In reaction to shutting down communications to prevent protest, U.S. reveals double standards

Police detain a protester at a subway station in San Francisco

Last week, the transit authority in San Francisco shut down cell phone communications in order to prevent protests against a series of killings by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). The most recent incident was the shooting of Charles Hill on July 2. As described at the blog No Justice, No BART,

On July 2, while drunk and barely able to stand up, Charles Hill was gunned down on the civic center BART platform by a BART Police Officer.   This marked the third officer involved shooting since Oscar Grant was shot, and the sixth in BART police history.

Right away, we knew not to believe BART’s version of events.  They have lied to the public and attempted to cover up the facts following every single one of the officer-involved shootings that made it into the press.  We saw this process play out in painstaking detail following the shooting of Oscar Grant (not to mention the murders of Jerrold Hall and Bruce Seward), so we know their routine.  …

When BART released the video our fears about the incident were confirmed.  Also, we learned details about the shooting that DIRECTLY contradicted claims BART police chief Kenton Rainey had made at press conferences.  Which means we caught him in a bald faced lie, defending wrongdoing by his officers.   Which is the same thing that happened with then BART Police Chief Gee and the Oscar Grant shooting.   Like Chief Gee, Rainey has defended the officers, claiming that they had followed police procedure and he wanted to get them back on the job.  Even though we can see from the video, and we know from the eye witnesses, that there was no real threat posed to the officers on the platform when Charles Hill was shot.

At this point, as far as we know, both officers (like the ones who stood by while Oscar Grant was gunned down) are back on the job, undisciplined, and the shooter, whose identity has been discovered, is actually trying to negotiate a job with the FBI so he can resign quietly from BART!  This is astonishing and unacceptable. …

In response to the shooting, the group called for “protests to pressure BART and the SF District Attorney to take action and produce some accountability and justice in this situation.” Demonstrators gathered on July 11, shutting down several BART stations and evading police for hours.

Another protest was called for August 11, and in response, the BART authorities preemptively cut cell phone service in the subway stations in order to prevent demonstrators from communicating with each other. BART police Lieut. Andy Alkire said that the move to kill cell phone service was “a great tool to utilize for this specific purpose,” i.e., preventing demonstrators from exercising their First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech.

So, rather than responding to the protesters’ concerns over the lack of accountability of BART police officers, the response of the authorities was instead geared towards trying to prevent public criticism altogether. It’s difficult not to draw the obvious parallels to authoritarian regimes that have taken similar steps in countries such as Syria, Iran and Egypt, a point made cogently by the hacktivist movement known as Anonymous:

The ACLU of Northern California also weighed in, making a similar point:

All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly.  Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?

So far the transit agency is mum on exactly how they blocked cell service. Did it ask the cell provider to shut off service? Did it simply shut off the service itself?  Or did it illegally use a jammer? Either way, when the government responds to people protesting against it by silencing them, it’s dangerous to democracy. The government shouldn’t be in the business of cutting off the free flow of information.

Shutting down access to mobile phones is the wrong response to political protests, whether it’s halfway around the world or right here in San Francisco.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization devoted to freedom of speech in the digital age, asked on its website,

Was pulling the plug on people’s phones a quick, on-the-spot decision, or part of a protest-response plan vetted by BART’s lawyers? Who decided that blocking all cellphone calls at these BART stations was the right response to news that there might be a protest? Were the carriers ever in the loop about this plan or action? Who decided that the news of this planned protest justified the shutdown? How do we know this isn’t going to happen again?

Indeed, BART said today that it had instituted the following rules, including: “No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”

What does that mean? We can’t talk?

“BART officials are showing themselves to be of a mind with the former president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak,” said the EFF.

When the Egyptian authorities cut off cell phone and internet service  in an attempt to quell the growing demonstrations against the rule of Hosni Mubarak, they came under intense international criticism, with particularly strong words from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

As we have repeatedly said, we support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, of association, and of assembly.

We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications. These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society and the Egyptian government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.

In its crackdown on protesters in Hama, the Syrian government imposed an almost complete communications blackout earlier this month.

“Syrian authorities suspended cell phone services, land lines, electricity, and water when tanks rumbled into the city center,” reported the Washington Post, “drawing an international outcry and the first UN statement condemning the brutal suppression of protesters since the revolt began in March.”

In response to anti-government demonstrations in Iran in 2009, the authorities there took similar measures. “One opposition newspaper has been closed down and BBC websites also appear to have been blocked by the Iranian authorities,” reported the BBC. “The AP news agency reports that mobile phone services have been blocked in Tehran.”

For its crackdown on the opposition, Clinton has said that Iran is pursuing “tyranny at home,” and has rejected Tehran’s criticism of the Libyan regime’s violence as hypocritical. “Iran, for example, has consistently pursued policies of violence abroad and tyranny at home,” she said.

“In Tehran, security forces have beaten, detained, and in several recent cases killed peaceful protesters even as Iran’s president has made a show of denouncing the violence in Libya,” she said, dismissing Iran’s stated condemnation of violence in Libya as hypocrisy.

Yet, the irony appears to be lost on U.S. authorities that they also forfeit the right to criticize other governments when the same tactics are utilized by the authorities in the USA. For the sake of basic consistency, obviously, the same standards need to be applied at home.

While the Federal Communications Commission is apparently investigating the BART incident, it seems to be doing so quietly, with no mention of it on its website. FCC spokesperson Neil Grace did, however, send the following statement to the press:

Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation. We are continuing to collect information about BART’s actions and will be taking steps to hear from stakeholders about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks.

Considering the relevance of the developments in San Francisco to U.S. credibility on the international stage, however, it might behoove the Obama administration to weigh in more directly. The silence on the matter is just one more strike against the United States in its ability to exert pressure on human rights abusers without being rightfully accused of double standards.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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