Under normal circumstances, a group walking out on the freeway to stop traffic or infiltrating the Mall of America to force a wing to shut down would warrant arrests and prosecution. But these aren’t normal circumstances.
Law enforcement often bends to make room for special situations. Until vandalism enters the picture, police allow unsanctioned celebrations of a team’s championship victory. Police didn’t crack down when youth in Washington D.C. congregated in front of the White House and cheered like crazy when bin Laden was killed. (Generally speaking, Americans just really like to celebrate, demonstrate, riot, protest, and the like.)
Yet either of these types of situations pale in significance to the emotions boiling over for the last several months regarding race, class, inequity, and the people seemingly always on the short end of these sticks. So it makes sense that police have been restrained in their enforcement of the laws broken during the Black Lives Matter protests. Plus, making it more sticky is that law enforcement has been included in the target of protesters’ complaints. Thus, to enforce ordinances on public gatherings, trespassing, disorderly conduct, etc. is to risk adding fuel to the anger already burning these demonstrations bright.
For these reasons, on December 4 a group of about 150 protesters were able to walk onto I35 in Minneapolis and shut down traffic for an hour. The police didn’t arrive to arrest the protesters. They escorted them off the freeway with no legal consequence.
Three days ago, January 19, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000 protesters marched along University Avenue in St. Paul, tried but were blocked by police to enter the I94 corridor, and made their way to the Capitol, halting traffic and trains along University Avenue. But again, the police managed the demonstration without permit so as to not cause further delays or raise tensions.
Overall, law enforcement in the Twin Cities has avoided confrontation and has been flexible to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is what makes the arrests and criminal charges against protest organizers of the Mall of America gathering unique and controversial.
On December 20, a surreptitious gathering amounted to a reported 3000 people filling the Mall of America rotunda on the last Saturday before Christmas. Done in the same spirit as the other protests, this particular gathering was also inspired by the motivation to disrupt consumerism and to use the mall to increase the people reached as well as the volume of their message.
The clandestine gathering was necessitated by the fact that the Black Lives Matter chapter of the Twin Cities had been open about their plans to protest the Mall of America this day. But the mall, a private venue, communicated to protest organizers that such events were not allowed as a matter of policy regardless of message. Recognizing the circumstances, however, mall officials did arrange a space for the protest to occur in a parking space next to the mall. They informed the organizers of these arrangement and reminded organizers of mall policy and that a protest would be illegal and punishable.
The organizers responded by telling their participants how to enter the mall as to not be noticed. Don’t come in large groups. Don’t carry signs as bags would be checked. And at 2:00 pm, the huge crowd filled the rotunda to protest and share their message.
Security arrived, and while most protesters dispersed, a couple hundred held strong for a couple of hours. The remaining group was pushed out of the second story skyway into the parking ramp just after 4:00.
On January 14, charges that had been threatened were filed against 10 organizers. And they came regardless of a packed public hearing on the matter days earlier, where all but one or two community members asked the city not to charge the organizers. Some supporters went so far as to say if you charge them, charge me. #chargemetoo became popular on Twitter. Suddenly the prosecutor was under the same microscope as the protesters, and also like the protesters, ironically, depending on how you view her cause will determine whether you think she’s being courageous in the face of opposition or cruel as to continue to charge people for demanding equality.
From what I’ve read, most editorial media sides with the prosecutor dropping the charges, citing everything from her working for the Mall rather than the city, to the charges being political retaliation, to it being awful timing to charge a civil rights rally around Martin Luther King Jr, Day. At the same time, almost all the comments are supportive of the prosecution. (I’ve come to notice this liberal-conservative back and forth as common between writers and commenters.) They contend that the protest organizers trespassed, had caused significant monetary charges for police and lost business, and were warned against their actions but chose to go ahead anyway. Thus, they should be charged and convicted. Such responses may be considered either common sense or too simplistic an approach.
What do yo think? Clear cut case of illegal actions causing monetary damages or a situation where the law should bend given the extraordinary circumstances?