Charges dismissed against Black Lives Matter leaders for mall protest

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

Updated: 4 p.m. | Posted: 2:30 p.m.

A Hennepin County judge on Tuesday dismissed all remaining charges against 11 organizers of a Black Lives Matter protest at Mall of America last December.

Organizers had been cited on misdemeanor charges, including disorderly conduct, aiding and abetting criminal trespass and unlawful assembly stemming from the Dec. 20 protest.

Chief Judge Peter Cahill, however, noted that the organizers were not arrested at the mall on the day of the protest but charged later; most either left the mall voluntarily that day, were escorted out or were not present.

Suggesting the charges were brought by the city of Bloomington to send a signal to future protesters, Cahill wrote, "The state's desire to deter future unauthorized demonstrations at the MOA ... does not pass constitutional muster."

Bloomington City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said while the city still is reviewing the ruling, he's pleased the judge upheld the Mall of America is private property.

"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 statement.

Cahill kept criminal trespass and obstruction charges in place against more than a dozen other protesters.

"We feel that the facts and the law were on our side as well as the voices of people in the community who felt that we were being charged unjustly and politically prosecuted," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, one of the organizers and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP.

The 137-page decision was the latest turn in a legal battle sparked by the Dec. 20 protest. At least 1,500 mostly peaceful protesters gathered at the Mall of America as part of a nationwide wave of demonstrations following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in New York and Missouri.

Protesters with their arms in the air chanted, "Hands up! Don't shoot!" as they walked the mall's corridors.

The mall, however, is considered private property, and has a longstanding policy banning political demonstration. Some protesters left the building soon after the chanting died down, but others lingered, and were told to disperse or face arrest.

Some two dozen people were arrested.

In August, however, prosecutors dropped mall trespassing charges against Black Lives Matter organizers after concluding that while mall officials that day told the group repeatedly over a loudspeaker that the demonstration was unauthorized, they forgot to use one key word: leave.

Cahill wrote that while protesters had no constitutional right to protest on private property without permission, authorities had options beyond arrest and prosecution.

He noted the mall knew about the planned protest beforehand and so could have taken Black Lives Matter to court before the protest happened, or else pursued the criminal trespass charges or civil court actions for damages.

When the protest started, mall executives waited a half hour before forcing protesters to leave, which the judge said showed a "tacit decision to allow a brief demonstration." There was also no evidence organizers actively opposed efforts by police or mall security to make protesters leave, he said.

"It may be that some within MOA management (or in the Bloomington City Attorney's office) are dissatisfied with the statutory penalties prescribed for criminal trespass. They may believe those prescribed penalties insufficient to provide an effective and meaningful deterrent," he wrote, adding, "That, however, is a matter to be taken up with the state Legislature."