After Mall protest, a threat of overplayed hands

Demonstrators filled the Mall of America rotunda and chanted "Black lives matter" to protest police brutality, then staged a "die-in." Aaron Lavinsky / The Star Tribune via AP

Last weekend’s protest at the Mall of America could make an entire syllabus for a public relations class at any area university. It’s a battle of the messages and it involves people who know what they’re doing.

Had the Black Lives Matter group been allowed to protest at the mall without drama and then gone off to do its Christmas shopping, we’d already have moved on to other distractions.

The Minnesota State Patrol provided that lesson a week earlier when it let a protest on I-35W burn itself out. Rather than confront the protesters, it protected them.

But the Mall, which employs some of the sharpest PR minds in the business, couldn’t ease its long-standing policy of not allowing unauthorized demonstrations, citing the inconvenience on its shoppers.

Several days earlier, six times as many people showed up for a sing-a-long to raise money for cancer research and no shoppers were terribly inconvenienced. That, presumably, was authorized.

But there’s a reason the Mall of America was the setting for the protest in the first place: Protest needs drama to get the media’s attention. And we cooperated fully when mall officials warned the protesters to stay away three days before it was to be held.

“This is not about violence; this is not about bashing cops, or ‘F the police,’ as people tend to yell,” Michael McDowell, a leader of Black Lives Matter Minnesota said at the time. “It’s about systemic change and figuring out about how we can bring about some policy that’s going to filter out the cops that are not abiding by the law.”

The group couldn’t possibly have gotten the word out any better without the help of the mall’s bunker mentality.

Sure enough, on Saturday, relegated to a fourth-floor perch, reporters and camera people were ready to document what they came to find: a showdown between opposing forces.

Mall officials ratcheted things up by forcing stores to close in the interest of safety, even though the protest was entirely peaceful. That only made things worse because it trapped both shoppers and protesters who were already in the process of dispersing from the mall which famously makes it nearly impossible to figure out how to get out.

But the Mall had to take a stand to underscore its “private property” status, using public employees in riot gear to do it.

Nearly More than two dozen were arrested, the Black Lives Matter message got plenty of coverage, the Mall looked in control to its target demographic, and news organizations had a rootin’ tootin’ story on one of the slowest Saturdays of the year.

Now what?

The threat to Black Lives Matter is that a new focus on the private-property status of the Mall of America overwhelms its broader message of justice. There’s some evidence that’s already happening as some supporters tweet images of the 1960 protest by blacks at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. The Mall of America is a lot of things, but it’s not the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s in 1960.

Library of Congress

The threat to the Mall of America is it overplays its hand, and there’s certainly evidence of that happening, too.

WCCO reports that Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson intends to file criminal charges against the 20 people who were arrested, and perhaps seek restitution for the mall’s decision to close stores.

The City Attorney is now building criminal cases against the protest organizers. She said she’ll try to get restitution for money lost by the mall, the city and police agencies that came from as far away as Hastings and Red Wing.

“The main perpetrators are those who continued on their Facebook site to invite people illegally to the Mall of America,” she said.
Police are looking at the group’s social media posts, as well as video from inside the mall.

“Who led that march through the Mall of America?” said Johnson. “If we can identify those people who were inciting others to continue with this illegal activity, we can consider charges against them too.”

Who looks good in all of this, at least from a public relations perspective? Lush looks good.

Employees of the cosmetics retailer showed support for the protesters, earning an online rant from a Mall shopper who clearly was unaware that the retailer is all about social consciousness.

Employees from the Lush cosmetics store showed their support for the protest. Angela Jimenez / For MPR News

Company executives stood behind its employees, repeated its support for justice, and reaped the benefits of grateful customers.

“We surpassed our goal on Sunday by a fair amount and it looks like we will surpass our goal today,” Chase Burns, a store manager, told Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal on Monday. “Someone said they were going to drive a couple hours just to buy all of their Christmas gifts here. It’s been really lovely.”