In the last few decades, there has been a trend toward increasing authoritarian control and limits on rights to free speech. Police have been more militarized and repressive in their approach. Should this be of concern for citizens? One example of this abuse of police power occurred recently in San Francisco. The online collective Anonymous launched OpBART and got involved with what started out as protests against recent killings by BART police.
Police brutality was not the only thing brought to the surface by these protests. Various efforts on the part of BART officials to shut down independent witnessing of these events revealed larger issues.
On Thursday, Sep 8, during the NoFare protest initiated by No Justice-No BART, police detained protesters including journalists within the Powell station. Among those arrested were journalism students who were there as part of a class assignment. Not only did the police cite journalists, they took away their press credentials and told them to leave or risk arrest.
This sounds familiar. A similar story unfolded during the 2008 presidential elections. Amy Goodman and others of DemocracyNow radio program were arrested while covering demonstrations at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. The police took away her press pass and handcuffed her. In that police action, the first amendment lost its meaning. On the streets of Minnesota and outside the fare gates of BART stations, rights of free speech and press have been squashed.
The creation of so called ‘free speech zones’ is one of the hallmarks of this trend toward excessive power. In the SF BART protests, we saw the shifting boundaries of free speech. The group engaged in a series of actions under the name OpBART. At the first operation, protesters on the platform were arrested. Toward the end of OpBART 2, some people were arrested for blocking traffic. Last Thursday, the police attempted to exert control over a group of about 40 people, handcuffing them without fair warning or apparent justification during the peaceful demonstration outside the fare gates.
Prior to these arrests at Powell on Thursday, police told protesters that they have to keep their action outside the fare gates, implying that inside the fare gates no free speech is allowed. Then, even when the protesters complied, the police themselves blocked the fare gates and proceeded with a tactic of dubious legality called kettling. It might as well be called ‘cattling’. These tactics amount to privatizing a public space by corralling the protesters in a predetermined fenced-in zone and temporarily imprisoning them without charge. In this way, the civic sphere is squeezed away along with the physical freedom and Constitutional rights of those with a grievance against their government.
Josh Wolf, local journalist and film maker documented this unfolding event of First Amendment rights being stripped away from US citizens. BART spokesmen repeatedly used the language of safety to justify their actions, yet if one looks at the reality this is hypocritical and inaccurate. BART demonstrators have never hurt or threatened people, while BART police have a history of violence and fatal shootings.
Beyond the legal ramifications, what does this event reveal? I have been closely following the OpBART phenomenon. From the onset, the operation was portrayed as protesters vs. BART, especially as the protests had been colored by Anonymous. This ‘us vs. them’ characterization is natural, as the act of protest is about resistance and challenging the powers that be. Yet, after every Monday protest, this divide seemed to have only grown. Both inside and outside the fare gates, protesters are no different than BART’s other paying customers that the transit agency claims to be serving. Yet, it seems that ordinary citizen’s desire for their voices to be heard is perceived as a threat. When did those concerned citizens become the enemy of this police force and the government?
As a result of BART needlessly shutting down stations and escalating the situation, the commuters have become casualties of this battle. Public perception is the larger battleground and this is likely the reason that journalists who tried to document the scene were targeted during NoFare protest. The Bay Citizen article revealed how BART officials themselves actively engaged in a media campaign to sway public support, trying to paint themselves as the good guys and protesters as the bad guys. BART authorities repeatedly used the rhetoric of protecting public safety and the tired refrain of unreasonable protesters disturbing the commute.
Let’s review the sequence of changes in public perception with these events: At the first OpBART in August, BART chose to shut down the stations. It was BART’s decision. Yet, for commuters, the story became “their commute was disrupted due to protesters”.
The following Monday on OpBART 2, people already frustrated by this apparent multi-scene drama saw protesters as nuisance. The actions of those who were engaged in OpBART 2 did not help to alter this fixed mindset. BART once again decided to shut down stations. The crowd marched through downtown without much apparent purpose and this appeared to some as misdirected. Words such as hippies and kids with no jobs were quickly attached to OpBART. During OpBART 2, when protesters marched down Market Street, I saw a bicycler coming through the crowd who yelled, “Get the f*ck out of here”, showing his contempt toward the group. During OpBART 3, agitated commuters were said to be there to counter protest, which turned out not to really be the case.
Twitter user @DamonBruce voiced:
“Dear BART protesters – let hard working people get home to their families on time. Thanks, ‘The Normals’”.
The public began to act out on the constructed image of the protesters, who in the eyes of many commuters were radicalized and marginalized to appear different than BART and media’s characterization of ‘normal riders’.
Some protesters saw these unfavorable images, being built within the public. The Twitter account, Anon Street Medics (@AnonMedics) proposed more focused action before OpBART 3 and the impulse for the NoFare protest was to improve this perception, to indicate to the public who the protestors really are and how the group is standing up for the general public and are not trying to close the stations or block the gates.
Yet, the Thursday NoFare event was kind of a climax of this polarizing fight. The police shut down Powell Station and suspended the first amendment especially for the press who were present. How would it be possible to effect this already narrowed perception? The key lies in understanding how perception works.
We are often not conscious of the process of perception. Usually things outside impress us without our involvement and views are easily colored. Performing artists understand how to work with audience’s perception. They know on stage they only have a couple of minutes in performance to influence their perception.
The protesters were working against already formed perception about them in the mainstream media. They entered a landscape that was already set on BART’s terms. Chanting is easily framed as disruption to order, no matter how true or important the message might be. Placards and masks are easily portrayed as a sign of unsophisticated rebellious acts.
What maybe needed is for this group of concerned citizens to create their own rules, to shift the ground of perception and create their own stage. Then they can insert themselves onto a new space, rather than simply counteracting the BART police state stance of violence and confrontation.
So how can people change the trend of increasing authoritarian control? Culture jamming might offer another creative direction. Culture jamming was coined in the year 1984, as a method employed by anti-consumerists and activists to interrupt and shake up the dominance of manufactured mainstream corporate values. The phrase meant that “public frequencies can be pirated and subverted for independent communication, or to disrupt dominant frequencies” (Disrupt Dominant Frequencies). It is used as an artistic way to expose unquestioned assumptions of modern daily life.
During OpBART 1, a group called the SF Guerilla Opera aided the operation, turning the platform into a stage to act out the scene: “Can you hear me now?” Their act engaged a playful artistic space to show what is happening to our rights. This type of stunt was a good example of culture jamming in a politicized scenario.
By turning the street into a theater, one has a chance to convey a message by changing the context, shaking up public perception. For example, what if a bunch of protesters with Anonymous masks engage in a creative performance in numerous BART stations at exactly the same time dancing the Tunak Tunak Tun. Non-confrontational and spontaneous artistic acts might change things enough in the moment to disarm the guarded defense of BART police. Such unexpected creative action opens up previously closed perception.
Culture jamming is employed in order to contrast the unconsciously held dominant position in the public space and to challenge mass conformity to it. What emerges in the public space is a new mosaic that creatively changes the landscape of the mundane rush hour. By using Anonymous masks as a new meme to subvert the herd of commuters, demonstrators can jam the frozen picture and quietly bring questions that have not asked about the BART’s actions to public attention.
Joy, zest, and surreal action contrasts with militarized BART police, making their heavy-handed action look ridiculous and unnecessary. During the NoFare protest, it was reported that Homeland Security Agents were present, invoking the question ‘When did this become an issue of national security?” People can start to realize BART’s overreaction and how things have been taken too far.
When normalized reality is shaken up, the manufactured line between us and them is dissolved and the public may begin to see the protesters not as people to be feared, but more like themselves. And, perhaps the protesters who were made out to be the enemy of BART can begin to see human faces behind uniformed police.
Beneath the pretense of authority armed with lethal force, the BART police officers are also ordinary citizens. They have families and perhaps are just taking orders. Yet, it is the system that divides people. The police are placed into the position to enforce the law or control the citizens who have become masses in their perspective.
When differences are emphasized and people fail to listen to one another, confrontation, though necessary to a degree, only pushes each group into a defensive position. The more activists push, the more defensive police get and then the wall becomes thicker.
“No Justice No Peace Disband the BART police” chant continues.
The facade of the portrayed battle crumbles and the true battle is revealed, as one between democracy and the forces that try to push society toward a police state. Culture jamming is an avenue for creating the surreal within the mundane and can facilitate compassionate and creative communication. Instead of face to face confronting, those who act out of a creative impulse work discretely to alter perception.
What would happen if joy and celebration that activists bring to the space becomes contagious and commuters and even police will join these actions outside of the fare gates and streets? “United as one, divided by zero. We are Anonymous, We are legion …” The Tunak dance becomes anonymous action, joined by anyone, at any time in free will to participate, with no allegiance to anything, police, activists or commuters. No side is taken, just working for the shared lulz.
When that happens, people are united as citizens, not divided in systemic roles that we play in society: police, commuters and protesters. Culture jamming is creative resistance, opening up potential for a new dialogue. Then those who have suffered or died might get a hearing for a greater justice. OpBART goes on. I would love to see collective culture jamming starting a new trend that can break the hypnotic trance of power that keeps us unfree.