City attorney to file charges 'to make an example' of MOA protest organizers

The Mall of America Rotunda filled with protestors
The Mall of America rotunda is filled with Black Lives Matter protesters on Dec. 20, 2014.
Jackson Forderer / For MPR News

Updated: Dec. 23, 1:30 p.m. | Posted: Dec. 23, 8:30 a.m.

The Bloomington City Attorney said she plans to file criminal charges next week against the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest held last weekend at the Mall of America.

City Attorney Sandra Johnson said unapproved public protest isn't allowed at the Mall of America, and that Saturday's protest created unsafe situations.

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"It's important to make an example out of these organizers so that this never happens again," Johnson said. "It was a powder keg waiting for the match."

At least 1,500 protesters gathered at the Mall of America on Saturday as part of a nationwide wave of protests following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in incidents in New York and Missouri.

Johnson said her office is exploring charges against three or four protest organizers for participation in an unlawful assembly, aiding and abetting an unlawful assembly or aiding and abetting a public nuisance. She may also seek restitution from the organizers for additional security costs incurred by the Mall of America and city of Bloomington due to the protest.

News of the possible charges against protesters spread rapidly on social media Tuesday. Supporters adopted the hashtag #ChargeMeToo and urging activists to contact the mall and city to express their disapproval. By about noon on Tuesday, more than 500 individual posts on Twitter referenced the hashtag, criticizing the city attorney's decision or vowing to boycott the Mall of America.

Protests organizers said they remain focused on their messages of police accountability and racial equality.

"As a community, we're saddened by the Mall of America and Attorney Johnson's decision to misdirect public resources to protect corporate profits instead of supporting justice for black people at this crucial time in our nation's history," said Black Lives Matter Minneapolis activist Adja Gildersleve.

Johnson said a 1999 Minnesota Supreme Court decision ruled that the Mall of America was private property and can't be used for public demonstrations without approval.

"This is not a public forum for free speech," Johnson said of the mall. "This is private property and there's absolutely no right for private demonstrations and protests in the Mall of America. There have never been. They have never allowed it."

Organizer Gildersleve questioned why the mall and police reacted so differently to last weekend's protest as opposed to an event last year where more than 5,000 people gathered to sing a song by Zach Sobiech, a young man from Lakeland, Minnesota, who died of cancer: "Instead, our group on Saturday was met by riot gear."

Mall officials sought to deter protesters from holding their event inside the mall. The city instead offered a separate area outside the mall as an alternative protest site.

Organizers said they chose not to protest in the designated protest site outside the building because it wasn't as visible.

"It goes against what we're trying to do, which is be heard," Gildersleve said. "What they wanted to do was marginalize our voices like they have time and time again."

The city attorney said that a rally and march through the mall created unsafe conditions for shoppers and workers.

"The energy in there, talking to some of the officers, when they told them to leave, the crowd would roar to the point where the whole place shook," Johnson said. "All it would have took was for a couple of people to start hitting each other or hitting police and this would have gone way out of control."

Protest organizers counter that they took great pains to ensure safety during the protest. No property damage or violence was reported at the event, although 25 people were cited by police following the demonstration.

"We actually took time to train hundreds of people to keep everyone safe," Gildersleve said. "What was really unsafe that then escalated the situation was the police in riot gear and the police being aggressive with protesters when really everybody was being peaceful, trying to sing carols and share a few words."

The 25 people who were arrested following the protest were cited and released by police, but Johnson said they could "look at the evidence and if additional charges are possible, we'll replace the citations with criminal complaints."

Prosecutors are sorting through video and still photography captured by mall security to help identify protest organizers. Johnson said they'll also look at evidence that was posted to organizers' Facebook pages, included in media interviews or was revealed to police or the city attorney in discussions prior to the protest.

Activists declined to discuss their current legal strategy. But Black Lives Matter Minneapolis was urging supporters to retweet #ChargeMeToo and contact the city and mall officials about the impending charges.

Representatives of the Mall of America did not respond to multiple requests for comment.