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Black Lives Matter leaders cleared of dumb charges in Mall of America case

Try not to step on the protest sign that says the lives of another race are important.

Try not to step on the protest sign that says the lives of another race are important.

Black Lives Matter launched as a movement based on anger over months, years, and decades of bad news about black Americans and their interactions with police. Yesterday brought the rare positive development, as a judge dismissed all charges brought against 11 organizers involved in a December 2014 protest at the Mall of America. 

Those defendants, who had come to be known as the "MOA 11," had been charged as accessories to the tense showdown that took place last winter, just five days before Christmas. Protesters took to the mall intending to get attention, and managed that easily, essentially bringing commercial proceedings to a halt during their confrontation with cops, who were outfitted in the same kind of riot gear seen in different protest settings around the country. Some 18 protesters were eventually handcuffed for their refusal to leave the mall, which is private property. 

But it was much later when a seemingly random set of activists and organizers were hit with a separate list of charges. The Bloomington City Attorney charged these 11 leaders or participants with between four and seven counts each for crimes like "aiding and abetting alleged criminal trespass" and "aiding and abetting disorderly conduct." Judge Peter Cahill called bullshit, saying the city was mostly trying to use criminal prosecution as intimidation, and a deterrent toward future demonstrations at the Mall of America. This, he wrote, would "not pass constitutional muster."

Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter, had the unique vantage point of being one of the 11 co-defendants and a co-counsel in her own case. Speaking Tuesday night, Levy-Pounds said the charges against her and other organizers were "trumped-up" and political in nature. None of them were actually handcuffed on site, the day of the protest — "I've never been arrested, knock on wood," Levy-Pounds said, laughing — and the city only came after them on a "witch hunt" weeks later.

"It's very difficult to distinguish where Mall of America’s influence begins and the Bloomington City attorney’s influence ends," Levy-Pounds said. "There seemed to be a lot of coordination and cooperation between the two, and lots of communication leading up to demonstration, and after."

That coordination included Sandra Johnson, the Bloomington City Attorney, encouraging Mall of America's corporate team to monitor social media feeds of Black Lives Matters participants, and collect what looked like evidence of involvement in planning. This haphazard approach to building a case led to a "random" assortment of people put on trial, Levy-Pounds says, and on strange, thinly constructed charges.

Nekima Levy-Pounds says the 11-month case was "annoying," but probably helped their cause.

Nekima Levy-Pounds says the 11-month case was "annoying," but probably helped their cause.

Those 11 people were cleared yesterday, but another 17, those arrested in the mall that day, are still facing charges for the peaceful act of civil disobedience. The legal team that assembled to help get the "MOA 11" off is sticking together to work on that case.

Though admittedly "annoying," Levy-Pounds says the 11-month ordeal might also have backfired on Bloomington. It only gave Black Lives Matter a bigger platform to make their argument about targeted and unfair criminal justice practices along racial lines, she said, pointing to the lack of prosecutions for mostly white crowds that protested on private property at the Bloomington office of dentist/lion-killer Walter Palmer.

Over the months, church groups, academics, politicians, and even Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who said he disagreed with the prosecution, came to express sympathy with Black Lives Matters' predicament. 

"This became a tremendous issue of public discourse, and allowed us to tell our story, to talk about why we were standing on the front lines," Levy-Pounds says. "People might not have paid attention to this issue. But the fact so many Minnesotans are familiar with Mall of America, and have spent money there, might actually have turned some people in our favor, to support our cause."