The Mall of America has a big day in court on Tuesday. Organizers indicted for their role in the Dec. 20 Black Lives Matter protest will appear that morning in Hennepin County District Court. And with that, a public trial will begin examining the conduct of the mall and Bloomington law enforcement surrounding the protest.
Unless, of course, the city decides to take the high road suggested here, and drop the charges.
In light of the nationally publicized incidents of police violence that all were aware of in December, the mall’s refusal to honor organizers’ request for a peaceful protest was a display of arrogance and insensitivity. The refusal lent the appearance of indifference toward a world where the festering legacy of racism means white police officers can kill unarmed people of color with impunity.
Parents of white children, like myself, do not worry that our children might be the next Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin or local victims Terrance Franklin and Marcus Golden. Black parents do. This is the raw emotion that fueled the need and passion to protest at the mall — to make business as usual less usual. The mall, the city of Bloomington and its law enforcement had an obligation to look beyond the legality of private-property rights to let the grievance, anger and grief be heard.
Mall of America media statements as well as the actions of law enforcement in the weeks prior to the protest escalated tensions and incited public fear and prejudice. The mall and law enforcement authorities — not these organizers — chose to lock out customers and spend thousands on unnecessary policing. To expect those indicted to reimburse the mall or the city is preposterous.
Elected officials, as well as religious and civic leaders, offered to assist the mall in reaching an agreement to allow the protest. They were turned down. The mall failed to recognize that the moral claim of the historical moment called for flexibility.
The SWAT team policing on the day of the protest was shameful, insulting and predicated on racism. It could have endangered the public and was a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. In the face of this intimidation, protesters maintained calm and discipline — proof that their intent was peaceful.
The Mall of America is de facto public space surrounded by walls. In this respect, the mall’s claim to private interests over the right of free expression is dubious. Legal rulings, like those cited, are based on historical precedents influenced by racial biases limiting access to commercial property to those deemed less desirable.
While such precedents might technically say the mall is private property with all the rights associated, it is in practice as public as downtown streets. Protests should be permitted based on criteria similar to other city streets and squares. At a minimum, the sidewalks and roads within the parking area are certainly no different than city streets. Yet, I contend, so are the internal thoroughfares, which the mall calls avenues and streets. In fact, tenants use these for postal addresses.
The challenge protesters made to the mall’s private-property claim was long overdue. The lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement are a fitting analogy. The organizers’ courage and determination not to back down in the face of threats and intimidation should be an inspiration to all who value free expression. Regardless of the mall’s and the city’s attempt to make an example of the Black Lives Matter organizers, more protests are likely.
I recommend that the mall skip its day in court by urging the city to drop all charges. Nothing can be gained from the mall’s or the city’s headstrong approach. It is shameful and imprudent. Find a better way forward. Take the high road.
Wayne Nealis is a Minneapolis writer.