contributed by Jana Kooren, Public Education & Communications Director

On Monday, January 5, the ACLU-MN sent a letter to City Attorney, Sandra Johnson of Bloomington in regards to reports that Bloomington is considering filing criminal charges and seeking restitution against the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of American on December 20th. In the letter we urged the City Attorney to not file charges against the organizers of this protest.

We wrote this letter because we support not only freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble but we also support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. The reality is that there is a stark disparity in the criminal justice system between people of color and whites in the United States. Communities of color are faced with discrimination at every level of the criminal justice system, starting from initial police interactions all the way to conviction and sentencing. The message this movement highlights is a critical one of changing the way police work and interact with people. Unarmed Black men and women are being shot and killed at an alarming rate, and we need to do something about this problem.

Everything one reads about this demonstration reminds people constantly that the Mall of America is a private entity that can do what they want and they do not have to honor our free speech rights. This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. The ACLU has long argued that malls are basically the new public square. People come there to gather, to meet, to have fun and of course to shop. But the Mall of America is not like a single entity store on the street or a business office, it is a fundamentally a place for people to gather and visit in groups. They allow everyone in (unless you have an individual ban), and are thought of as a hub of a city, especially in a cold climate like Minnesota. While we have not successfully won this argument in court, we still wholly believe that malls should be treated as such. They want all the benefits of being a public square, but not any of the potential responsibilities that come with the enormous benefits, and that isn't right.  In other states like California the courts have decided that in fact malls ARE public squares.  
  2. The Mall of America specifically has received huge amounts of public funding first to build the mall and more recently to expand it. In 2013 the Minnesota Legislature approved $250 million dollars in tax breaks to help fund the expansion. When the Mall of America was built, taxpayers paid $186 million of its $700 million cost.While this does not technically make it public property, the taxpayer money should be taken into consideration when arguing whether or not they can allow some peaceful gatherings but not others, and supports this idea of it as a public square. 

The Mall of America created the problem; they had previously allowed gatherings of thousands of people in the same area (the rotunda) to honor victims of cancer, why would they not honor a peaceful gathering of thousands in honor of African Americans who have been killed at an alarming rate by police and vigilantes? The Mall of America CHOSE to bring in scores of extra police and have them don riot gear. The Mall of America CHOSE to force business to close its doors. Businesses could have stayed open because there was NO threat of violence. There has not been a history of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis looting or destroying businesses. There were NO plans among the organizers to do anything violent or destructive towards any businesses or people. The Mall of America created a militarized zone that cost them tens of thousands of dollars, they could have worked with demonstrators from the beginning and allowed them to peacefully gather and peacefully disperse and there would have been no bigger disturbance to their daily routine than any other large gathering they have hosted in the past. It would have been reasonable to have extra security on hand, but the quote from Sandra Johnson about the event being a powder keg waiting for a spark is completely inflammatory and untrue. I was there with my two young children and saw an amazing gathering of thousands of individuals and was energized and enthralled by it. My children weren't scared, they were excited! If a large gathering of people chanting is that scary and crazy then why does the MOA host celebrities signing autographs? I have been at the Mall when thousands of fans are screaming and chanting the name of the celebrity, it is no different than that.

Another alarming piece is the type of charges that the City Attorney wants to bring. Most recently we have heard the City might file charges seeking $25,000 to cover the overtime pay of police officers. It is slippery slope when charging demonstrators to cover the cost of law enforcement used during a demonstration. While it can be done within reason, the Mall of America's choice to bring in scores of unnecessary police should not be the burden of the peaceful demonstrators. Who they are targeting with charges is also a problem, they want to file the charges against the organizers who put out the call, even if those individuals dispersed when asked by the mall and were not arrested.

While many may disagree with the tactics of the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis movement, they are sharing an important message. Democracy is messy and freedom of speech and assembly are not just exercised when it is convenient. It is a scary path when freedom of speech is sacrificed because of private corporations and people's desire to stay away from messages they don't like or agree with. We hope that the Mall of America and the people of Minnesota recognize that we should have a Minnesota that embraces freedom of speech and actually listens and engages with community concerns instead of trying to silence and ignore them.