BART board to urge $70,000 charge against Black Friday protesters dropped

mike koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoAudience members protest a proposed restitution for the so-called Black Friday 14 demonstrators at a prior BART board meeting.

mike koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoAudience members protest a proposed restitution for the so-called Black Friday 14 demonstrators at a prior BART board meeting.

How much does free speech cost?

For the so-called Black Friday 14 protesters, the tag for their action may be $70,000. But after nearly four hours of protests at a BART Board of Directors meeting Thursday, their free speech may be free once again.

BART board Director Rebecca Saltzman Thursday said she would soon introduce a resolution to urge the Alameda County district attorney to drop charges against the Black Friday 14 protesters, who got the moniker after stopping BART trains systemwide during a demonstration on Black Friday.

The protest was in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the deaths of Ferguson, Mo. teenager Mike Brown and New York's Eric Garner at the hands of police.

Following the civil disobedience in November, BART urged Alameda District Attorney Nancy O'Malley to charge a $70,000 restitution to the protesters, among other charges, for disrupting service.

In response, The League of Pissed Off Voters and other allies of the Black Friday 14 drafted a resolution calling for the district attorney to drop the charges, on behalf of the BART board.

Prior to the meeting Thursday, no BART director had indicated a move to sponsor the resolution. But after nearly four hours of public outcry, two disruptive banner-waving actions, and conflicts with BART police, that changed.

Still, it took many hours and many commenters, speaking non-stop from 5 p.m. until nearly 9 p.m. to finally move the BART board to act.

The board meeting room was packed with at least 100 people, and another hundred waited outside in solidarity. Even more speakers crowded into an overflow room nearby. BART police escorted some disruptors out, but no arrests were made, Chief Kenton Rainey said.

In public comment, protesters spoke of many incidents with BART police. One speaker's brother had a gun pointed at his head by BART police, she said, while others alleged they had been beaten by officers. Many still invoked the name of Oscar Grant, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009.

“I've stood at this podium so many times asking you to be on the right side of history,” local Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told the board. “I'm getting tired of it.”

Laila Williams, one of the Black Friday 14 protesters told the board in public comment, “I'm not sorry for what I did. We blocked our own siblings, and our cousins, and our friends, and we did so because the need to block business as usual is greater than the need for you to get to your next appointment on time.”

“I've known you to be unapologetic and arrogant,” charged Cat Brooks, another Black Friday 14 protester, referring to the death of Grant.

“Dear BART, how do you think we got a seat on the bus?” Mollie Costello, another of the Black Friday 14 protesters, said. “Many were inconvenienced by the bus boycotts. Should Rosa Parks have paid restitution for that?”

Perhaps the farthest traveling protester was Ashley Yates, a poet who traveled from Ferguson, Mo., to offer solidarity with the Black Friday 14 protesters.

In Ferguson, she said, “I was put in an orange jumpsuit and told I too would have to pay to deliver an amount to get my freedom.”

“This all feels very familiar.”

Other supporters included Pete Castelli, executive director of BART's Local SEIU 1021 union, the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters, Jessica Lehman of Seniors & Disability Action, and hundreds of commenters.

Board President Thomas Blalock then took up the item for introducing new resolutions, out of order in the meeting. He then asked Saltzman to speak.

“Thank you for all the stories you shared, its been very powerful,” she said. But, “We don't have the power to introduce a resolution tonight.”

The protesters didn't accept that answer. They broke out into song.

“There will be no freedom, until justice is won. What side are you on, BART? Which side are you on?” they sang. Then they chanted: “We must love and protect each other! We have nothing to lose but our chains! Not one dime!”

The board quickly went to recess, called by Blalock. The protesters continued to sing.

When directors came back out, the board acquiesced.

“We don't have the specific language now,” Saltzman said, but, noted she would draft a resolution in support of the Black Friday 14.

“It will be to ask the DA to drop all the charges,” she said. “Again I want to thank you for coming tonight.”

One protester responded promptly.

“We'll see you next week.”

#BlackLivesMatterBay Area NewsBlackFriday14OaklandTransittransportation

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