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Protest at Park Street hits MBTA's bag-search policy

(The following article by Anthony Flint and Kathryn Nelson was posted on the Boston Globe website on July 2.)

BOSTON -- Protesters gathered at Park Street station during the morning rush hour yesterday to condemn the MBTA's upcoming random bag-check policy, handing out leaflets, singing songs, and urging riders to resist what they say is an incursion on constitutional rights.

The T Riders Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the National Lawyers Guild, the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Committee, and several other groups formed a new coalition, the Safe and Free T Alliance, to rally support against the policy.

The groups are planning a lawsuit against the random searches, alleging that such a practice violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure and may lead to racial and ethnic profiling. Opponents also say they don't think randomly searching bags will improve security.

''The T's going to have a real problem with this, as people realize it's fake security and a [public relations] exercise, and what their rights are and what they're giving up," said Nancy Murray of the ACLU. ''Where will it end? Are we going to start searching cars?"

Michael Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said the agency had a ''compelling public interest" in instituting the policy, which is to begin in a few days.

''We had half a dozen lawyers look at it," he said. ''We are very comfortable with the justification" leading up to the Democratic National Convention.

The MBTA plans to send teams of officers to randomly selected subway and commuter rail stations, to stop individuals on a random basis and inspect their bags before they enter the system. During convention week, that will intensify, and T police ''will be getting some help" to cover more stations, Mulhern said. In addition, any rider with large bags during that week will be subject to automatic search and no large bags will be allowed on the Orange Line.

Protesters performed skits mocking the policy and sang new lyrics to the tune of ''Charlie on the MTA," including the chorus, ''We are still not safe beneath the streets of Boston -- it's the plan that's wasting our time."

About 1.1 million people use the transit system daily.

Several riders interviewed yesterday said they had no problem with the policy.

''Here are my bags," said Andover resident Rob Hoff, 42, who works in Cambridge. He held out two tote bags. ''I don't want to die in a T station."

''I'm not sure it's OK, but I'm not intimidated by it," said probation officer Elizabeth Davis, 38, who plans on riding her bicycle to work at a downtown courthouse during convention week. ''If it's safety [they want], then they need to look at the idea of shutting the entire thing down."

Shannon Gracia, 27, who takes a bus, commuter rail, and the subway from New Bedford to her health services job at Suffolk University, said she was subjected to an extensive search before a recent flight to Florida and found it embarrassing to have her private items gone through. But she said she was willing to be searched for security. ''There's things you have to weigh. If it's your safety and your city's safety, it's worth it," she said. ''If you have nothing to hide, it shouldn't be an issue."

''Baggage inspections will play a role in security at the MBTA in the future," said Michael Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. ''To what extent is the open question."

Noting that the MBTA is the first transit system in the country to implement the policy, Mulhern said the agency is ''looking at this month's experience as a learning experience. There will be a debriefing where we look at how effective it is, and how we can support it with resources -- manpower, equipment, and canines."

Friday, July 2, 2004

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