Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Analysis of the San Francisco Anonymous BART action

(Originally published on August 20, 2011)

I participated in the Anonymous-called August 15th protests againstcensorship and police brutality.  Here are some thoughts about what happened.
1. It takes remarkably little to shut down a BART station
Apparently all one needs to do to close a BART station is stand in the doorway with a sign for a few seconds.  Wired noted that there were “less than a few dozen” protesters in total when the Civic Center station got shut down.  The Powell, Montgomery and Embarcadero stations also closed, presumably with a similar level of protest.  As one can see from the pictures, professional reporters, others Tweeting and/or filming the events and simple bystanders easily outnumbered the protesters.
(Davey D suggested another reason for the ease of closure in his appearance on Democracy Now: perhaps the BART is attempting to portray the protesters as a serious threat to the agency to win the public over to supporting censorship on the presumption that this will end service disruptions -- BART’s own manufactured mini-Shock Doctrine.)
2. BART has an incentive to shut down stations quickly upon any indication of a protest
Looking at the BART route map, it is clear that shutting down any of the stations from West Oakland to Daly City will bring all traffic through San Francisco and much traffic in the East Bay to a standstill.  The faster BART shuts down a station and clears out protesters who might be potential obstacles to travelling trains, the faster the trains who are blocked on the station can continue their journeys.
3. Anonymous is unable to turn out a lot of people IRL
Anonymous is primarily an online organization, and it is much easier to hack or rail against free speech violations from one’s bedroom than actually show up in real life for a protest.  I only saw around a dozen mask-wearing folks in the few hours I was in BART stations and walking up and down Market Street.
4. Anonymous protesters are unable to seriously confront authority
Anonymous, by definition, has no leadership, which makes it difficult to perform any kind of serious direct action.  Protests are often only as effective as their most committed members, and most (but not all) Anonymous adherents seem to prefer to stand on the sidelines -- the “protest” is done partially for the lulz.  Another important prerequisite for effective direct action is trust amongst the participants, and this is also lacking in a highly geographically dispersed, anonymous group.  Thus we saw people shouting “No justice, no peace!” and then quietly filing out of the station when ordered by BART police.
5. It is unlikely that the message of the protest reached the mainstream
Anonymous really doesn’t do a good job of communicating to people other than the demographics from which it draws most of its sympathizers.  So while Anonymous may be able to reach its fans on the net via Twitter or the activist community with an appearance on Democracy Now, the mood on the street was decisively against the protesters, to a significant extent because most had no idea what the protest was about.  Some people were handing out fliers, but they came very late into the protest and only in certain areas.  The corporate press, of course, completely sided with the authorities and wouldn’t give space to a dissident message.  The Examiner article covering the event was particularly ludicrous, portraying the station shutdowns as a BART tactic to “foil” the protesters, instead of being an achieved objective of the protests!
6. Conclusion
In conclusion, if the objective of the action was the shutdown of the BART stations (and that could certainly be disputed since many people had different reasons for participating and there was no “leadership” of the action per se), then the protest was successful, even with all of its flaws.  However, it is questionable what effect this action had on promoting the causes of anti-censorship or anti-police brutality given its poor messaging.

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