A national petition has gathered over 7,000 signatures in less than a week, calling on BART to drop the charges against 14 African American “Black Lives Matter” protesters who are facing misdemeanors and as much as $70,000 in restitution for blocking BART trains on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
The “Black Friday 14” shut down the West Oakland BART station on Nov. 28 to disrupt “business as usual” on the nation’s largest shopping day of the year.
When a train pulled into the West Oakland station that day, a woman chained herself to a train car handrail, and others then linked arms using cylinder tubes, stopping transbay service for several hours.
The protesters are arguing that BART is not an innocent victim but bears responsibility for the killing of Oscar Grant on New Years Day in 2009, as well as being guilty of a number of cases of allowing BART police to harass, assault and arrest Black and Brown youth, and for utilizing eminent domain to construct its tracks above ground in West Oakland, disrupting the life of the local community.
In addition, the protesters see the demand for restitution as part of a pattern of seeking harsher penalties for African Americans who participate in the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.
According to several sources, BART is informally saying it is not committed to restitution but needs to negotiate a punishment that will discourage people in the future from disrupting the train system, inconveniencing riders and perhaps putting them in danger.
Cat Brooks, co-chair of the Onyx organizing committee in Oakland, was one of the 14 arrestees.
“The action on Black Friday was part of a national response to the war on Black people,” she said. “This is the beginning of the next social justice movement in this country. As long as it is business as usual to gun down Black people in the streets, there will be no business as usual.”
Demands for restitution at present are being raised only in the cases of Black-led protests – by BART in the Bay Area and by the Mall of America in Milwaukee, which was shut down by protests over the police killing of Dontre Hamilton.
Oakland civil rights attorney Walter Riley is the lead attorney representing all of the 14 arrestees.
“They could have been charged with infractions,” Riley said, “but BART is asking for prosecution and restitution, though the amount of restitution has not be established in a written document. They want to make an example of them.”
“If the restitution does not get paid, it would be forever on their records as an unpaid fine, and it could be enforced arbitrarily at some future date,” he said. “Other local institutions, like UC Berkeley, have not taken that approach in dealing with protesters.”
Demonstrations and civil disobedience may inconvenience people, but these are the kinds of actions that bring long hidden conditions to public light, he said. This is the kind of free public expression that should not be stifled in a democratic society, he said.
“I remember civil rights demonstrations in the past, and the same kind of arguments were made against them,” said Riley. “We need older people to show some real love for our people. This means there should be an outpouring of support for them.”
In an interview with the Post, BART Boardmember Robert Raburn said he was not involved in discussions of BART’s demand for restitution.
“I didn’t get elected to the BART board to be a judge,” he said, referring questions to the agency’s staff and denying that the board has a policymaking role in leveling charges and restitution against the protesters.
Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanHook of Community Christian Church in Oakland said he has been in conversations with BART, and the agency is willing to drop the demand for restitution against the 14 if they would be willing to accept terms such as probation and community service, which would inhibit other potential protesters from trying the same tactics.
According to a Jan. 7 statement released by BART General Manager Grace Crunican, “It is critical that the post -Thanksgiving BART shutdown be handled in a manner that is fair and equitable to all stakeholders.”
“The (Alameda County) DA indicated that her office is guided by California Law on issues regarding restitution, and she made it clear that the handling of restitution is within her purview and premature to discuss at this time.”
The protesters’ next court date is Feb. 4, and they are asking community members to come to the Alameda County Courthouse to support them.