Chaos continues to surround the ongoing protests against administrators of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system—and the cause is attracting the kind of friends who make enemies irrelevant.
Though the protests were initially set off when BART police shot and killed Charles Blair Hill, a homeless man, they’ve quickly turned into a game of personal one-upping between the protestors and the BART administration. After protestors managed to shut down train service, BART shut down all cell phone service, a Mubarakian move of questionable legality.
That’s when hacker group Anonymous got interested. And instead of speaking truth to power and indicting BART’s actual decision makers, they’ve waged a tasteless war against the company’s workers that’s done little more than alienate the communities most impacted by police brutality.
Anonymous, a loose Internet collective made mostly of angry young white dudes, leans left on paper; they’re the ones who brought us Wikileaks, as well as hacks of the Arizona police and the Westboro Baptist Church. The hacker group took an interest in the BART protests following the infringement on freedom of speech represented by the cell-phone shutdown. Its members showed up in person for the first time then, and haven’t left—perhaps because many of them and their sympathizers already live in heavily-white, tech-savvy San Francisco.
So what does this new element add to the protests? Since Anonymous has an intentionally undefined membership, it’s hard to tell who’s responsible for what. But as Bryan Gerhart reported for Colorlines.com back in July, at a Civic Center station protest in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods, a mostly-white crowd interrupted BART spokesman Linton Johnson’s press conference to yell “Uncle Tom” at him. The white protesters also carried photos of Oscar Grant.
Last week, following the news that Johnson suggested the cell-phone shutdown, Anonymous found and posted naked party photos of him. The message being, ostensibly: Mess with us and we’ll get you fired. But given the context of the photos, the move reads like a classic case of gay-bashing. There’s no conflict of interest between Johnson’s and the photos, nor is there any illegal activity; the photo leak is nothing other than an effort to gay-shame him. This, coming from a group of gung-ho socially progressive vigilantes, right? As one commenter on Anonymous’ BARTLULZ (NSFW) site writes, “[A]nonymous and the Westboro Baptist Church are on the same side. That is classic!”
So to review: BART police have an objectively terrible record when it comes to police shootings and accountability, dating from before Oscar Grant and extending to laws at the state level. Protesters have reacted by gay-shaming and yelling racial epithets at the BART spokesman, who does not make policy decisions. They’ve also disrupted the commutes of people trying to get to and from their jobs by protesting on platforms, rather than at BART headquarters.
In short, the privileged, white male protesters from the Internet haven’t done much to win over San Francisco’s queer communities, working-class communities or communities of color. And they’ve given local news the chance to frame the issue as, well, Internet activists concerned about free speech following a cell-phone service outage on BART—without having to mention the San Franciscans who police have shot dead.
The Bay Area’s queer communities and communities of color practically invented community organizing decades ago, and they have no shortage of veterans with countless victories from which to learn. But somehow, Anonymous hasn’t found time to Google any of them.