BART board drops Black Friday restitution demand

A divided BART Board of Directors asked Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley Thursday to continue prosecuting 14 protesters who shut down the West Oakland BART station for several hours the day after Thanksgiving but asked her not to seek restitution from them.

The board’s 5-4 vote came at the end of an unruly two-hour meeting at which 34 of 35 speakers who addressed the board asked it to urge O’Malley to dismiss the charges against the so-called “Black Friday 14.” The protesters chained themselves to two trains at the West Oakland station during the Nov. 28 action, shutting down BART service for more than three hours.

The protest was one of many in the Bay Area and across the nation responding to several highly publicized incidents last year in which white police officers killed unarmed black men and boys and weren’t charged for their actions.

BART directors Rebecca Saltzman and Tom Radulovich urged the board to ask the District Attorney’s Office to drop both the misdemeanor charge against the 14 protesters of trespassing on railroad property and a request for up to $5,000 each in restitution, for a total of $70,000.

But the board majority, acting after a 10-minute recess was called because protesters continuously interrupted board members who were trying to speak, voted instead to approve a substitute motion authored by Joel Keller and seconded by Nick Josefowitz that asks prosecutors to retain the charges but drop the restitution demand. Saltzman, Radulovich, Board President Thomas Blalock and Zakhary Mallett voted against the substitute motion.

Following an outcry after BART sought restitution for the protest, BART general manager Grace Crunican said last month that she was interested in community service or restorative justice programs as an alternative to restitution and said she spoke to O’Malley about that possibility.

Radulovich said today that, “BART management’s overreaction has set us back” in efforts to regain the public’s trust following the Jan. 1, 2009 fatal shooting of unarmed black passenger Oscar Grant III by white transit district officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale station in Oakland.

Radulovich said:

“We need to begin in many ways all over again to rebuild trust in our system.”

Radulovich said even community service would be too severe a penalty for the protesters, calling it “another form of punishment” and saying the demonstrators are “a group of thoughtful activists with a compelling cause.”

Radulovich called for BART to “open a dialogue” with passengers who missed doctor’s appointments and were late for work because of the Nov. 28 protest but admitted, “I don’t know how that happens.”

Keller said he supports’ the protesters right to speak out against racial injustice but he said:

“BART has an obligation to all of its riders and they need to know that we are reliable.”

Keller said the board majority is asking the District Attorney to withdraw the restitution request but audience members loudly hissed him when he said:

“It’s important for the court process to go forward. … This is a balancing act and many people were inconvenienced.”

Audience members also hissed at Director Robert Raburn when he said:

“I can’t support the disruption of BART, freeways and Capitol Corridor trains.”

Before BART directors voted, Vanessa Moses, a program co-director at Just Cause, a social justice group, urged them to:

“… put your names and political capital in support of us. ,,, The real test if you end up choosing the right side. I hope you don’t fail that test.”

Britta Houser, an emergency room nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, told directors “to stand on the right side of justice, on the right side of freedom.”

Kung Feng of Jobs With Justice in San Francisco said the protesters “deserve to be commended, not charged” and described them as “14 public servants.”

Keng said:

“BART needs to be talking about black needs and show that you value black lives.”

The only speaker at the meeting who didn’t explicitly ask BART to drop the charges against the protesters was former BART Director Robert Allen, and even he urged the board to “be lenient” with them. Allen said BART should instead focus on making it clear that in the future it won’t allow protesters to “interfere with the right to travel on BART” or to stage actions on station platforms because that can be dangerous.

Attorneys for the 14 protesters asked Alameda County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Northridge at a hearing last week to dismiss the charges against them, arguing that they are overbroad and too vague.

Northridge took the matter under submission and said she will issue a written ruling soon. She set another hearing for March 18 in the event that she denies the motion to dismiss the case and keeps the charges intact.