Law enforcement and transit officials shut down four downtown San Francisco train stations and closed a swath of busy Market Street during the height of the evening commute Monday in response to a noisy protest.
Market Street was choked with hundreds of pedestrians struggling to get home, stopping at each successive Bay Area Rapid Transit station entrance only to be turned away. Helicopters lumbered overhead and police in riot gear followed protesters east toward the San Francisco Bay.
The stations were closed for about two hours during a demonstration against alleged BART police brutality and a decision by agency officials last week to cut underground cellphone service in an effort to quell an earlier protest.
Demetria Polk, 21, stood perplexed at the Powell Street station. It was the Oakland resident's first day on the job at a check-cashing operation in the city, and she had no idea how to get home to her daughters, ages 1 and 4.
"I'll call you when I get on the BART," she said into her cellphone, "if I get on the BART."
The protest, which began at 5 p.m. in the Civic Center station, was called by the cyber "hacktivist" organization Anonymous. Attendees were encouraged to wear "blood-stained" shirts scrawled with "Don't shoot, I'm unarmed" — a reference to a homeless man recently killed by a transit officer.
Several dozen protesters crowded the station, and at one point stopped a train by blocking the open door and chanting, "No justice, no peace! Disband the BART police." Moments later, an officer in riot gear lifted a red bullhorn and told the demonstrators to disperse.
By 5:25 p.m., BART police closed the station. As the protest moved east, more stations were shuttered. Trains whizzed through but would not stop downtown to allow passengers on or off. Service was not restored until about 7:15.
"Once the platform becomes unsafe, we can't jeopardize the safety of the patrons and employees," BART Deputy Police Chief Dan Hartwig said as protesters filed out of the Civic Center station. "We are not opposed to them expressing their 1st Amendment rights, but it has to be safe."
Sgt. Michael Andraychak, spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, said his agency decided to close Market Street but made no arrests and reported no injuries. The protest was over before 8:30 p.m.
"Traffic was congested," he said. "A lot of people who would have taken BART were stranded.… It seems that [protesters] were voicing their concerns, exercising their 1st Amendment rights but being cooperative with police."
BART officials had come under increasing fire Monday from 1st Amendment experts nationwide who say the agency overreached when it shut off cellphone service to thousands of train passengers last week to thwart a protest over police actions.
The ACLU of Northern California sent a letter to BART officials — copied to the Federal Communications Commission — demanding that the transit agency swear off the practice. It referred to BART as the "first known government agency in the United States to block cell service in order to disrupt a political protest."
Late in the day, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said in a statement that the matter was under investigation.
"Any time communications services are interrupted, we seek to assess the situation," he said, adding that the commission is gathering information "about the important issues those actions raised, including protecting public safety and ensuring the availability of communications networks."
As BART prepared for the Monday evening protest, the president of the agency's board of directors said it would be "a big stretch" to use the cellphone-blackout tactic again.
"It's no longer a BART issue, it's a nationwide issue and the public has to weigh in on it," said Bob Franklin, who confirmed that BART had contacted the FCC to explain its rationale. "That's the difference between our country and other countries. We will have a public dialogue on this and talk about an appropriate use, if it is appropriate."
On Monday, cellphone, text message, email and Internet services worked in BART's downtown stations leading up to and during the protest.
A 19-year-old college student and landscape worker who would identify himself only by his last name, Capurro, wore a white T-shirt spray-painted with "blood" and brandished a sign that said "Protect Free Speech" on one side and "Stop Police Brutality" on the other.
The controversy, which has spurred comparisons to tactics used by repressive regimes in Egypt and Iran, erupted after BART turned off cellphone service for three hours Thursday at four stations to preempt what officials feared might be a repeat of a rowdy rampage earlier this month.
Last week's action had been planned by "No Justice No BART," the same group that paralyzed commuter service July 11. The group has demanded the firing of a transit officer who recently shot and killed Charles Hill, a drunk homeless man who police say was armed with a knife.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the officer involved in that incident, James Crowell, had been planning to leave the transit agency to take a job with the FBI. Following the shooting, he rescinded his resignation from BART and was cleared to return to duty.
Hill's death came after criticism of BART police for the New Year's Day 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man, and attempts to reform the department.