Twin Cities faith leaders on Monday urged leniency for 11 protesters charged with crimes arising from a demonstration at the Mall of America, but the Bloomington city attorney said she won’t — and can’t — back down.
“Prosecutors are sworn to uphold the Constitution and the law. We have to do that even-handedly,” said Sandra Johnson, the city’s top prosecutor since 2009. “These are nice people; they’re well-intentioned. But what they’re asking is something I can’t do. It isn’t ethical. It violates my oath.”
On Monday, Johnson received an open letter signed by more than 100 ministers. It asked her to direct her energy toward fighting racial disparity, rather than prosecuting leaders of a peaceful protest.
“The energy you have put into this aggressive prosecution needs to be redirected to a communitywide effort toward open dialogue between our justice system and those who do not receive equal and fair treatment and protection from our current system,” said the letter, signed by ministers, theologians and faith leaders from Bloomington and throughout the metro area. “We are called as people of faith to walk in solidarity with those who are experiencing discrimination and prejudice.”
Despite warnings from city officials, a crowd of peaceful demonstrators jammed the mall rotunda on Dec. 20, the Saturday before Christmas — one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Bloomington police, along with Hennepin County sheriff’s officers and Minnesota State Patrol officers, cleared most of the crowd — estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 people — from the rotunda.
The protest was one of many throughout the nation spurred by a series of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the mall is a private venue that has the right to ban unapproved gatherings on its property.
Johnson said the protesters are knocking on the wrong door.
“You’re taking so much energy and focusing it on the wrong person,” she said. “They need to talk to legislators, talk to senators, talk to the governor. I’m going to keep my head down and do my job. But there are people who should listen to their concerns.”
The fact that only 11 people, mostly of color, are being prosecuted from among the immense crowd should give officials pause, said the Rev. Justin Schroeder, a pastor at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis and a signer of the letter.
“It does seem to perpetuate a system that has historically targeted people of color,” Schroeder said. “The way the law is practiced and exercised in our country has not been for the benefit of people of color.
“Sandra Johnson has the opportunity right now to understand that the laws and policies in place have allowed some of these injustices to happen around us. She can take a stand on these things. She has the opportunity to stand on the right side of history.”
Harsher words came from Lena K. Gardner, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and one of those charged after the protest.
“We know the city attorney of Bloomington is moving forward in this prosecution at the behest of the billionaire owners of the Mall of America,” Gardner said in a written statement. “She is the sole person with prosecutorial discretion to bring charges in this case and it is sad that she would attempt to pass the buck to the governor and the legislator [sic] to absolve herself of responsibility for making those decisions.” The 11 are scheduled to make their first court appearance at the Southdale courthouse in Edina at 8:30 a.m. on March 10.
Johnson said she tries to live up to the ideal represented by Lady Justice, the well-known statue that stands blindfolded, holding the scales of justice, at many courthouses throughout the nation.
“My personal views on the content of the message behind the illegal actions of the defendants, that’s not relevant,” she said. “My personal political views tend to be on the liberal side. I’m the person with a Franken sticker on my car.
“My personal views could be sympathetic. But I can’t let it interfere with my job.”