Bay Area Rapid Transit Shuts Down Cell Service to Squash Protest

by on August 13, 2011 · 28 comments

in Civil Rights, Popular

A man climbs on top of a commuter train during a protest at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco, Monday, July 11. About 100 demonstrators had gathered to condemn the fatal July 3 shooting of a man by transit police during a confrontation. BART shut down cell service on August 11 to prevent a similar protest. Eric Risberg / AP / File

Appalling: BART tactic may be first time a government agency disrupts cellphone service in the quell planned protests

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd /AlterNet /  August 13, 2011

Thursday night [August 11, 2011] , a protest was planned in the Bay Area Rapid Transit to protest the latest police shooting of an unarmed man. But protesters found themselves without cell service, and now a BART official admits that cell service was shut off to quell the action—violating citizens’ First Amendment rights. CS Monitor :

 Because July protests against BART police shootings had turned violent, BART officials took the unusual step to protect public safety, they said. The tactic may have worked: No protests took place Thursday night at BART stations.

 Temporarily shutting down cell service and beefing up police patrols were “great tool[s] to utilize for this specific purpose,” BART police Lt. Andy Alkire told Bay City News Friday. The protests, planned for sometime between 4 and 8 p.m. in transit stations, would likely have disrupted service for many of the 341,000 daily BART passengers.

 This may be the first time a government agency in the United States has ever deliberately disrupted cellphone service to defang planned protests, criminologist Casey Jordan told CNN. “I haven’t been able to find another incident in which this has happened,” she told CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux Friday.

 But isn’t digital jamming exactly the same thing governments in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere this Spring were doing? Is the BART acting like an oppressive regime? Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, thinks what BART did was dubious. He told the Monitor, “it’s a very disquieting development. Here you have a government agency indiscriminately closing down all kinds of speech in order to prevent a perceived possibility of violence.”

For the remainder of the Christian Science article, please go here.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Terrie Leigh Relf August 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing outside thriller and spy novels. . .I just emailed by brother and sister to see what, if anything, they heard, as they all live in the Bay Area.


Allen Lewis August 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Desperate times calls for desperate actions, this holds true for both sides. If people want to go violent to make a point and destroy innocent peoples stores and homes and maybe even heart or kill, than I think the law needs to do what they can to curb this. The smart people are not taking action, only the stupid ones. This hurts what needs to be done to properly protest what’s happing. This may not happen in my time, but at some point all people will become fed up with what is going on with the power that governs us. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” — “Thomas Jefferson” … not innocent people. So when stupid people protest they go after the wrong people, and it turns on us ( the smart people) and makes us look bad.


Goatskull August 14, 2011 at 1:25 am

Kind of like London.


john August 20, 2011 at 5:37 am

as I alluded to in another article, when South Central rioted, who ultimately suffered the most? South Central.

In this case it’s a different equation, those in charge have a duty to the people, but which people? Those who have the right to gather in public protest? Or a much larger group who have the right to utilize public transportation and get home from work without being disrupted by people whose choice of using their democratic power really is not the most mature or effective?


Sande Stoneman August 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

It’s the actions of the Thought Police. Unconstitutional and anti-commerce, too!
The paying customers of cell phone companies need to demand a refund on mass.
If Democracy doesn’t work anymore, hit the Capitalists!


Amy Morritt April 1, 2014 at 8:59 am

WTF is the “Thought Police”, crazy conspiracy theorist ? Where in the Constitution does it say cell phones are a right?? Showing supreme lack of empathy for the man shot and anger about your phone shows your ignorance. And its “en Mass”. Not “on Mass”. Go get an education, Moron Stoneman.

You do not have a clue what you are saying “about hitting the Capitalists”.


Patty Jones August 14, 2011 at 10:55 am

So I have a question for the geeks out there… How can BART shutdown cell service? Do they have some kind of signal booster underground and they shut that off?


annagrace August 14, 2011 at 11:14 am

Patty- I was wondering the same thing. This got reported in Washington Post
“The Christian Science Monitor reports that BART did not use jamming technology, “it simply turned off a service,” as it has contracts with five telecommunication companies to provide underground and station service. The Federal Communications Commission forbids jamming cellphones, not turning off a service.”

We should be mad as hell and very very concerned about this.


Wireless Mike August 14, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Cellular phone signals in the air cannot penetrate the ground into tunnels. To provide cellular service in underground tunnels, there are usually repeater antennas or separate cell sites located in the tunnels. Those could be easily switched off without disrupting cellular service above ground. Jamming of cellular services is illegal.

I don’t know if the underground equipment is owned by the cellular phone company or the transit authority. Either way, it disturbs me that municipal officials have the authority to shut down common carrier telecommunications networks at their own discretion.


RB August 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm

The airlines tell you when and where you can use your cell phones.
I see no reason a transit system must supply service. They provide a signal to increase ridership not because they are required.


Patty Jones August 14, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Thanks Wireless.


Wireless Mike August 14, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Federal law prohibits the use of cell phones on board an airplane in flight. The signal from a cell phone at altitude can reach many different cell sites at the same time, causing network interference. The signal may also interfere with radio communication and navigation equipment in the cockpit. The airlines are required to comply with these federal laws. These laws do not apply to subway trains.


Dickie August 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Let’s not forget they do, or try to do, this sort of thing all the time in China and various mideast and other autocracies. And the BART people were no less trying to cover their damn asses as their security people have killed at least three in the last coup0le of years . . .


Patty Jones August 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Here’s an article from the BBC, England riots: Government mulls social media controls.

They’re talking social media and text messaging, but to shut down cell service entirely? wow.


JEC August 14, 2011 at 7:17 pm

The employees of BART who did this did it without legal authority. A violation of the Government Code. As to the goal of safety; BART”s myoptic perspective ignores the risk they created – how many people rely on their cell as a safety tool? Parents to children, seniors, ADA persons with medical conditions. Public phones, once ever present, are no more. A 911 call almost must be made on a cell. The D.A. or the State Attorney General needs to take action to protect the public from arbitrary actions by public employees.


annagrace August 14, 2011 at 7:42 pm

JEC- I agree with you but for one point. We the public need to be protected from the arbitrary actions of the State, not by “pubic employees.” The man or woman driving those trains probably had no clue about what was going on and certainly no authority to disrupt service. This was an upper level decision carried out by impunity for utterly fascist reasons.


annagrace August 14, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Ok. How about “public employees.” I know, I know…..


JEC August 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Annagrace – please consider – “the State” the upper level people – not the train drivers but their bosses; the managers and executives. I am a retired public manager; I know that decision was made high up the food chain. But as you know they are still public employees and need to be reminded, from time to time, that they are there to serve the public. Disrupting a public utility is beyond their scope of authority. If those executives directed others to shut down a public utility they lacked that authority. Make them an example. Lose their jobs, lose their pensions. It can be done; it should be done. But the news article does not tell us how it was done; important to know to determine who to hold responsible.


annagrace August 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm

JEC- I agree that BART is a public entity and there is no private property argument that can apply to what occurred. We, the public, should hold them accountable, and we have a clear right to do so.

Anonymous has also taken on the issue:
“Anonymous will take the following actions over the next 48 hours.

1) We have begun at once a massive Black Fax and E-Mail Bomb action, where we will fill every inbox and fax machine at BART with thousands of copies of our message that this outage was unacceptable.

2) Tomorrow, Sunday – August 14, 2011 at High Noon Pacific Time we, Anonymous – will remove from the internet the web site of BART located at for exactly six hours. That’s twice as long as they shut off the cell phones for.

3) On Monday – August 15, 2011 at 5:00 PM Pacific Time there will be a physical protest at the Civic Center Bart Station. Expect us !

We sincerely hope that this series of actions will serve as a warning to BART and every public organization in the USA to NOT engage in this sort of dangerous and human rights violating behavior.”

Will the ACLU be far behind???


john August 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Anonymous +++++++++++++++


BOBOB August 15, 2011 at 9:29 am

what if it saved a life, or two or three…I’m on the fence about it.


Patty Jones August 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm

It could just as easily go the other way too, what if there was an unrelated emergency and no one could call for help?


john August 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I hate to say it (and I don’t approve of this) but as they merely shut down what amounts to a courtesy service and didn’t actively jam signals, they’re probably on solid legal footing here.
It’s nice to think the first amendment would apply but that’s really a stretch. I don’t think we have the guarantee to have our communication via wireless devices boosted by repeater stations to places that can’t be reached through yards of water, concrete and steel by RF energy.
OTOH that civics class was back in the 70’s, my memory may be cloudy on that. Mr. Natural took a few bites out of it…
I’m not sure about BART but isn’t the SD Trolley’s tracks and stations technically private property- or at least structured as such?
I’m at their website and while MTS is definately a government entity, it’s comprised of so many various layers of government entities and private contractors it’s hard to see who would be accountable if they pulled something like that here.
In any case this shouldn’t have completely prevented a protest, unless the would be protestors were already in the tunnels , either on the train or in the station underground. I’m betting the protest was a no show because of lack of interest.
I think Patty makes the most important point of all above- what if someone had a heart attack or stroke- would anyone think to go find a traditional wired call box or would they sit there repeatedly trying to call out on their cell phone, not knowing BART had pulled the plug? Doubtful there was a payphone nearby, in case anyone didn’t notice, pay phones are now all but nonexistent.


JEC August 16, 2011 at 10:02 am

I don’t think you’d find support suggesting cell service is just a courtesy; it is a regulated public utility that actually carries civil defense designation.


RB August 16, 2011 at 10:50 am

There are civil defense reasons for blocking cell service too.


JEC August 17, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Does Spain have our Constitution? Spain had a Fascist dictator just 36 years ago; a good comparison? Or are we the citizens a proper enemy to be subdued? It seems what BART did they did intentionally to frustrate the legal exercise of rights. What “might” happen is not material. Only what does happen.


john August 20, 2011 at 5:30 am

The courtesy is BART’s installation and operation of repeaters to allow coverage where cell carrier’s equipment won’t reach. They don’t need to do that. We’re discussing “right to convenience of technology” at this point and while the SCOTUS does update our rights from time to time when you are intermingling privately supplied services like this it gets murky to argue we’re guaranteed anything.


Allen Lewis August 17, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I can’t believe the comments keep going on and on about this. when your on BART your under water for Christ’s sakes, your lucky you have a cell phone. There is more pressing things to be thinking about that your cell coverage. If you go for a ride in my can your going to have jazz for your interment, so when you ride on BART you get what they give you, get over it already. Read my first comment for more insight.


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