Holding the police responsible

August 25, 2011

More than 200 protesters took to San Francisco's streets August 22 to protest police violence and civil liberties violations. In response, authorities arrested 45 people and closed the Civic Center and Powell Street Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) stations for several hours. This follows similar protests the week before in which several downtown BART stations were also closed.

The protests were provoked by the death of Charles Hill, a homeless man shot by BART police in the Civic Center station on July 3. For a July 11 protest, BART authorities closed the Civic Center station and shut down underground cell phone and Internet service throughout the system. This outraged civil libertarians, some of whom, organized in a loose-knit group calling itself Anonymous, launched a "hacktavism" campaign targeting the BART system.

Jevon Cochran is a member of La Voz de los Trabajadores, a University of California-Berkeley student, and a resident of Oakland who took part in the BART protests--he was among those arrested on August 22. He talked Alex Schmaus about what's at stake in this struggle.

MUCH OF the recent media coverage of the controversy surrounding the BART system has focused on the decision by system operators to shut down underground cell phone and Internet service in an attempt to disrupt protests at four San Francisco stations. But isn't there a need for a public discussion of the issues that provoked the protests in the first place?

I COMMEND all of the groups that have criticized BART and the San Francisco police for what really was a civil liberties violation when they shut off cell phone service, but I think that the media has focused a lot on that aspect of the conflict, or they have focused on the fact that BART trains are being disrupted, when to me, the big picture is that the police shot and killed a man.

Not only that, but BART police have shot and killed multiple people recently. They are in charge of keeping safety and order on BART trains and they are not doing that. They are actually responsible for putting people's safety in jeopardy. I feel that should be the focus of this discussion.

Demonstrators gather outside a BART station to demand that the transit police be disbanded
Demonstrators gather outside a BART station to demand that the transit police be disbanded (James Carwil | Indybay.org)

WHAT SHOULD residents of the Bay Area be demanding of the BART system?

OUR MAJOR demand has been that BART police be disarmed. There's no reason why transit police should be carrying weapons on passenger trains.

We should also demand that the police officers who are responsible for the murder of BART passenger Charles Hill be brought to justice. Sixty seconds after BART police arrived on the San Francisco Civic Center station platform to deal with this mentally ill man, they deal with the situation by killing him--murdering him. I think that is unacceptable.

A number of people who witnessed the killing have pointed out that this man was obviously drunk, that he was mentally ill, that he had a knife in his hand, but that he did not seem to be threatening people to the point that he needed to be killed. BART police had pepper spray, they had batons, they had Tasers, and they had the advantage of outnumbering this man.

There were a number of ways they could have chosen to deal with that situation in a non-lethal way. This situation just highlights the fact that BART police think it's acceptable to kill. The police officers who are responsible for the murder of Charles Hill should be brought to justice.

The demand that BART pledge to never again shut down cell phone service in response to a protest is a demand that we should fight for. This seems like something that might be relatively easy to win after the backlash that BART got from the community, from civil rights and civil liberties groups all across the country, and internationally.

HOW CAN concerned activists help push this struggle forward?

THE BOARD that runs the BART system has been pressured to open up their upcoming meeting so the community can comment on the recent controversy surrounding the cell phone and Internet shutdown. I expect the overwhelming sentiment at that meeting is going to be that BART was out of line and that should never happen again. There will be people there who are upset about the continued incidences of police brutality and police violence at the hands of BART police.

It's just over two years since the racist police execution of Oscar Grant on a BART platform in Oakland. Now we're reacting to a similar police execution directed against a transient in San Francisco. Why do you think it is that in the Bay Area in 2011 we have to struggle with this level of police violence?

This is not an issue that is contained to the Bay Area. In Southern California, a homeless man was attacked by police in Orange County and was beaten to the point of being put in a coma, and he died five days later. In Chicago this year, there have been 43 police shootings of civilians and 16 people killed.

Earlier this month, five New Orleans police officers were convicted of murder for their involvement in a cover-up scheme that took place after a police shooting that led to the deaths and injuries of several people crossing the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. We've also seen what's happened in London with the insurrection there following a police murder.

So, this is in no way something that is contained to the Bay Area. I think that the roots of police violence are contained in larger issues such as racism and poverty. In communities like the Bayview in San Francisco, in communities of color in Oakland, in communities like Tottenham in London, you have some of the poorest people.

Residents of these communities don't have jobs, they don't have educational opportunities, they're lacking social programs and services that are vital to their survival. The result is situations where people get involved in crime. The real answer to high crime rates in poor communities and communities of color is jobs, education and opportunity. Since our capitalist society refuses to provide people with that, they send in police to deal with these people, which in no way solves the situation.

They way I see it, instead of giving people opportunities to prevent and effectively root out crime, our society is using the police as exterminators of the poor. To me, that is really the root cause of the problem.

We need to build a national movement that can fight police violence and win economic justice, jobs and education for people in poor communities so this kind of stuff doesn't have to happen.

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