Social media, rumors might have fed melee at MOA

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE and PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: December 28, 2011 - 5:15 PM

Mall beefed up security as investigators look at whether violence was tied to rumors that rap stars would appear.

Officials at the Mall of America and Bloomington police are investigating whether rumors of rap stars performing at the mall, fueled by social media, contributed to a teenage melee Monday, one of the most serious disturbances at the megamall in over 15 years.

On Sunday, Twitter buzzed with unfounded rumors that rappers Lil Wayne and Drake were going to be at the Bloomington mall on the day after Christmas. The chatter continued through Monday, just hours before the fighting started in the mall's north food court late in the afternoon.

"I would challenge you to find another mall as prepared as we are," said Maureen Bausch, Mall of America's executive vice president for operations. "But when you tweet about Lil Wayne is going to be there...."

It took more than an hour to quell the disruption, which involved more than 200 young people. Officials said Tuesday that they will beef up security indefinitely and review procedures, including policies on adult supervision of juveniles.

No clear answers have emerged as to what started the incident. Theories have centered on unusually large day-after-Christmas crowds, perhaps boosted by rumors that rap stars would appear, as well as the possibility of a deliberate, coordinated "flash mob."

The size and speed of the violence prompted mall officials to suspect the incident might have been orchestrated through social media. In flash mobs, or "flash robs," large groups of people sometimes organize through Twitter and Facebook to suddenly rob or create havoc.

Jeff Floreno, director of operations and security strategy at consulting firm Wren Solutions, said the Mall of America boasts some of the best security in the country. But even the most sophisticated security system can't anticipate everything, he said.

The violence was "really tough luck from the mall's perspective," said Floreno, who has worked in security operations for corporations like 3M, Northrop Grumman and Georgia-Pacific. "There is a visible security presence at the mall. They do an awful lot to look for and resolve problems."

Security has always been a concern at the mall. In 1993, a 20-year-old man and two juveniles shot and wounded three people at the then-Camp Snoopy amusement park. Three years later, the mall instituted a policy that barred juveniles from entering the mall after 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday without an adult or guardian.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Mall of America has invested millions of dollars on security. The mall has a state-of-the-art surveillance system, a police bomb-sniffing dog, and 150 officers trained in everything from counterterrorism to shoplifting.

But Floreno said malls must also weigh security against a fun experience for shoppers. "It's a balancing act," Wren said. "There's got to be a point when too much security becomes oppressive."

Role of social media

Mac Nadel, retail industry practice leader for risk management firm Marsh & McLennan Cos., said the large crowds that flock to retailers the day after Christmas create ideal conditions for flash mobs. The company issued a report in November warning holiday retailers of such incidents.

Given the large crowd of teenagers at the Mall of America, "it seems as if social media was used for at least a part of it," Nadel said.

In any case, the incident is worrisome to the Mall of America. Despite the weak economy, the mall has thrived this year thanks to luxury shoppers and families flocking to the Nickelodeon Universe theme park.

The risk is that "shoppers may not want to go there anymore if there is not a safe environment, especially for young kids," Nadel said.

Bloomington Police Cmdr. Mark Stehlik said the original fight in the food court quickly escalated into at least 10 separate fights throughout the mall. Videos on YouTube show packs of teenagers fighting, assaulting shoppers and hurling chairs through the air.

All in all, 10 people were arrested, including four juveniles: a 15-year-old, a 16-year-old and two 17-year-olds.

The six adults who were arrested are all from St. Paul: Jonathan Joseph Arnold, 20; Christian Octavio Perez-Melgar, 18; Kaleb Marko Zeiher, 20; Mario Lazaro Santos Hunter, 18; Vern Robert Spann, 19, and Jason Rashid Valentine, 19. All were arrested for disorderly conduct.

A national pattern?

Flash mobs have been around for nearly a decade and started off as often-humorous acts of public theater, such as Worldwide Pillow Fight Day in 2008.

But the term has taken on a darker meaning, as social media makes it easier to create and coordinate mayhem. This summer, the Associated Press reported, as many as 1,000 teenagers mobilized through social media to start fights and disrupt a July 4 fireworks show in a Cleveland suburb. Several incidents have happened in Philadelphia, including an assault involving a group of about 30 people believed to have gotten together through Twitter.

Officials around the country have yet to find a decisive solution. Cleveland's City Council sought to make it illegal to use social media to organize a violent flash mob, but concerns about constitutionality led the mayor to veto it. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter ordered a 9 p.m. curfew for minors on Fridays and Saturdays.

However, Bausch said the Mall of America monitors social media for evidence of such activity and did not detect anything unusual before the melee. Mall officials also said there were no reports of theft or property damage.

During the violence, several retailers, including Nordstrom and Lucky Jeans, went into full or partial lockdown. Around 7:15 p.m., about 5 to 10 percent of the mall's stores closed early, Bausch estimated.

Bausch said she did not know how much business retailers lost on Monday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. However, she said the majority of after-Christmas shoppers, usually moms with kids, arrive in the morning and early afternoon, before the violence broke out.

John Soderberg, 40, of Onalaska, Wis., arrived late Monday afternoon with his 10-year-old daughter and noticed "small packs of teenagers" roaming through the mall's first-floor corridors.

"It was obvious that they were here for no reason other than to cause havoc among the crowd," Soderberg said. "And they were fired up. ... It was clear that the environment was just waiting to erupt. When I saw a chair raised up, that's when my daughter and I ran for the nearest exit."

Star Tribune staff writers Wendy Lee and Allie Shah contributed to this report.

Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113

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