Unsafe At Any Speed: Another BART Police Shooting

Adam Richmond

Adam Richmond

On Monday, July 11, 2011, approximately 250 people flooded the San Francisco Civic Center Station of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to protest the killing of Charles Hill. Hill, aged 45, a long time alcoholic and intoxicated at the time of being shot by an unnamed BART Transit cop. The cop reported that Hill “lunged” at him with a knife, but eyewitness statements have emerged that directly contradict the officer’s report. This is the third death at the hands of the BART police since 2009, when Hayward resident Oscar Grant was shot at point blank range by BART transit cop Johannes Mesherle.

In fact, the public consciousness of Oscar Grant’s death immediately came to mind to those who witnessed the killing of Hill. The Bay Citizen filed this report of the scene immediately after the shooting:

Hollero [an eyewitness] said that woman then ran up to the police, screaming, “What the fuck are you doing, you fucking pigs?” The police told the woman to back off, Hollero said.

The people on the platform were starting to “get rowdy,” according to Hollero, and she heard the crowd invoke the name “Oscar Grant,” the unarmed black man who was shot and killed by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009.”
Source: The Bay Citizen

With the brutal and shocking killing of Grant, and the miniscule sentence of the officer, the lack of reforms has justifiably brought the question of the existence of the BART Police Department to the forefront. The demonstrators correctly called for the dissolution of the BART Police Department and the firing of the officer, Pirone. That call is spot-on, given the inability of the department to reform itself in even the most rudimentary of ways. After the murder of Oscar Grant III, a civil review board was installed belatedly, with little power. Numerous calls for the removal of firearms from the BART police force have not been heeded. We share this call for BART Police Department to be disbanded.

There is no legitimate rationale for transit cops on the BART system to be carrying tasers or firearms. The public is not attacking the police, there is no crime wave overtaking the inter-city rapid transit system. Instead, it is the police who seem to be bent on attacking the public. Two years ago a young, black, working class man, Oscar Grant III, a father and union member, was out on the town for New Years Eve. In this most recent episode, a long time alcoholic denizen of the Tenderloin, Charles Hill was the victim. The system is relatively safe, with the most ominous threat to the public’s safety being the police themselves.

After the Grant killing, a new BART Chief of Police was installed (Kenton Rainey) in order to repair the Department’s lack of public credibility. This was not enough to change the culture of the 250-member BART police force, as evidenced by the police killing of an intoxicated indigent.

The BART police department has to be disbanded and a new safety force installed with the mandate to serve the public, not attack it. All officers have to go. New officers in a new department, who are not armed, who are part of a multiracial security force and trained to serve the public is the only way that police brutality can be stopped. The BART Police Department cannot be reformed to eliminate the entrenched culture of hostility to the working class public the BART system serves. Short of this, police brutality, we easily predict, will continue. Changing a department head or a police chief cannot change this. The entire organization has to be replaced.

Reformers usually step forward at these times of social conflict whose demands fall short of full dispersal of the police. These self-styled reformers often use these situations to draw the “stakeholders” of the “dispute” into a “dialogue” for “resolution.” The BART Police Department, however, is so extreme in its disregard of human life, and the general public awareness of the problems is so heightened because of the Oscar Grant case that the possibility for a direct, mass challenge has been created.

A Shortsighted Approach Pits Workers Against Protesters

The organizers of the protests, “No Justice, No BART,” were unfortunately shortsighted in their response, which disrupted the commute of many workers, in a couple of ways. A “direct action” approach that pitted workers, who depend upon the transit system, against those outraged over this new killing, exposed a profound weakness in the strategy. An actual direct action, that is to say, a mass action approach, would have been to call for an emergency mass meeting where decisions could be democratically discussed and decided upon.

If the goal is to disarm and disband the disreputable BART Police Department, engaging the largest possible number of people would be in order. The organizers of the demonstration created a situation in which the public sympathized with the BART police, who seemed to be the purveyors of an orderly ride home, instead of sympathizing with the protesters, who actually should have been their allies.

Disband the BART Police!

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Adam Richmond is a writer and graphic designer for Workers Action, and a Teamster. He is a long time political activist and lives in San Francisco. He may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.