San Francisco's commuter railway left mobile phone services untouched during a closely watched protest Monday, but for many commuters that didn't matter because they were locked out of the railway system altogether.
During a chaotic, peaceful protest that started at the end of the workday, members of the hacking collective Anonymous joined up with Bay Area activists to protest last month's killing of Charles Hill, a passenger who was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) policeman after throwing a knife at the officer.
A group of about 50 to 100 protesters started at BART's Civic Center Station, a few blocks from San Francisco City Hall, and then moved slowly down Market Street, forcing BART to shut station after station in San Francisco's downtown, in a cascading disruption of BART services between 5 and 7 p.m. Monday night.
The protests attracted national attention after BART shut down its underground mobile bay stations, operated by five wireless carriers, last Thursday in hopes of disrupting communication between participants during an earlier protest.
Monday's protesters, many of them wearing the Guy Fawkes masks favored by Anonymous, compared BART to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who cut off cellphone and Internet services in the country when faced with street demonstrations in Cairo.
BART was roundly condemned for last week's cell phone cutoff. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a "shameful attack on free speech." On Monday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said it was looking into the incident.
This time around, BART left mobile services alone, but its station closures left crowds of commuters milling around station entrances waiting for the protest to move on so they could get on their way home. BART carries about 350,000 Bay Area commuters each workday.
Antonio McFarlane, a systems integrator who works in San Francisco, had been waiting for half an hour for BART's Embarcadero station to open up and take him home to Oakland. He said he had some sympathy for both BART and the protesters, but shutting down mobile service in a tech savvy city such as San Francisco was a no-no, he said. "If you mess with technology, it's a big deal."