Eating A McMuffin While Waiting For BART Is Illegal

Police went to the Pleasant Hill BART station, located in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, two weeks ago. The initial report was an intoxicated woman causing a disturbance. The responding officer couldn’t find her. But he quickly latched on to a man causing a much more serious disturbance: eating a McMuffin while waiting on the platform. Not surprisingly, the officer was white, the man was black, and the man’s girlfriend recorded video on her cellphone. Was this another example of racial profiling in America or a misunderstanding that became a viral video?

I normally wouldn’t write about a viral video like this. However, I’m interested in this topic for several reasons.

  • I’ve never heard of a California state law that made it illegal to eat food while waiting for the train.
  • I’m going to Wizard World Bay Area in Oakland and taking BART for the first-time next weekend.
  • An eat-in protest event on Facebook called “Eat a McMuffin on BART: They Can’t Stop Us All” has a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Area 51 snooze fest.
  • And, finally, BART is coming to downtown San Jose in the next ten years after it took only a half-century to reach the South Bay.

I’ve taken public transit since I was a teenager for over 35 years.

  • I’ve ridden VTA buses and light rail all over Silicon Valley.
  • The Caltrain train from San Jose to San Francisco.
  • The Amtrak train from San Jose to Sacramento.
  • And the Amtrak bus from Oakland to San Jose that hit every damn pothole in the East Bay when the tracks were under repair. Those buses in the 1990’s had absolutely no seat padding whatsoever.

Signs located around the train station prohibit eating and drinking – among many other things – in certain areas. People eat and drink on the platform anyway, especially in the mornings, while waiting for their train. Most of the time there aren’t any police officers at the train station. If you watch the full video, the officer was not threatening to arrest the man for eating on the platform but for resisting arrest while being detained.

To understand how that situation came about, we must understand what happen prior to the video.

The officer was looking for an intoxicated woman when he saw a man eating on the platform and told him to stop eating. The man either refused to obey the officer or misunderstood what the officer was telling him. The man may have thought that the officer was telling him not to eat on the train and he kept eating since he was on the platform. When the officer asked for his ID to write a citation, the man refused to provide his ID and started arguing. The officer grabbed the man’s backpack to detain and prevent him from leaving. The girlfriend started recording video on her cellphone.

Three other officers showed up to help handcuff the man and take him to a private room inside the station. An officer reportedly told the man that he was the suspect in the disturbance that called the officers out to the station. Keep in the mind that the reported disturbance involved an intoxicated woman, not someone eating a McMuffin while black. The officers cited the man for violating Penal Code 640 (b) (1), which could result in a $250 USD fine and 48 hours of community service.

Eating or drinking in or on a system facility or vehicle in areas where those activities are prohibited by that system.

If someone was eating or drinking on the platform, an officer could cite that person for violating the law. As for the rest of the law, it covers all the other things that are typically prohibited at a train station: skateboarding, loud music, fare evasion, etc. This is a routine law for most transit systems around the United States. Not some obscure California law that tries to fix something that doesn’t need fixing.

Since the incident took place two weeks ago, protesters have staged eat-in protests on the platform. One such protest took place yesterday afternoon, called “Eat a McMuffin on BART: They Can’t Stop Us All” on Facebook. Like its Area 51 namesake from summer, the protest was a snooze fest. Scheduled track maintenance forced the trains to run single track at the Pleasant Hill station and some protesters became lost. I doubt it was a conspiracy by government and/or aliens to prevent people from illegally eating at a train station.

BART officials apologized to the man, the Independent Police Auditor is investigating, and the man is filing a racial profiling lawsuit. Was this racial profiling or a misunderstanding?

From my white privileged position, it looks like a misunderstanding. If the man had simply stopped eating his McMuffin or provided his ID when asked by the officer, it wouldn’t have escalated into a viral video as it did. Regardless of your skin color, you simply don’t argue with the police. You may have better luck arguing about the citation with the judge. Whether you can avoid the $250 USD fine and 48 hours of community service is a different story.

As for the man in this case, it doesn’t help that his girlfriend recorded a video of him arguing with an officer while holding a McMuffin in hand. If it can be proven that the officer ignored other people who were eating to single out a black man for eating, a case can be made for racial profiling. I predict an out-of-court settlement with both sides admitting to no wrongdoing.

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