part of BART’s operating manual. And I’ll even give them a few points on the creative counter for coming up with the idea of shutting off cellphone service to deny protesters an easier way to communicate — even if it set off yet another protest from high-tech freedom fighters who believe in the unalienable right to use gadgets to help them harass innocent bystanders.
Yet, you just get the sense that BART officials don’t have an action plan, only a reactionary response. They have a responsibility to protect riders and equipment, but really, should 30 people be able to shut down the evening commute because of an agency that acts as if it’s under siege?
This much is clear: Groups such as Anonymous are much better at computer hacking than at protest organizing, hence the relatively tiny crowds that have been showing up at their weekly street soirees. And the other group of justice-brandishing advocates is just as haggard, if not more insistent.
But BART needs to do better. There’s no need to panic when the demonstrators all but hand over their protest schedule. The agency doesn’t have to worry about street pranksters above, only its underground world below. The more it can show commuters that they have the situation in hand and are not letting a handful of characters block the path of thousands, the sooner it will relieve itself of pressure.
Yet it must also take the idea of media restrictions out of its playbook. Journalists are just doing their jobs by covering the protests, not interfering with BART’s ability to deal with demonstrators. I used to cover nuclear weapons protests in Livermore with tens of thousands of people, and yet reporters never ended up in handcuffs.
BART never signed up to be an arbiter of free speech, but it still should be able to avoid the obvious.
Here’s a simple guideline for BART’s leaders: Journalists are there to tell the story, not become part of it. I hope that clears up the confusion.