USA

Anonymous take free speech protest offline and into the streets

 Anonymous, a group of activists and hackers (or “hacktivists” ), is best known for its attacks on major websites around the world. On Monday, it took its crusade against censorship to the streets of San Francisco.

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Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes

 

Anonymous, a group of activists and hackers (or “hacktivists” ), is best known for its attacks on major websites around the world. On Monday, it took its crusade against censorship to the streets of San Francisco.

 

Last week, San Francisco's regional public transport system, known as BART, shut down mobile phone service in one of its stations, in order to disrupt communications between demonstrators who were planning to protest BART police’s fatal shooting of a knife-wielding homeless man last month. The story quickly caught the attention of Anonymous, the leaderless group that claims to be behind a long list of “operations” all over the world.

 

Members of Anonymous retaliated against what they saw as an act of censorship both online and on the streets. BART officials said the myBart.org website had been hacked on Sunday, exposing users’ contact information. Shortly thereafter, Anonymous released some BART employees’ personal contact information and asked its followers to spam them relentlessly.

 

Alleged members of Anonymous created several video messages to BART prior to the protest. See more here and here.

 

Members of Anonymous also organised a protest Monday in downtown San Francisco, where about 200 protesters, some wearing the organisation's iconic Guy Fawkes masks, were met with scores of police in riot gear. BART decided to shut down four nearby stations, leaving thousands of commuters stranded during rush hour, but this time did not interfere with mobile phone service. The protest, though small, was widely reported online as well as in US and international media.

 

The federal government is now investigating BART over the mobile phone network shutdown. BART officials have strongly denied accusations that their actions violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights, saying it was within their jurisdiction to turn off the network because the base station was located on their property. They also said they had to do what was necessary to keep demonstrators off BART platforms and away from the trains to avoid anyone getting hurt.

 

“The protesters themselves are the ones who are responsible for all of this,” BART spokesman Linton Johnson told the Bay Citizen. “They’re forcing us to make difficult decisions.”

 

BART responded to threats of protest with this video report, made by its communications team. The online reaction to the video was overwhelmingly negative. 

“Cutting cell service was like trying to outlaw bullhorns. These are just tools we use”

 

AnonyOps [pseudonym] is a member of Anonymous. He or she claims to have helped organise Monday’s protest. Through the @AnonyOps Twitter account, he or she relayed information picked up from the BART police’s radio communications throughout the event.

 

On Saturday, I noticed a tweet about what BART police had done. I started tweeting that and any other information I could find on the matter. It was soon picked up by @youranonnews as well. Anonymous was awake at that point.

 

Anonymous is a hydra. There are many heads, and many cell groups. We don't all talk to each other or even know that each other exist. The hydra quickly took over. By the next day we had released documents and come up with a strategy for the protest.

 

I decided to get involved because this appealed to my inner freedom fighter. A big government-backed organisation decided to preemptively squash a peaceful protest by cutting cell phone service. Any response by authorities attacking the tools used by demonstrators to bring about social change will be publicly denounced by Anonymous.

 

BART police knew what they were doing by cutting cell phone service. They figured it would help quell demonstrations last week, and they were very likely right. What they didn’t see coming was that people online would take offence to their actions.

 

Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes.

 

“Taking it to the streets is important, even in the digital age”

 

The comparisons to Egypt were very aptly made. [Many protesters’ signs compared BART police to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak; meanwhile news of the protest spread on Twitter under the hashtag #MuBARTek]. Social unrest is social unrest – period, whether it happens in Egypt or the US. Cutting cell service was like trying to outlaw bullhorns. These are just tools we use. It would be better for them to find the source of our unrest and address the problem, rather than try to treat the symptoms.

 

Some Egyptians messaged me with their support. I think it was more of a thank you to Anonymous for helping make sure that people within Egypt were able to communicate with the outside world when the former government sought to disable their technical means of getting information.

 

Monday’s BART protest was a success – it was peaceful, which I felt was the most important aspect. The police provided a motorcade for the protesters, which was pretty good of them. They blocked train entrances, but they were just doing their job, trying to keep the public safe. We’re not all cop-haters.

 

Taking it to the streets is important, even in the digital age. Anonymous has done this since the very start, with protests against Scientology. Hacking websites is a relatively new thing for Anonymous. In my opinion, it doesn’t send the right message. Mybart.com was hacked, but I had no contact with those who did it. The hack gave BART officials the opportunity to deflect when asked why they cut cell service. Their indignation was directed at the hack and its ‘perpetrators,’ so they avoided having to answer questions about why they sought to squash the First Amendment rights of protestors. But because there are no leaders in Anonymous, we don’t get to vote on these things.”

 

Photo posted to yfrog by Haleaziz.

 

Police blocked access to four BART stations on Monday. The large banner at the top of the stairs in this photo read, "Disband BART cops." Photo courtesty of Steve Rhodes.

 

 

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure.