Judge dismisses charges against mall protest organizers
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota judge Tuesday dismissed charges against organizers of a “Black Lives Matter” protest that drew thousands of demonstrators to the Mall of America.
The protest last December disrupted Christmas shopping at the privately owned venue. But Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill ruled that it was peaceful and “not subversive.”
Organizers of the protest had faced misdemeanor charges of aiding and abetting trespass, aiding and abetting unlawful assembly, and aiding and abetting disorderly conduct.
In a 137-page decision, Cahill dismissed all charges against the 11 organizers, but left in place trespass charges against some individual participants, the Star Tribune (http://strib.mn/1WLgaNr ) reported.
“We stand proud today. We stand vindicated today,” said University of St. Thomas law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, one of the protest organizers. “And we continue to stand in solidarity with people across the country who are declaring that Black Lives Matter and who are disrupting the status quo in their attempts to get justice.
The Dec. 20 rally was part of protests nationwide after police officers weren’t charged in the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri.
Levy-Pounds, who recently was named president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said the prosecutor, Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson, “dug in her heels. But we knew that the charges could not stand.”
Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said the city is reviewing the ruling.
“Our overriding concern is public safety for our community and the thousands of people who come to Bloomington to visit Mall of America every day,” Verbrugge said in a written statement. He said misdemeanor cases are still pending against 22 protesters.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which represented one of the protest organizers, called on the prosecutor to dismiss charges against all of the defendants.
“We have said from the beginning that the Black Lives Matter demonstrators were peacefully exercising their rights, which should be protected above any corporate interest,” the Minnesota group’s executive director Charles Samuelson said in a news release.
The Mall of America’s policy does not allow protests. Johnson had cited a 1999 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the mall is private property where constitutional free speech protections don’t apply.
Attorney Susan Gaertner, whose firm is monitoring the cases for the mall, noted that the judge’s ruling reaffirmed that it “is not a public forum for protest or debate.”
“No matter how worthy the message, the policy is in place so that guests of the mall can have a safe, welcoming environment to shop and enjoy the attractions,” Gaertner told The Associated Press.
In his order, Cahill said no group possesses a constitutional right to political demonstration over the objection of the mall’s ownership and management. But while the demonstration was unauthorized, the judge wrote that “nothing about it was subversive. It was, in fact, highly publicized. As some might say, that was rather the point.”
The judge said he viewed many hours of the demonstration and called it “peaceful,” saying he saw only very small tests of will between police, security and demonstrators in the 90 minutes after the main protest.
Garner, an unarmed black man, was placed in a chokehold by a white police officer during a confrontation on a Staten Island street over loose cigarettes on July 17, 2014. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the office in December.
Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white police officer during a struggle in August 2014. A St. Louis County grand jury and the Department of Justice ultimately exonerated officer Darren Wilson, concluding that evidence backed Wilson’s claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown tried to grab the officer’s gun.
Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com