MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The 11 protesters charged with being behind a demonstration at the Mall of America pleaded not guilty in court Tuesday morning.
They were among the nearly 3,000 protesters who gathered at the mall on Dec. 20, 2014, organized by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. It was one of several demonstrations across the country spurred by a series of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police officers.
According to criminal complaints, those charged include 21-year-old Michael Anthony McDowell of Minneapolis, 24-year-old Kandace Leanne Montgomery of Minneapolis, 49-year-old Todd Allan Dahlstrom of St. Paul, 24-year-old Mica Lauren Grimm of Duluth, 26-year-old Catherine Claire Solanek of Minneapolis and 26-year-old Adja Sara Gildersleve of Minneapolis.
They face several misdemeanor charges ranging from trespassing to disturbing the peace.
But the group said it needed to hold the peaceful protest somewhere high-profile. Organizer Mike McDowell said the group chose to protest inside Mall of America on one of the busiest holiday shopping days of the year because it is such a public place. They wanted to get noticed.
“This is showing that billionaires can go after folks for freedom of speech,” he said.
Despite the calls from more than 100 local religious leaders to drop the charges, Bloomington city attorney Sandra Johnson says she can’t, citing a 1999 Minnesota Supreme Court decision that ruled the Mall of America is private property.
Bloomington police say they warned the group that they’d face possible charges if they assembled there.
In December Johnson told WCCO she had offered another city-owned area outside the mall for the Black Lives Matter group to gather. The group refused and, after a couple hours, the protest ended peacefully at the Mall of America with more than 30 arrests.
Supporters and organizers say civil disobedience is key in creating change. It’s why they’ve taken to the streets, shutting down parts of St. Paul and I-35 in past marches.
“I think everyone should have the right to peaceful protest,” Jonathan Vanarneman, a supporter of the protesters, said.
The 11 organizers charged could face more than a year in prison and fines of $6,000 or more.
There is also possibility the organizers will have pay for the cost of extra security and police presence for the mall protest.
The judge would determine if they have to pay and how much.
Organizers say they are working with city and state lawmakers to try to get legislation passed that would require all police to wear body cameras and go through mandatory cultural bias training.
After pleading not guilty, the protesters were met with a few hundred people cheering for them as they left court. Their pre-trial hearing is set for May 1, 2015.