I briefly took part in the protests at the San Francisco Civic Center BART Station this afternoon, and I’m a little frightened. Not because of behavior of the protesters, who were very peaceful, but because of the way San Francisco cracked down on the protest.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story: BART police have been embroiled in a scandal recently over their curious habit of shooting unarmed commuters. You remember reading about those riots in Oakland last year? Same thing. Anyhow, a few weeks back some people tried to protest at a BART station, and BART shut down cell phone service in that area to suppress communication.
Imagine if you were stuck underground, in one of those trains that were stopped, and you had a medical emergency. Imagine one of your children was in that station, and you couldn’t reach her. Imagine you were just some idealistic college kid who wanted to take part in local politics by peacefully demonstrating, and suddenly you find that you and your friends have all suddenly lost cell-phone reception—just as the cops, those same cops who have been accused of shooting unarmed people, are gathering outside…
You can see how this is a big deal, right?
These weren’t rioters. Nobody was hurt. Would it have been so hard for one of our political leaders to come to the BART station and speak to the people, and hear their concerns? Would it have killed BART to send one of their directors, to let the people know that their grievance is being taken seriously? Would that be too much to ask?
Apparently so. Hunter Thompson once said that peaceful protests are an act of faith in the Democratic system; to protest, you must believe that the Powers That Be care what you think, and that perhaps they might change their minds if only you and others like you make yourselves heard. That’s the idea, anyhow. But the Powers That Be in San Francisco just won’t listen. They chose to shut down communications and send in the police. They didn’t give a rat’s ass what the people had to say.
So, yeah, we were entirely justified in protesting today.
I should have known something was up today. I took the train to work in the morning and home in the afternoon, and both times there were multiple BART cops on board, checking everyone’s receipts. It made me wonder how the protest would turn out. What would we do? What would the cops do?
My friend Zeia and I were free this afternoon—I work part-time, and Zeia has the week off school. We hopped on the Muni and rode down to Civic Center. We got there just a little after five, when the protest was supposed to start. We were all kinds of eager.
And guess what? We saw maybe eight protesters. They were just standing around, handing out flyers. A few of them were wearing those Guy Fawkes masks—you know, like the guy in V For Vendetta? Seven, maybe eight people demonstrating peacefully upstairs, and one guy down on the platform playing a recorded message over a loudspeaker that was turned down to an unobtrusive volume. Hell, it wasn’t just peaceful—this protest was boring.
I was disappointed so few people had shown up, and—well, I might as well be honest: I am an immature jerk, and even though I care about local politics I have to admit that I’m easily bored. So after sticking around for a few minutes, Zeia and I headed down to the record store to hang out a while. And we got out of the Civic Center just in time, before the hammer came down.
The message came over the loudspeakers just as we were leaving. The City was shutting down every station from Van Ness to Embarcadero. They ordered the protesters—and this was just eight boring guys, mind you—they ordered them to leave, and they brought down the gates. They brought down the gates at every BART station, and had every possible entrance and exit guarded by police.
I saw eight protesters today. But I saw at least sixty, maybe seventy cops. And a couple news-vans. And a few journalists on foot with their cameras, including one cameraman who scowled and wouldn’t believe me when I told him it was just eight guys. I saw police helicopters hovering overhead. Do you have any idea how expensive it is to use one of those helicopters? All told, the police action taken by the City of San Francisco must have cost tens of thousands of dollars at the very least.
To stop eight guys. Eight very civil, very boring guys, with an honest grievance and a constitutional right to peacefully protest. They brought the hammer down to stop a handful of geeks in Halloween masks.
Bear in mind, there were very few people at that protest. There weren’t even very many commuters, most of them having been forewarned of the protest by the morning paper. They figured the trains might be stopped, just like last time, so they avoided the Civic Center BART Station altogether. Most people never had a chance to see what I saw.
My point being, there weren’t many witnesses. And for those of you who weren’t actually at the protest, well, if you had to judge what it was like by what you saw outside the station, you’d assume there was a full-scale riot underway, wouldn’t you?
The Media will not disillusion you. I’m writing this note only a few hours after the fact, and thus far I’ve only found one paper that has posted a story about the protests, and it’s in Boston. Anyhow, here’s what they have to say:
Cellphone service was operating Monday night as an estimated 50 protesters gathered on the Civic Center Station platform chanting “no justice, no peace” shortly after 5 p.m. Thirty minutes later, police in riot gear and wielding batons closed the station and cleared the platform after protesters briefly delayed an east-bound train from departing.
From Civic Center, the protesters were joined by more demonstrators and marched down San Francisco’s Market Street and attempted to enter to more stations. Officials closed those stations as well.
“Once the platform becomes unsafe, we can’t jeopardize the safety of patrons and employees,” BART Deputy Police Chief Dan Hartwig said.
Hundreds of people stood on the sidewalks and streets outside stations in the city’s Financial District on Monday evening. Many of the people appeared to be commuters.
Did they say fifty protesters? What’s this about the platform becoming unsafe? What kind of bullshit is this? I was there at five, and I did not see any news cameras. I did, however, see a lot of news vans rolling down Market Street around six o’clock, after the stations were already shut down. Is it possible that whoever wrote this has no idea what he’s talking about? Is he just making this shit up, or is he repeating a lie the cops told him?
Either way, the most boring protest I’ve ever taken part in has been made to look like a bloody riot.
After two deployments to Iraq, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the ways the government and the media can manipulate the public perception of any event—by withholding information, by telling half-truths, and sometimes by outright lying. While I’d love to believe that what happened today was just an innocent overreaction on the part of the City, experience tells me that mistakes this big are never made by accident. Somebody wanted a massive police crackdown on this pitiful little protest. Somebody wanted it to look like the situation was far more dire than it really was.
The question is, why?
I want you to pay attention to the news. In the days and weeks ahead, our city officials will be full of bright ideas about how to deal with this sort of “public menace.” I want you to closely scrutinize these bright ideas our Fearless Leaders propose, and ask yourself: Is this proposal really justified? Or are our politicians just using the protests—the protests which have been blown completely out of proportion, I remind you—to justify their own political agenda?
We have to be very careful now.
Keep on rockin’ in the not-so-free world, folks—
PS: If you live in the Bay Area, I’d appreciate it if you reblogged this post. The media is already telling lies about what happened, and I want people to know the truth. Also, if you were at that protest, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What did you see? What do you make of it? Just drop me a message.