BART protests: What's the difference between Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Chinese government?

Obsessions, Manias, Complaints
Aug. 19 2011 1:58 PM

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What's the difference between BART and the Chinese government?

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This is, in every syllable, the voice of a Chinese Communist public-security official. Concerns about rights are a pretext, put forward by enemies of the state to undermine those protecting the public.

If the tactics are the same, and the rhetoric behind the tactics is the same, what's left? Intentions. The Conservative Party, we must understand, has its citizens' best interests at heart when it talks about jamming Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese Communist Party—let alone Egypt's National Democratic Party—does not. Conversely, rioters in London are antisocial hooligans, while rioters in Lhasa are provoked by injustice.

But intentions are hard to see across borders. The security of the state is the security of the state. Is there any government so insane and despotic that it doesn't believe its purpose is to make the nation safe and strong? Even if it seems to be doing the opposite? Putting down unrest has always been part of the mission of the people who rule China. There are stone monuments in Beijing's Confucius Temple commemorating the crushing of this or that insurrection in the empire's provinces centuries before anyone conceived of Twitter or of communism.

Chinese citizens riot and torch cars all the time. It's a big country, and people get angry about things. Last week, thousands of demonstrators in Guizhou burned vehicles in a protest against the abuses of the chengguan, the municipal regulatory police. The chengguan are supposed to enforce the rules against unlicensed vending and other forms of low-level disorderliness. The result is generally low-level tyranny.

The mission of BART, according to BART's statement, "is to provide, safe, secure, efficient, reliable, and clean transportation services." So there was the municipal transit agency, exercising its powers to shut down a protest. It's possible that BART had the legal right to cut off communications inside its stations. It can be argued that the inside of a transit station is an unsuitable place for a mass demonstration.

But the point of the would-be demonstrations was to challenge BART's judgment in how it used its powers. The protesters were protesting a shooting by transit police. BART's response showed that it couldn't even grasp that premise.

What about ordinary commuters, entering the zone of conflict with no access to their own mobile communications? "BART Police officers and other BART personnel with radios were present during the planned protest, and train intercoms and white courtesy telephones remained available for customers seeking assistance or reporting suspicious activity." The authorities were in charge. The authorities and no one else.

For a day, the measures worked—or in the unknowable world of security counterfactuals, they didn't not work. There were no disruptive protests during that commute. But BART's vision of tech dystopia was self-fulfilling. In response to the news of the phone shutdown, the vigilante hackers of Anonymous retaliated by breaking into its database of commuters' private information and launching a new round of demonstrations, teaming up with the original aggrieved parties. Technology was a dangerous thing after all.

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.