San Francisco – Several dozen protesters faced off with riot police at a downtown Bay Area Rapid Transit station Thursday in the latest demonstration against the transit agency and its police department, leading to a two-hour shutdown of the station during rush hour and as many as 30 arrests.
Protesters had promised to block the fare gates at BART's Powell Street station in an effort to force the agency to open the gates and allow passengers to exit for free to avoid a crush of people. Police instead blocked the gates before demonstrators could get near them and began ordering the crowd to disperse as nightstick-wielding officers advanced in formation to force everyone out of the station.
Police later said they had determined the situation at the station had become unsafe for passengers.
"We could not maintain a safe atmosphere with the station open and with patrons walking around and trying to get through the traffic that was created," said BART Deputy Police Chief Daniel Hartwig.
Police were still compiling the exact number of arrests, but Hartwig estimated the number to be between 26 and 30, including some members of the media. He said all were arrested on suspicion of interfering with the safe operation of a transit system.
The now near-weekly protests at BART stations that started over the summer initially stemmed from anger over the fatal July 3 shooting of a 45-year-old transient whom BART police said officers shot after he lunged at them with a knife. Last month BART cut cell phone service to some stations to curtail demonstrations, a move that touched off an outcry among free speech activists and led to cyber-attacks against the agency by the hacker collective Anonymous.
Thursday night's protest culminated with police forming a circle around a large group that included both protesters and journalists. Protesters confronted officers with complaints that they had not broken any laws.
"We weren't violating any laws, weren't causing an obstruction," Rick Altieri, 23, one of the detainees, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Meanwhile, several journalists, cameramen and photographers from local television stations, news websites and at least one newspaper were caught up in the circle and detained before being let out of the station. Some members of the media who had San Francisco Police Department press passes but refused to leave were arrested, Hartwig said.
Police did not yet have an exact estimate of how many among those arrested were journalists, he said.
"We don't know if this was intentional or confusion by authorities," said Ward Bushee, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of whose reporters posted to Twitter that she had been arrested. "We intend to contact authorities to find out what happened."
Also detained for at least an hour were at least five members of a San Francisco State University journalism class who were sending out tweets from the scene.
"I didn't want them to get arrested," said their instructor, Justin Beck, who shouted at police through the closed station gates to let the students go. "I'm very angry at BART."
The station, which had been closed to passengers around 5:35 p.m. Thursday, was reopened again by 7:30 p.m. During the closure, trains were still travelling through the station, but were not stopping to drop off or pick up passengers. Service was not impacted at other stations, according to BART officials.