I had heard that the Black Lives Matter movement was going to hold a protest at the Mall of the America on Saturday, the last big shopping day of the year. Several of the Black Lives Matter chapters in various cities were staging similar protests.
Having not done my Christmas shopping, I had actually planned on the going to the mall this day anyway. When I heard about the protest, I thought I might catch it. I drove up at around 3:00 to see a slew of brown state patrol cars parked up along the curb of Killibrew Drive in front of the mall. I heard a helicopter overhead.
I found a parking spot in the ramp and walked into the ground floor of the west side entrance. I had read that guards were going to check bags, so I wasn’t surprised to see security in yellow vests at a table just inside the door. But there was no sign of protest.
An older gentlemen guard with white hair said he needed to look in my bag. I handed it to him, and he looked inside and squeezed its contents from the bottom of the bag.
“Okay,” he said.
“Were there protests here?” I asked.
“They’re still going on.”
“Yeah, over on the east side straight through.”
Straight through I went, walking by hundreds of holiday shoppers who seemed totally oblivious to any protest that had happened or was happening just across the mall. A Hispanic family holding hands walking along; an old Caucasian couple–grandparents perhaps, buying gifts for grandkids; and a Somali woman working at the amusement park in the center of the mall.
Making my way through the amusement part to the east side, I was greeted with this:
The mall rotunda was now empty. The protest was largely over. This is a zoomed in image. Otherwise, you’d see directly in front a row of security guards. They weren’t friendly old men in yellow vests, but stern-looking men and women in white shirts and black baseball caps. I asked one of these women about the blockade.
“This area is closed. You have to go around,” she said.
And I wanted to do so, because now I could hear the chants and jeers of many people. Up on the second floor, behind the blue warning screen in the picture above, you can see the remaining protesters.
I headed out and up to the second floor, getting as close as I could:
Next I went outside to try and see the protest outside-in. I walked along the sidewalk near the east side parking ramp in front of the mall. As I approached the entrance, I saw riot police in a big circle blocking the street traffic as well as preventing people from going inside. A concerned woman was on her phone wondering how and where to get back inside to meet someone.
Other than her, there were a couple of other angry people in front of the inaccessible entrance:
Knowing the activity was happening directly above, I walked back to the parking ramp and up the concrete steps to the second floor skyway entrance. This was where the protesters were being pushed out. Inside the skyway, bystanders stood around with cameras while security guards prevented people from entering the mall. This was the outskirt of the activity just inside. Within, a dense crowd spoke loudly, at times in unison. These remaining protesters were being slowly exited from the premises after having been warned for at least thirty minutes by police. Soon some started to trickle out of the doors. But instead of leaving, they now remained in the skyway to address the guards.
Here’s where we should stop for a second.
I think for the sake of understanding, it’s important to know that our and others’ feelings about this and similar incidences around the country differ depending on how (or how much) we empathize with that which these folks are protesting.
Though the protesters use what many consider false evidence to support their movement (hands-up gestures used this day are based on unverifiable depictions of what happened in Ferguson), it’s important to recognize that the issue to them isn’t just about what happened in Ferguson. Nor is it just about the Garner death in New York. These were simply the pivot points. Most are here because of the larger issue these examples represent. And if you deem this cause worthy–that the protesters are trying to make Americans aware about a broad social injustice occurring under our noses and harming the lives of millions–then their breaking the law (in the face of several warnings not to before and during) is brave and commendable.
However, if you see the Black Lives Matter cause as suspect or disingenuous or even baseless, or if you just think that it’s not worthy of this kind of uproar, then you’re going to see the laws they break as an offense and that all this senseless havoc needs to be stopped.
Courage or trouble-making–our tilt on the issue, motivated for any number of reasons, determines how we see it. It also determines what we see. If you empathize with this scene, you’d notice the impassioned African American man pleading for a better life in the U.S. If you don’t, you would have recognized the stereotypical, anarchical white youth with the blue bandana over his face. Ultimately, I think our reactions come down to the main issue of how bad we think the system is stacked against the black community–and how much we think this “stack” is cause for their struggle.
Knowing this distinction might better allow people who disagree the chance to know where each side comes from.
Eventually, the police came out of the mall and made everyone clear the skyway. Once everyone was in the parking ramp, the remaining protesters dispersed.
I entered the mall by walking back around to the south side, where they were letting people enter. Getting inside, half the mall remained a ghost town until they made sure all signs of protest were gone. When security got the clear–about 30 minutes later–this side of the mall was opened after being shut down for what I’d estimate to be about two hours. Good thing. I still needed to get gifts for Mom and Dad.
To reiterate the point above, I remember watching the Ferguson riots and pointing out how such a scene will further polarize the nation. Those empathetic to the anger might have thought, “See, this is what racism does to a nation.” Those not empathetic may have reacted with, “And these people complain that the police are always after them? Look at them, for God’s sake.”
Once in a while you’ll meet a stranger who sees both sides.
As I initially walked up to the scene of the protest from outside the mall, an African American guy stood just off the sidewalk tucked inside the parking ramp taking drags off of a cigarette.
I saw him, walked up, and asked, “So what do you make of all this?”
“Man, I just wish they wouldn’t get like this.”
“Are you talking about the police or the protesters?”
He said people had a right to protest, but that he didn’t like what was happening at the mall.
“Did you come here to shop or to check out the protests?”
“I’m just here on my way home. I don’t want to go near there. I’ll watch it tonight on the news.”
“This is a transit stop on your way home?”
“Yeah, I just came here because I had to pee.”
He couldn’t get to the bathroom because of the protests. So he waited outside killing time with a cigarette.
“What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement overall? Do you sit back and root for them?”
“Yeah,” he said.
He then shared about an experience he had back in Chicago, where he is from. “I put my hands on a cop once. He knew my mom was dead and he said, ‘F___ your dead mom.’ So I grabbed him. I shouldn’t have done that, but he said that about my mom.”
I was impressed he hear him say this. Most would want to grab someone who said that about their mother. But it turned out that his avoidance of this protest wasn’t because he was against the protesters but because he was leery of the police.
Wanting to know his thoughts on the broader issue, I asked, “What do you think causes the struggle in inner-city communities? Is it the larger system these communities find themselves in or the communities themselves that cause the problem?”
Someone who had experienced the ugliness of the system–of what sounded like a bad cop—didn’t put all the blame on it.
In fact, he didn’t seem to blame the police at all. Regarding the system, he said he blames the few people getting rich while everyone else is poor. “The one percent,” he argued.
Reiterating my question earlier, I asked, “Do you think that it’s this system that is to blame for the struggles in these neighborhoods, or do you think that the people themselves have some control over their circumstances?”
Then he turned to go.
“What’s your name?”
“I hope you find a bathroom.”
I don’t think we have enough people saying, “Both.” The problems facing the black community are said to be the fault of “the system” or “those people.”
The truth is 1. This is a systemic problem of blacks being looked down on and treated worse in general, and then this problem exacerbated in law enforcement by a police force trending toward the militant. 2. But these perceptions didn’t come out of thin air. When the largest cause of death to a young black male is murder, it’s easier to normalize homicide in this community. When blacks have more than double the violent crime rate than whites (and much higher yet compared to Asians) it’s easier for cops and the public to draw conclusions–and then overreact. These stereotypes, along with chronic economic and educational disparities, perpetuate these problems. Chicken or egg? I don’t know if it matters. The point is that both need to be addressed.
This marks a problem with the Black Lives Matter movement. It recognizes only the external factors and makes taboo the idea that problems can be a result of the choices one makes. By arguing that the challenges in the black community are entirely the fault of someone or something else, they send the message that until the system changes, blacks are powerless to improve their lives. I think they need to hear the opposite. They need to be empowered and inspired and perhaps told by their community leaders to make better decisions with their lives. Don’t drop out of school. Don’t have a child if you aren’t ready. Or as a student I taught did, don’t punch someone out and take their bike. To whatever degree the element of choice enters into a tough situation, it needs to be encouraged.
Cities like Minneapolis have already done a pretty good job addressing the external by offering many great social programs, spending a lot of money on schools, and putting diversity policies in place. While it’s true there’s always more that a city and a society can do, none of that will matter if the people in these communities continue make the same choices. We also need to acknowledge this other side of “both.”