Saturday, December 20, 2014

At the Mall of America Today, a Necessary Disruption to "Business as Usual"

Earlier today parts of the Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the U.S., were shut down by police and mall officials in response to a rally that as many as 3000 local Black Lives Matter advocates held in the mall's rotunda.

Although it's only a 10-15 minute drive from my home, I didn't make it to today's rally at the Mall of America. I support the Black Lives Matter movement, however, and participated earlier this month in an action that shut down Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.

Here's part of KMSP-TV reporter Rachel Chazin's story on today's protest at the Mall of America:

A Black Lives Matter protest took place at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Saturday. The group is part of a national movement to end police brutality against unarmed black people.

According to the Mall of America, Bloomington Police made about 12 arrests during the protest. Police warned protesters prior to the rally that they could be arrested and banned from the mall if they participated.

Thousands began chanting “no justice, no peace” in the rotunda of the mall around 2 p.m. while holding up signs and banners. The escalators near the rotunda were then shut down as protesters filled the area.

Around 2:14 p.m. the entire group sat down in the rotunda, as police announced over loudspeakers that this was an illegal assembly. Thousands staged a “die in” followed by chants of “hands up don't shoot.” They also chanted, "Black people cannot breath while you are on your shopping spree" [a reference to the chokehold a New York City police officer placed on Eric Garner, who died].

The protesters left the rotunda around 2:30 p.m. and took their rally outside, continuing the chants and holding up signs.

Stores in the mall were instructed to close their doors until the protest ended, while many remained closed for hours after.

. . . The Bloomington police chief and head of mall security spent the week trying to convince protest organizers to do it on public property outside the Mall of America, reminding them it is illegal to protest inside – but organizers said they were moving ahead with their plan.

Meanwhile, in her report on the protest, Common Dreams staff writer Sarah Lazare notes:

Witnesses say that many workers left their stores to show solidarity with, and even directly join, the demonstration. The photo [at right] by Angela Jiminez of Minnesota Public Radio News, shows a dozen employees at a cosmetics store called Lush supporting protesters by standing outside the establishment with their hands up.

Making the connections

Some may question the appropriateness of targeting a corporate entity like the Mall of America in efforts to raise awareness of issues such as racism and police brutality. Twelve years ago, when working as the director of the Education for Liberation program at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ, I organized a half-day conference which addressed this very question. The keynote speaker at this conference was Rev. Robert Jeffrey (left), member of the Seattle-based Peoples' Coalition for Justice and the executive director of the Black Dollar Days Task Force.

The conference took place at Spirit of the Lakes Church in Minneapolis on Sunday, October 27, 2002. It was entitled "Starbucks vs. the People . . . or Why Rev. Robert Jeffrey Targets Corporate Power in the Struggle Against Racism and Police Brutality." The event was billed as a participatory conference exploring the connections between corporate power, racism, and public policy-making.

I invited Rev. Jeffrey to be the conference's keynote speaker after hearing him on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! program. You see, after the shooting death of an unarmed African American man by police in Seattle in May of 2001, Rev. Jeffrey was instrumental in organizing a unique coalition that boycotted Starbucks and other corporations in downtown Seattle in an effort to make them denounce police brutality and stand in solidarity with the community.

Corporations were targeted as Rev. Jeffrey and others believe that corporate money fuels public policy and dictates public safety issues in ways that are not advantageous or safe for many of the communities these same corporations say they serve. Instead, corporate power pushes for police crackdown on inner cities and for the gentrification of inner city areas. In doing so they jeopardize the civil rights and the lives of many who are already disenfranchised because of their socio-economic status and/or skin color. This type of corporate influence over government is both undemocratic and unethical, says Rev. Jeffrey. Accordingly, it must be challenged.

Above: Speakers at the October 27, 2002 "Starbucks vs. the People" conference. From left: Willie Mae Demmings, a longtime community activist dedicated to working of issues of police brutality; Lydia Howell, poet and alternative media journalist; Rev. Robert Jeffrey; Rebekah Hamlett-Leisen; Stephen Parker; Medaria Arradondo, member of the Minneapolis Police Department; and John Karvel, coordinator of the democratic action circle in Minnesota seeking to enact a Code for Corporate Responsibility.

"No more life as normal"

Fast forward to today's protest at the Mall of America. Profit-driven corporations still exert influence our public policy in our consumerist society. I think it goes without question that in ways both direct and indirect, they engage in the political process. Yet when "guests" on their "private property" dare to make a direct political statement they are arrested! Of course, "private property" gives the impression of someone's living room when in the case of corporate entities like the Mall of America, we're actually talking about spaces that receive significant amounts in public funds for maintenance and expansion, and benefit from hundreds of millions in tax breaks each year. Also, many of these spaces, shopping malls in particular, are modeled on the (public) town square of yesteryear, and are owned and managed by people who go to great lengths to stress that their business space is an indispensable part of our lives, a place in which we're welcomed to spend our time and money, though not share any overt political statements.

So, am I saying that any and every group should be able to hold a political rally at the local shopping mall? I think the real question is why have people throughout the history of this country been compelled to take their concerns about issues of racial and economic justice to places like restaurant counters, city buses, and, yes, shopping malls?

Could it be that the channels through which social change can and should be realized are either closed or purposely obstructed?

Are both our economic and criminal justice systems purposeful built and maintained to keep certain people disenfranchised?

Where else can people go to be assured that their voices are heard, their message picked up by the mainstream media?

I've come to believe that while ever the police, the paid protectors and gatekeepers of our profit-driven society and its racist systems of power and control, continue to kill black men without consequence, all our lives should be disrupted. The issue is that important. As anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise says, "No more life as normal for anyone until there is justice. This gear shift has no neutral."

With this in mind, here's how I wish the Mall of America owners and officials had acted when they learned that the Black Lives Matter movement was planning a rally on their property:

Yes, YES! We too believe that black lives, like all lives, matter. And we're deeply troubled by recent events across the nation involving unarmed black men being killed by police. Years ago we used the slogan, "Your Life. Your Style. Your Place" to describe and welcome people to the Mall. We want to make that more than just a slogan, more than simply a marketing ploy. When it comes to this issue we want to say that our place is truly your place as we stand together. We want to stand with you and we will stand with you. We want to work together to get media attention to this vitally important issue. How can we do this? How also can we work together to ensure the safety of all at the Mall of America during the time that we'll come together as individuals, families, and, yes, businesses, to say that black lives matter?

How different the event today might have looked and proceeded if this type of response had been offered by those in positions of leadership at the Mall of America. Instead, we saw only a rigid, fear-based and threatening reaction; one that for me sadly confirms everything Rev. Jeffrey said twelve years ago about the connection between corporate power, racism, and public policy-making.

Updates and Related Off-site Links:
3,000 Rally at Mall of America, Police Shut Down Mall for HoursPopular Resistance via Rise Up Times (December 22, 2014).
Black Lives Matter Protest Fills MOA, Chants "No Justice, No Peace" – Rachel Chazin (KMSP-TV, December 20, 2014).
Chanting "Black Lives Matter," Protesters Shut Down Part of Mall of America – Associated Press via The New York Times (December 20, 2014).
Mall of America Shut Down by Black Lives Matter Protest – Ben Johnson (City Pages, December 20, 2014).
Protesters Against Police Brutality Flood Mall of America – Associated Press and KARE 11 News (December 20, 2014).
Why shut down the Mall of America? – Lena (Spirit, Self, and Journeying, December 20, 2014).
In Midst of Holiday Shopping, Protesters Disrupt Business-As-Usual to Declare 'Black Lives Matter' – Sarah Lazare (Common Dreams, December 21, 2014).
Charges Expected to Be Filed Against MOA Protest OrganizersCBS Minnesota (December 22, 2014).
Here's Why Mall of America Is Considered Private Property – Ben Johnson (City Pages, December 22, 2014).
“This is What Theology Looks Like”: Disrupting a Crucifying System – Jorge Juan Rodriguez V (Religion Dispatches, December 24, 2014).
Black Lives Matter Protesters Question 'Intertwined' Relationship Between Mall of America and Bloomington – John Reinan (Star Tribune, July 3, 2015).
Bloomington Dismisses Some Charges Against Black Lives Matter Protesters – John Reinan (Star Tribune, August 5, 2015).
Charges Dismissed Against Black Lives Matter Leaders for Mall of America Protest – Peter Cox (MPR News, November 10, 2015).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Rallying in Solidarity with Eric Garner and Other Victims of Police Brutality

Image 1: KMSP-TV.
Image 2: Photographer unknown.
Image 3: Star Tribune.
Image 4: Palle Hoffstein.
Image 5: Angela Jiminez (Minnesota Public Radio News).
Image 6-8: Michael J. Bayly.
Image 9: Star Tribune.
Image 10: Nick Kozel (City Pages).

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Can you believe it, but some people are saying that the Black Lives Matter‬ protesters shouldn't disrupt Christmas shopping. I guess they never heard the story of Jesus flipping merchants' tables to fight oppression.

Congratulations and respect to everyone who shut down the nation's largest mall today!