In the wake of England’s worst street protests and riots in a generation, British PM David Cameron has called for U.S.-style “gang” policy to repress its restive youth, as well as authoritarian Middle East-style suppression of free speech by blocking cell phone and social media networks.
In San Francisco, famous for its liberal politics and advocacy of civil liberties, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) actually did shut down cell phone transmission in its train stations for three hours Thursday in order to preemptively squelch a threatened protest, the SF Chronicle reported today.
In England, the riots erupted in response to the police killing of an unarmed black man in a poor neighborhood that had been suffering ongoing police harassment of youth of color. The planned BART protest was in response to the killing of Charles Blair Hill, an unarmed homeless man who was shot in the back by BART police. This was the second time BART police had killed an unarmed man in the past three years (they murdered Oscar Grant in January, 2009). In both cases, protesters invaded BART stations, disrupting traffic and annoying BART officials.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation likened the transit board to Hosni Mubarak. The ACLU said the move was the “wrong response to political protests.” Others called it illegal and unconstitutional. It was certainly unnecessary and inappropriate to block phone communication for all riders, some of whom may have had legitimate business, transportation or safety issues to communicate with colleagues or family members. BART, however, justified the tactic, saying it is illegal to demonstrate on their station platforms or in their trains.
Of course it is absurd to say that one illegal or inappropriate act justifies another. However, it is also absurd to claim support for free speech by sequestering demonstrators in “free speech” cages away from foot traffic and their desired audience, as BART has done.