Martin Luther King Goes to the Mall (or WWMD?)

Middle Passage sm

“It’s important to make an example out of these organizers, so that this never happens again.” This message was sent to the managers of the Mall of America by Sandra Johnson, the City Attorney of Bloomington, Minnesota, where the Mall is located. The “organizers,” whom she also refers to as “criminals,” assailants” and “ringleaders” were involved in one way or another with a peaceful, multi-generational, multiracial rally held in the Mall’s rotunda to draw attention to racist police brutality. Such events are what “must never happen again.”

Johnson’s over-the-top push make the defendants pay for the police overreaction has raised eyebrows in legal and business circles and alarmed civil libertarians. The Mall had earlier rebuffed her proposal to punish Mall employees for showing sympathy with the rally, citing “the potential for further press.” “Further press” is what the City Attorney appears determined to deliver.

During the planning for the 1968 Poor People’s March, Martin Luther King Jr. was asked how a coalition of dark and poor people could hope to wring concessions from the richest and most powerful players in the US economy. King responded, “When you interfere with the rich man’s ability to make money, everything is on the table.”*

Contrary to the dreamy media narrative, Martin Luther King was a smart tactician who brought about crises by interrupting business as usual and sought to polarize the country until it was impossible to be neutral. Black Lives Matter has served notice that neutrality in the face of police criminality is no longer an option.

The Mall’s suppression of the December rally is part of a larger political trend: privatizing public space and declaring it beyond the reach of the Constitutional. In a parallel process, police have taken to corralling demonstrators into isolated “Free Speech Zones” where they will be neither seen nor heard. “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.” This public/private pincer movement seems calculated to erase effective protest from the political landscape… if not challenged.

The prosecutor has issued an invitation to do something about it, with the Mall providing the perfect venue. What follows is a tactical brainstorm that I hope will illustrate the scope of Johnson’s folly. While Mall security and the police are undoubtedly preparing for a replay of December’s action, there are plenty of other ways events could unfold.

Suppose, for example, that on a given day five people show up and begin distributing fliers in the Mall rotunda – but leave the premises when asked to? Two days later a small chorus appears in the star bar, singing civil rights songs and engaging the moviegoers in conversation. At the same time a clown has been wandering through Nickelodeon Universe, handing out Black Lives Matter balloons to children. Then nothing for a week – or maybe a day, or three days. Then there’s a clergy day, when faith leaders lead ecumenical services on the theme of justice vs greed. One day there are people all over the Mall wearing slogan T-shirts. They might converge, chanting, in front of the Executive Center… but then maybe they’ll just melt away and go home. There’s no way to know. Next it’s law school day. Professors and students ride the escalators reading aloud from the Bill of Rights and Civil Rights speeches. A banner drop from the food court or guerrilla theater in front of Hooters at unannounced times would give the campaign the feel of one of the Mall’s famous roller coaster rides. The Mall likes to sponsor events like “Teacher Tuesday.” What a great idea!

If a call were put out for participation in, let’s say, a “Mall of America Summer,” faith communities, high schoolers, unions, theater groups and others could design and carry out their own creative actions without clearing it with anyone. Some might be willing to get arrested, others not. If no single group is coordinating all the actions, infiltrators and fake Facebook pages will be of little help to the Mall and its police enforcers. Attempts by Mall security to prevent this from happening will disrupt the Mall more than any protest could. What if the movement asked supporters to show up one day wearing red shirts? Who will the guards stop? If the Mall responds aggressively it will alienate its visitors. If it refrains from interfering, it effectively concedes that the Mall is part of the US.

Video would, of course, be shared on line (security and police overreactions are particularly photogenic), with special attention going to social media and news networks in Japan, Germany, Latin America and England – the Mall’s primary sources of foreign tourists. The Black Lives matter movement is big news internationally. A creative action campaign will provide a fresh angle for coverage. Triple Five Worldwide, the parent company of the MoA, boasts a world-class “branding” and social media team, but it was blindsided by the popular response to their poorly conceived “Our Mall” twitter fiasco.

At the present time the MoA finds itself struggling for name recognition in the competitive and rapidly expanding Chinese tourism market. Several Mall tenants, including Nordstrom’s, are pursuing their own advertising campaigns in China. They could reasonably get grumpy if the Mall bungles their opportunity for them by becoming notorious as a political flash point. Another unhappy customer could be the state of Minnesota which relies on the Mall’s image to boost tourism.

A campaign like this requires few resources to pull off and delivers many benefits. Black Lives Matter has not slowed its pace of events since the charges were leveled. With new recruits taking up the cause – and with a strong local cohort of direct action trainers – a respectable level of activity could be sustained over a long period. The mall would need to be permanently on alert while the movement can set the pace and tone that it wants. The Mall has a custom of “banning” disobedient visitors but keeping previously banned visitors from reentering could become an expensive – and disruptive – distraction. Organizations from around the country might be called on to send solidarity teams to the Twin Cities should the local movement so choose. A campaign in which the movement is on the offensive always gives morale a refreshing boost.

If the Mall and police backers were to try preventing such disruption by ramping up surveillance and interception they will cause themselves more problems than they solve. The movement will have succeeded in any case by keeping the initiative, training a large pool of direct action warriors and “re-branding” the Mall of America in the public mind.

Unable to seal off the Mall, the police instinct would be to escalate. They have a pretty limited tactical menu when confronted with a popular movement and all the options are illegal. Their default setting is to instigate violence or threats of violence and pin them on the movement. This allows them to trot out “anti-terrorism” claims and become the heroes. FBI involvement these days often involves entrapping inexperienced kids in reckless plots (of its own design) and then arresting them with great fanfare. Spreading divisive rumors, the spurious use of anti-terror laws and even bogus drug charges are all very real possibilities. As the movement grows, these types of abuses can be expected in any case. Counter-terror units have already been deployed against the Black Lives Matter movement in California, Massachusetts and New York and a Pasadena Black Lives organizer is facing charges under terrorism laws for her protest activities.

Such operations can cause real harm but they also expose a police vulnerability. All these tactics validate the the movement’s central grievance, which is, after all, about police misconduct. Education of the rank and file and heightened community vigilance can go a long way toward limiting the effectiveness of covert police abuses.

My purpose in writing all is twofold. The first is to illustrate the creative power in the hands of the movement, should it choose to exercise it, and the limited responses available to the elite. The second is to make clear how serious this business is. The issues at stake go straight to the heart of this nation’s conflicted soul. The question of whether Black lives or property rights matter more was supposed to have been settled by the Civil War. Now, a suburban prosecutor has chosen to make a big deal of a peaceful rally in order to establish that it is property that deserves the right-of-way and that government’s rightful role is to ensure it. It is important that this backward assertion be firmly rejected by all sectors of our community “so that this never happens again.”

* Per farm worker leader Baldemar Velasquez, who was in the meeting.

2 replies »

  1. Really well done. A perfect place for such a struggle. i am particularly interested in the public/private claims (also relevant to Occupy) since if we were to remove public support from corporations they would not exist, at least not in the form they do today. I’m not sure what the forms of public subsidies to MOA are but I am confident a public pipeline is there if we look for it. Might make a nice political point


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