Our Constitution’s First Amendment is often cited as a means to justify the behavior of a group of activists trying to make a point. In its purest sense, the free-speech doctrine is designed to permit uncensored speech. Our right to peaceably assemble and, by extension, to protest, also stems from this doctrine. But when an assembly becomes a threat to public safety, there is no free-speech justification.
Recent BART protests have caused plenty of havoc to the general public, and in some instances jeopardized public safety. The lives of thousands of people have been disrupted. Parents were prevented from picking up their children from day care. People missed meetings that were important to them and to others far away from the protest area. Workers pouring out of office buildings, tired at the end of a long day, weren’t able to get home to resume their personal lives. This massive ripple effect must have delighted protesters, much the same way that graffiti artists and vandals enjoy defacing and destroying the property of others.
Blocking traffic, denying access to trains and disrupting the commute for thousands of weary workers leaves one questioning the real point the protesters were trying to make. Are innocent commuters really the target of their message?
The worst of it is that these gatherings have become a playground for anarchists and others with nothing better to do — and no real attachment to the supposed point of the protests. Organized anonymously, the BART protests have drawn activists from outside the Bay Area to join in the fun. Nice that they have the time and resources to disrupt commerce, transportation and personal lives in San Francisco.
This “free speech” has a cost — municipal and personal. The cumulative cost of property damage, law enforcement and judicial costs of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people, and the mass disruption of private lives are not small. When BART protests degenerate into chaos, there is a macroeconomic cost to our city and its reputation as a good place to visit and do business that goes beyond issues that a few people have with BART. Permitting continued disruptions of our transportation system is intolerable. It affects not only BART but Muni and all the other arteries that connect us in the Bay Area and beyond. Those who work in and otherwise visit our city have a basic right not to be dictated to or have our lives disrupted by people pretending to represent some vague ethical ideals.
Concerns about BART issues should be addressed and resolved in an orderly fashion. It is a vast and complex system that understandably does not always please people. But there are processes to handle complaints. Using those processes is a fundamental part of the larger agreement the 7 million of us in the Bay Area have made to obey rules. We live pretty harmoniously together abiding by these rules. I can’t walk out of my office and lie down in the street, blocking traffic any time I have a beef with something. If I did, the police would lock me up — and they should.
The protesters say they’ll keep it up until BART disbands its police force. But the message of these protests has come across more as “I don’t care about others. Look at me! Listen to me! Me! Me!” This is the pathetic plea of the anarchist. We should give our authorities the support they need to make sure that everyone abides by the rules.
Marc Intermaggio is executive vice president of BOMA, San Francisco’s Building Owners and Managers Association.