A video of the incident went viral over the weekend, prompting an “eat-in” protest on Saturday and another one planned for this weekend. Organizers of “Eat a McMuffin on BART: They Can’t Stop Us All” plan to gather at the Pleasant Hill station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, on Saturday afternoon, where the police confrontation happened. “We’ve all seen the video of the man getting harassed and detained for eating a McMuffin at the Pleasant Hill BART Station,” the Facebook event page reads. “Lets swarm the station eating McMuffins, they can’t stop us all.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, BART’s general manager released a statement saying that he was “disappointed how the situation unfolded” and apologized to Steve Foster, the man who was detained, and to other riders and people who saw the video. “As a transportation system our concern with eating is related to the cleanliness of our stations and system,” BART general manager Bob Powers said in the statement. “This was not the case in the incident at Pleasant Hill station on Monday [Nov. 4].”
Powers faulted Foster for not showing identification when asked and for cursing and using homophobic slurs toward the officer. But he said he wasn’t satisfied with the officials’ response. “The officer was doing his job, but context is key,” Powers said. “We have to read each situation and allow people to get where they are going on time and safely.”
Foster was approached by a police officer on Nov. 4, and what happened then was captured on a video shot by his girlfriend. Foster says the officer passed by several other people who were also eating, before coming up to him.
“You singled me out, out of all these people,” Foster says.
“You’re eating,” the officer replies.
Foster balks at the officer’s attempts to detain him, telling him to let go of his bag, which the officer is seen holding onto in the video. He refuses to show the officer his I.D. when asked and claims he’s doing nothing wrong.
“You’re going to jail,” the officer says, telling him he’s resisting arrest. The officer is eventually joined by three other officers, one of whom handcuffs Foster, who is led away. He was later issued a citation.
Many people who watched the video, which has been viewed millions of times, thought it represented overreaction by police and a tendency to disproportionately target black people.
“I honestly feel like I was singled out because of my skin color,” Foster told local news station KRON 4. He said he was aware that he wasn’t supposed to eat inside the train, but didn’t realize the ban extended to the outdoor platform.
“To see yet another young black man impacted by law enforcement like this is extremely troubling to me,” Janice Li, a member of BART’s board of directors, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is a question of what we are putting our BART police toward. We know how to make the system better and safer, and this ain’t it.”
Li was among those who attended the Saturday protest and has been posting photos of people eating on the transit system, with the hashtag #eatingonBART. Others used the hashtags #brunchonBART and #eatingatBART.
Police are investigating the matter, according to news reports, and will analyze videos posted on social media as well as from officer’s body cameras.
After the video went viral, BART tweeted that Foster wasn’t arrested but was “lawfully handcuffed” after refusing to provide his name for a citation. “No matter how you feel about eating on BART, the officer saw someone eating and asked him to stop, when he didn’t he was given a citation,” the agency tweeted.
The incident wasn’t the first time food on a subway system became a racial flash point. In another video of an encounter that went viral this weekend, New York City police are seen confronting and handcuffing a crying churro vendor on the city’s subway system. Like the San Francisco confrontation, people on social media suggested that her apprehension was an example of selective policing. In 2016, Metro police in Washington were criticized for excessive force in a video of a black teenager being handcuffed after she refused to throw away a bag of potato chips and a lollipop. And this year, a woman was called racist when she tweeted a photo of a Metro employee eating on a train and calling on Metro officials to respond.
A Metro spokesman noted that in the District, eating and drinking on the subway system won’t result in a citation, under the measure the City Council adopted late last year that decriminalizing fare-jumping. “A Metro Transit Police officer observing someone eating will advise the individual of the law and give them an opportunity to stop,” the spokesman said. “If they refuse, they may be asked to leave the system.”
In Virginia or Maryland, “a violation will usually result in a warning, but could result in a citation,” he said.
Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the officers in the video seemed to be overreacting — and that such an approach doesn’t actually do anything to ensure public safety. “The question is, what are we trying to achieve, and is heavy-handed law enforcement the best way to do that,” he said. It can actually have the opposite effect, he said, because the video reinforces the perception for people of color that law enforcement can’t be trusted, making people less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses.
“So now what was a minor offense blows up, and for many people, becomes a symbol of how law enforcement behaves.”