As 11 Mall of America protesters prepare to make their first court appearance on Tuesday, the group Black Lives Matter released e-mails that it said revealed "disturbing levels of coordination" between Mall of America and city of Bloomington attorneys in legal decisions arising from the Dec. 20 demonstration.
Sandra Johnson, Bloomington's city attorney, said the e-mails simply show normal discussions among lawyers handling issues for their clients.
The e-mails, gathered through a public records request, document communication between Johnson and mall officials. In one exchange on Dec. 22, two days after the protest, Johnson and mall attorney Kathleen Allen discuss whether the mall should pursue a lawsuit in addition to possible criminal charges by the city.
"I agree that you need to have consequences, but MOA may wish to await the criminal charges," Johnson wrote to Allen. "It's the prosecution's job to be the enforcer and MOA needs to continue to put on a positive, safe face. The city's prosecution team is taking this very seriously."
Allen responded, "Agree — we would defer any civil action depending on how the criminal charges play out."
Johnson said Monday that her comment was merely meant to indicate that the mall should stick to what it does best and prosecutors should stick to what they do best.
"You do your job and we'll do ours," Johnson said. "I'm not going to tell them their business. But I'm trying to keep their [potential] civil matter separate from the criminal prosecution."
Protest organizers denounced what they called a "political prosecution at the behest of the largest mall in the U.S." The criminal charges are "a clear attempt to silence peaceful activists asserting the value of black lives, which sets a dangerous precedent for democracy and free speech everywhere," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor and Black Lives Matter organizer who is among those charged in the protest.
Johnson said Black Lives Matter has spent countless hours combing through months' worth of her e-mails and has come up with nothing improper.
"They've been here for days in the last several weeks, going through 58,000 e-mails," Johnson said. "They've gone to great lengths to find a smoking gun, I believe. And this is the best they could get?"
In another e-mail, Johnson asks mall officials to keep a record of social media use by the protesters. "The groups are very likely to take these sites down when they hear that we intend to prosecute them," she wrote.
Johnson said Monday that she was simply asking the mall to preserve evidence — a common request in criminal investigations.
Allen, the mall's corporate counsel, was not available Monday afternoon. A mall spokeswoman said, "We are not straying from any other statements. The city attorney is really the one carrying it."
Before the demonstration, the mall cautioned protest organizers that it was private property.
The idea that there's some kind of back-channel communication between the city and the mall is ridiculous, Johnson said, noting that she regularly deals with mall attorneys on a wide range of issues, including licenses, permits, leases, contracts, security and other routine matters.
"Certainly, they're a taxpayer and they're one of the biggest draws in town," Johnson said. "But they're not the only draw in town."