Censorship’s Deadly Crossroads in San Francisco

On the evening of July 3, Charles Blair Hill was shot and killed in San Francisco. At the time of the shooting, Hill was on the platform of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART) Civic Center station, located just a couple blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall complex.

Hill was homeless and also thought to have had unaddressed mental health problems.

Initially Hill was suspected to have been intoxicated at the time, but unarmed. Since the incident occurred, however, BART police informed that Hill had a knife, which they say was used to assault the arresting officers.

In the ensuing weeks, protests have been planned and organized, one of which spurred BART administrators to shut down cell phone and internet service in the immediate area of the Civic Center station as an attempt to quell potential BART commute disruptions, also citing public safety. This event then triggerd others, whereby civil rights organizations, including an international, activist, hacker group called Anonymous, expressed outrage by what they see as free speech censorship by BART police.

The fatal shooting of Mr. Hill is the latest in a string of deadly incidents involving BART police, which include the following 5 deaths occurring over the last 19 years:

1992, Jerrold Hall

1997, Robert Greer

2001, Bruce Seward

2009, Oscar Grant

2010, Fred Collins

Not every person who has died in an altercation with BART police is documented with a history of homeless, substance abuse and/ or mental illness, as is the case with Mr. Hill, and yet homelessness and mental health is definitely a crisis in the city. In an article by Paul Linde, published in Psychology Today, entitled “San Francisco’s Homeless Mentally Ill: Still Neglected,” an excerpt reads:

The homeless mentally ill in the city of San Francisco have been so visible for so long they’ve become almost part of the landscape…invisible people who, for all intents and purposes, have disappeared.

I still see these people. Time and again when I am out and about in San Francisco, I observe many of the “frequent flyers,” many of whom I know by name, that I’ve assessed in the psychiatric ER of San Francisco General Hospital, where I’ve worked as a physician and psychiatrist for more than 20 years. I’ve had to discharge many of them back out to the streets because there is no will on the part of the city or the state of California to provide appropriate care to these patients.

In my opinion, this is tantamount to discrimination.

There is no will on the part of the politicians or public health officials to provide them appropriate care. The wish is for “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” Cut services enough and maybe they’ll leave town. These people don’t vote. They don’t donate to political campaigns. They don’t show up at meetings of the San Francisco Health Commission. They don’t live in Pacific Heights or Noe Valley.

The word has long been out in the circles of health care economics: inpatient psychiatry is a money loser. And it’s not as if we’re talking about taking care of babies or young mothers or old folks. We’re talking about “crazy” people here. Not a warm and fuzzy bunch. Who is going to advocate for these people, who are disenfranchised, disempowered, and forgotten.

The censoring of free speech has also emerged as a defining aspect of BART’s ongoing deadly confrontations with passengers, with this past Monday seeing—in retaliation for BART’s decision to cut off wireless service to cell phones and computers using the Internet—Anonymous put together a campaign called “OpBART.” The counter-strike involved Anonymous hacking into the BART website, myBart.org, and leaking the names, phone numbers and passwords of BART train passengers.

That resulted in BART officials closing 4 train stations during the evening rush hour.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, a member of Anonymous who used the alias “X” is quoted as saying:

We gave them a little taste of their own medicine,” X says. “We’re information activists just trying to make our world a bit freer and a little better.” On the question about the FBI investigation over the hack, X says: “I don’t want to get caught… I am literally running from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, from city to city, from state to state, to try to avoid this massive, multimillion-dollar manhunt that they’ve put out for Anonymous. And for what? What have we done, Amy? Point to one thing where we’ve hurt a single human being… BART…kills its innocent people… How dare they do this in the United States of America?

Shedding further light on this dilemma, Tim Karr—campaign director of Free Press and the SavetheInternet.com Coalition—joins the discussion:

Tim, what are your thoughts about Anonymous and their attack on BART?

I have mixed feelings about Anonymous. They emerged as a powerful force in the realm of open media, and a lot of things they do are good. Their heart is in the right place, but I do question some of their targets. I’m not on board with this idea of hacking into private companies and releasing data to the public. Also the practice of denial of service attacks, which effectively shuts down or takes over websites, can be problematic when it shuts off a voice… people’s ability to reach a website. I don’t always agree that that’s the best, though all and all I tend to agree with their tactics. The freedom to connect is right; they are a force for good.

You say in an article for Media Citizen that “Earlier this summer Cleveland’s City Council passed an ordinance outlawing the use of Facebook and other social media to assemble unruly crowds. While a mayoral veto struck down the Cleveland ruling, the overreaction is part of a spreading official backlash against political organizing on new media.” So, because this type of thing is happening here in the US, namely censorship, do you think this is causing yet another layer of indignation?

Anonymous is a global collective, but I think what is a happening here, is that when you see this in the US it becomes particularly glaring for them and others because the us has declared itself a global champion of free speech and the first amendment has been modeled by governments around the world. So for sites like Facebook and Twitter, challenges arrive. And governments try to stop this new outpouring of free speech. This was an opportunity for anonymous to illustrate that this is not a problem just in China and Egypt, but this is a problem that is spreading.

You also write in the Media Citizen piece that BART spokesperson, Linton Johnson, said constitutional rights end the moment people walk through transit-authority turnstiles. So while this complex challenged is coming to the fore in San Francisco, media reports have brought it to light that in response to the uprisings in London recently, Prime Minister David Cameron is interested in quelling free speech as well; justifying that with national security interests. Your thoughts?

In the statements that Linton made, and the statements that Cameron made, are a classic example of a kinda official overreaction to new media. Because, they don’t understand the technology there is a tendency to overreach.

We are going to shut it down rather than to take a more nuanced approach.

It’s a shock to me that they don’t see this as our right to speak freely, and to share information. We are in a dangerous realm right now, and what was attempted in Cleveland and seems to be in the works in the UK. If that succeeds, then we’re heading towards a pretty dangerous time. I urge legal scholars and the courts to get in engaged sooner rather than later, so we can establish a clear message on free speech and assembly.

Is there a middle road here—what solutions may lie ahead?

I think the first amendment stands, I don’t’ know if there’s a middle road. There are some instances where other concerns may trump your ability to have free speech anywhere. We need to make sure that the free speech protections are also applied to new media and cell phones to share information. That’s where the definitions get a little more complicated. So, we need to take a deep look to free speech; to make sure that we have clear legal protections across the board.