BART’s placid and sparsely attended board meetings turned raucous, crowded and long this year after a transit police officer shot to death Oscar Grant III, an unarmed passenger, on New Years.
But the BART board appears ready to pull in the reins after one angry protester splattered BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger with red paint last Thursday during a board meeting.
Board members are talking about enforcing speaker time limits, checking backpacks of people entering the board room, banning displays of banners, and not permitting large groups of people to stand together at the speaker’s podium to make statements.
Is democracy being reined in? Is BART a railroad that runs over the public? Or is BART trying to restore order to meetings that have become too rambling and disorganized to conduct business and hold meaningful discussions?
“I’ve been very generous with the public speakers,” said Thomas Blalock, the transit board board president who runs meetings, “but no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
Public agencies normally permit one speaker at a time to address a board. Heck, for that matter, BART used to attract few speakers to its morning meetings in a third story meeting room across the street from BART headquarters in downtown Oakland.
But during the public comment period at recent BART board meetings, audience members sometimes have gathered in large groups at the speakers’ podium, displayed banners, insulted and sworn at board members and managers, and chanted their displeasure with BART’s handling of the shooting investigation.
BART board members have said they wanted to bend over backwards to let people vent their rage and frustration over the Grant shooting. (An officer who has since quit BART has been charged with murdering Grant. The BART board has apologized for the shooting and hired an outside law firm to conduct the disciplinary investigation in other officers’ actions on New Years. The board also is planning to hire another consultant to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the BART police procedures, training, and culture.)
In last Thursday’s meetings, various audience members reiterated demands that BART fire the general manager and police chief, dismantle BART’s police force or at least suspend officers’ carrying of guns, arrest one officer shown on a videotape striking Oscar Grant shortly before the shooting. Speakers also demanded BART hold a publicly noticed meeting they say BART keeps postponing while a board committee holds unnoticed meetings about setting up a civilian police review board.
One speaker challenged BART Police Chief Gary Gee come to the front of the meeting room and answer questions. When Gee did not, the speaker repeatedly denounced him as a coward. Speakers also urged everyone in the audience to stand up in a unified show of support. When some people remained seated, some in the protest group confronted them, “How dare you not stand.”
As emotions rose, a man in the crowd veered from the group and splattered Dugger with red paint. The protester likened the paint to the blood of Oscar Grant.
Police arrested the paint thrower, and cleared the room for a temporary recess. Dugger was not hurt. Later in the day after the meeting had resumed and staggered to a finish seven hours after it started, the transit board ran out of time to discuss an agenda item on raising fares and cutting service.
Tom Radulovich, a board member from San Francisco, has criticized BART for what he called a lack of candidness about its investigation into the Oscar Grant shooting. But after Thursday’s meeting, Radulovich agreed the BART needs more decorum at meetings “so everyone’s rights” in the room can be respected to hear and be heard.
He suggested BART follow the lead of San Francisco and ban banners inside the board meeting room.
Banners block the audience’s view of what’s going on in the room, he said. And police worry that banners block officers’ views of the meeting room, making it hard to prevent physical disruptions or assaults.
Goverment boards in San Francisco are used to coping with angry audience members passionately debating issues, Radulovich said. “San Francisco is used to this,” he said. “This is something BART is learning to adjust to.”