Updated Sept. 13, 2011, 6:40 p.m.
In response to a planned protest Aug. 11, BART recruited loyal riders, prepared a script for them to read from, and hired a car service to take them to and from a press conference intended to sway public perception and media coverage, according to emails obtained by The Bay Citizen.
But only one rider showed up — and he didn’t need a ride, leaving BART with an $872 bill for two SUVs it never used.
The plan was hatched by BART's chief communications manager, Linton Johnson, who also took credit for another idea implemented that day: shutting down cell phone service on station platforms to thwart the protest, which never materialized.
In the emails, sent to his staff on the day of the planned protest, Johnson wrote that BART needed to get “a large group of customers together who are loyal riders to participate” in the press conference that was to take place at Powell Street station after a planned protest at Civic Center station.
The Aug. 11 demonstration would have been the second such protest against the BART police shooting of a knife-wielding homeless man on July 3. A previous demonstration on July 11 had resulted in long delays during the evening commute. BART shut down stations in downtown San Francisco to keep protesters from jumping on trains.
For the press conference, BART wanted riders to step up to the microphone and stick closely to a script prepared by its communications department explaining how the demonstrations had affected their lives. The script, according to one of the emails, would be:
“My name is __________. I take BART from _______(eg, Hayward) to downtown San Francisco. I depend on BART to get me to my destination safely and on-time. Whatever your message is, it is completely lost on me because you’re putting my life at risk. Furthermore you’re making me late. That’s preventing me from being able to (explain hardship such as pick up my children from child care, which means I have to pay an extra __________, or miss my doctors appointment, which means I will be sick for xxx time or miss my job interview, xxx). We riders demand an immediate end to these illegal acts that make us late and put our lives at risk!”
To ensure that a protest wouldn't delay the commuters on their way to the press event, Johnson instructed his staff to coordinate with BART police to “make sure they can get to the news conference location safely and on-time (maybe get a van, or a special train, etc.).” BART police vans were already in use, so the transit agency instead hired two SUVs with drivers at a cost of $872, according to BART spokeswoman Luna Salavar.
BART spokesman Jim Allison said this week that the communications department called riders who had previously contacted BART to express their support. But only one person agreed to come out to the press conference — and with the cell-phone story dominating the news that night, no print journalists quoted the man.
In the weeks that followed, as protests intensified, causing delays and station closures, the media had little difficulty finding frustrated commuters to interview. And for several weeks, without help or prompting from BART, stories about angry commuters dominated the BART protest coverage.
Allison declined to offer his opinion on Johnson’s plan.
“It was my supervisor’s decision to make,” he said. “I’m not going to publicly assess his decisions.”
After the fifth protest, BART estimated at it had spent $300,000 on staff overtime and other costs, including, presumably, the two private cars. There have been seven demonstrations since the July 3 shooting; the most recent was Monday night.
The emails also show that Johnson called local television news stations the night before the planned protest trying to persuade them not to air any coverage in advance of the demonstration.
BART later produced a video featuring angry commuters, which the transit agency posted on its website on August 16th, after another protest.
Johnson, who did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story, has been out of the office since a group of hackers known as Anonymous publicized partially nude photos of him with other men last month in retaliation for the cell phone shut down. Gay and lesbian activists were outraged and threatened to protest the weekly anti-BART demonstrations organized by Anonymous.
Johnson has been on extended family leave, according to BART officials. His out-of-office email response says he’ll be back Sept. 19.