Several days before protesters gathered inside the Mall of America’s rotunda on Dec. 20 as part of the national “Black Lives Matter” movement, organizers were warned that they would not be welcome.
Megamall officials stressed that the protest would violate the Bloomington mall’s policies and that protesters could be removed, arrested and banned from the property. In addition, Bloomington police contacted organizers to discourage them from going ahead with the event.
As an alternative to disrupting business on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, the mall and city officials tried to convince organizers to use the former Alpha Business Center property — a public lot adjacent to the mall that would have been visible to mall patrons and accessible to the news media. Instead, organizers accused the mall of using intimidation tactics and continued with their plan.
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 protesters crowded into the rotunda to chant and sing for about 30 minutes before Bloomington police peacefully cleared most of them from the area. Hundreds of protesters then moved into adjacent areas and staged “die-ins” in front of stores. Several stores closed — with shoppers kept inside for safety reasons — until the area was clear of protesters about two hours after the event began.
More than 75 businesses were disrupted and 25 people were arrested. In all, 250 officers were called to police the event — some coming from as far away as Hastings and Red Wing — and the city spent more than $25,000 on extra cops and overtime. Groups apparently associated with the protest later used social media to celebrate the problems they caused for the mall, its tenants and shoppers.
Like the protesters, we welcome a high-profile national discussion of police treatment of African-American suspects. National soul-searching after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as New York officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, is a healthy sign that Americans are appropriately concerned about the state of police-community relations.
That said, we are a nation of laws — laws that must be respected and followed despite legitimate concerns about how specific cases are adjudicated. The Bloomington protesters deserved a chance to hold a peaceful protest, but not on property the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed in 1999 as private. Protesters were warned, and now some of them will face the consequences.
Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson has said she plans to charge some of those who were arrested despite calls from some quarters to overlook the protest because of the importance of the message.
Regardless of the merits of the cause, Johnson is sworn to uphold the city’s laws, and those laws must be consistently applied by her office. It’s easy to envision how selective justice could fall along political, religious, racial or other societal fault lines.
In fact, more than most citizens, many black Americans uniquely understand that selective enforcement of the law is unjust — and indeed is at the heart of the problem being highlighted in the current protest movement.
Some observers have pointed out that the mall does indeed allow, and even encourage, big gatherings for special events. But it does so at its own discretion, often for commercial purposes. It won that right in court.
Johnson has said she’s considering seeking restitution from the protesters for the increased police costs and possibly some of the lost sales at affected businesses. That strikes us as excessive.
For its part, we trust the megamall will be consistent in its own decisionmaking about future requests to host public events and not pick and choose based on the political leanings of management.
The 1999 Supreme Court case determined that the publicly subsidized megamall could operate as a private business and have a policy prohibiting “protests or demonstrations of any kind.”
To be sure, the ruling doesn’t square with the beliefs of those who criticize the mall for not acting as a “town square” open to the public. But the decision did confirm that it’s the mall’s right to run its business in what it perceives to be the best interests of its tenants, meaning that mall management can determine what happens — legally — inside its doors.