Chanting, cheering and singing, more than 200 people gathered outside an Edina courthouse Tuesday to support Black Lives Matter.
The roar of the crowd could be heard inside the courtroom where 11 members of the group appeared for the first time on charges arising from a massive demonstration at the Mall of America on Dec. 20.
“We’re here because black lives matter, and they’re trying to prosecute them for saying that too loud,” shouted Asha Long, leading songs and chants outside.
Inside, the 11 people identified by Bloomington officials as organizers and “ringleaders” of the demonstration each pleaded not guilty in Hennepin County District Court to six separate criminal misdemeanor charges, including trespass, disorderly conduct, and aiding and abetting trespass. Several defendants also face additional charges for blocking a roadway outside the mall.
After the hearing, the defendants — all dressed in black — left the courthouse to loud cheers from the crowd outside. Several then took turns speaking to the crowd through a bullhorn from the steps of the Southdale Service Center.
“We’re wearing black because we are mourning the death of our American moral compass,” said Mica Grimm.
“We want to create a justice system that doesn’t treat every black body as a target,” said Kandace Montgomery.
The MOA “Black Lives Matter” demonstration drew 2,000 to 3,000 people to the mall’s rotunda on the last Saturday before Christmas. It was one of many protests across the nation in the wake of the deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
Mall and Bloomington city officials warned the demonstrators ahead of time that the mall would not approve a protest inside, and offered an outdoor space near the mall for the protest. When police, sheriff’s deputies and mall security moved to clear the rotunda, hundreds of protesters migrated to shopping areas near the rotunda, occupying two levels and staging several “die-ins” in front of stores.
It took more than two hours before the mall was returned to normal, with a number of stores on its east side shut down for part of that time.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the mall is a private venue and thus can bar any unapproved gatherings. Many of the protest supporters gathered on Tuesday were aware of that ruling, yet questioned its wisdom.
“I think they’re trying to shut down every avenue of protest,” said Dave Bicking of Minneapolis. Lyn Rabinovitch of Minneapolis, who attended the Dec. 20 demonstration, contrasted the mall’s reaction to that event with its response to a vague threat last month from the Somali terror group Al-Shabab.
“I think it’s very interesting that when the mall heard a terror threat, it was business as usual,” she said. “But when we had a peaceful protest, the police came out and the [storefront] bars came down.”
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said the Mall of America should be considered “the new public square” and people should be free to exercise their right to free speech at the mall.
Bruce Nestor, one of a team of attorneys representing the defendants pro bono, said the next scheduled court proceeding has been set for May 1, when attorneys will negotiate the schedule of events in the case going forward.
Several of the defendants traveled last week to Selma, Ala., where President Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a key event in the struggle to win full voting rights for African-Americans. Adja Gildersleve, a Black Lives Matter defendant, also traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to visit the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“As I stood in that room, my ancestors came to me, and they said, ‘You are not alone,’ ” she said as the crowd cheered. Michael McDowell, another defendant, took the bullhorn and told about being detained by police at age 12.
“My first time in the back of a police car wasn’t because I broke the law,” he said. “It was because I was waiting for my little sister at the school bus, and I was black. We won’t back down!” McDowell shouted, before leading the crowd in a chant of “Black lives matter!”