On Dec. 20, 2014, an estimated 3,000 people took to the Mall of America in the name of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, as part of a nationwide wave of protests following grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York to not indict white police officers who shot and killed unarmed black men. Despite warnings from the mall and the city of Bloomington, the peaceful protest went on as planned on the Saturday before Christmas, historically one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Twenty-five people were arrested and, on March 10, 11 activists were charged with trespassing and other misdemeanors, to which all pled not guilty. Now the so-called Mall of America 11 (#MOA11) face large fines if convicted, with Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson seeking $40,000 in restitution for police overtime and lost revenue to the mall.
In the process, the activists have had their Facebook accounts monitored, supporters have called for a Mall of America boycott and mocked the mall’s post-protest promotional Twitter efforts to ensure that all lives matter at the Mall of America.
On May 1, the defendants will return to the Hennepin County District Court-Southdale in Edina for a pretrial hearing. The date was chosen by the defendants in solidarity with May Day, or International Workers’ Day, which celebrates left-wing movements and working people all over the world.
To be sure, The MOA11 versus the Mall Of America, as its future Banksy meme will undoubtedly have it, is a battle rife with symbolism – idealism versus capitalism, activism versus shopping, the people versus politicians and police – and at the moment the MOA 11 stand together as a brave if somewhat reluctant figurehead, a group of thought leaders who see themselves as torch bearers of their lunch-counter-sitting and back-of-the-bus–sitting forefathers and mothers before them, taking on America’s history of institutional racism itself.
So who are these defendants, what are their backgrounds, and what do they stand for? MinnPost found out:
Mica Grimm: I was born and raised in South Minneapolis and graduated from Southwest High School. My grandmother was a community organizer in St. Louis, a really powerful woman, so it’s always been in my blood. Right now I’m campus organizer for MPIRG, a nonprofit run by college students, which is really dope because they know what’s happening and we know it’s our time to organize. I got started with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis the night of the Darren Wilson verdict (Nov. 24), watching on CNN the supposed riots with my little brother, and then I watched alone, crying and feeling hurt, and I was like, “I know I’m not the only one who feels like this, why am I dealing with this on my own?” I went on Twitter and people were talking about it, and people in Minneapolis were going, “Is anybody doing anything? We need to do something,” and I was saying the same thing.
Right now, to a certain extent, it’s kind of intimidating because there’s a lot of hate put on you. This is an issue that’s so pervasive and deep, and it’s really clear that the scars haven’t healed. We all like to pretend we’re in a postracial society, that’s what we keep hearing, but these issues bring up so much tension for society. So the hate that comes with all this is kind of heavy. I’ve gotten hate email and letters and even a fax, but at the same time there’s so much love and support. When we shut down Highway 55, that was the first time that I’ve felt a real community with that amount of people. I’d never felt that type of healing and that type of love. It’s clear that people needed this, and needed to be around other people, and needed to believe that we can make a change.
Michael McDowell: I got involved right after the Darren Wilson verdict came out. Folks were emailing the night before, and I got calls that there would be a big rally and march on Hiawatha and Lake, and people asked me if I wanted to be involved and shut down the highway and I said, “I’m definitely down.” Folks were already organizing. It was really organic, and after we did the Highway 55 shutdown, it was part of a national trend and we started talking to folks in Ferguson, who had a chapter there, and New York, who had a chapter there, and were like, “You shut the highway down. You guys should start a chapter there and start pushing policing policy in your state.” So it just kind of … happened.
Overall our target is not the mall, it’s to keep uplifting the message and pushing our demands around, citywide and statewide, towards the end of police violence against black folks, and I think that’s getting lost. But our target is not the mall, we’re just currently being charged by the mall. Our most urgent goal is to end the killings of black folks by police officers and we want to uplift the role of corporations like the mall in all of this.
I think what a lot of folks keep seeing is these awesome and rapid actions, but they’re not seeing what’s going on behind closed doors. We’re trying to push legislation and policy around policing statewide and citywide, and we’re figuring out how to plug folks into the work that’s being done at the Capitol so that we get some folks who really care about policing and community and talking to their legislators. That’s what’s next.
Nekima Levy Pounds: I moved here in 2003 and began teaching at the University of St. Thomas law school. I’m also a law professor at St. Thomas, and also the director of the Community Justice Project, which is the civil rights legal clinic, and I’m also a civil rights attorney. I got involved because of my connection to a lot of the young people who are part of Black Lives Matter; I’ve been working with them on a variety of different social justice issues, so when they were starting up the group they reached out to me to see if I was willing to be involved.
That was on the heels of me returning from Ferguson during Thanksgiving week, as a legal observer through the National Lawyers Guild. That was a life-changing experience. In Ferguson, I saw a visual representation of the militarization of the local police forces. The first night I was there, we were tear-gassed without warning by a police officer and that was just a shocking, jarring experience, because there was really no regard for the safety of the people — because when you’re tear-gassed, you can’t breathe, you can’t see, you’re immobilized for 15 minutes and people with fragile immune systems are in real danger.
That use of force on nonviolent peace protesters really set off some alarms in my mind; I’m a scholar who focuses on the impact of the war on drugs on communities of color, and I’ve written about a lot of these issues, so just to be there face-to-face with officers and the National Guard and seeing that all come to a head was an eye-opening experience.
I was really inspired by the young people who came out night after night in Ferguson, demanding equal justice under the law. I saw that they were relentless, and it reminded me of the things that I had studied about the civil rights movement and the activism of ordinary citizens and young people. So I was inspired and energized by that, so when the young people approached me about getting involved with Black Lives Matter in Minneapolis, it was a no-brainer.
One of the things that’s interesting to me is how often people in Minnesota talk about the inconvenience to shoppers at the Mall of America. People are more concerned about convenience than what’s in the interest of justice. A lot of people are indifferent to the plight of people of color, particularly African-Americans and the plight of the poor, and they are comfortable with the status quo. I just find that to be extremely troubling, but it also helps me understand how we could have Jim Crow laws in this country, and how so many people watched this happen and didn’t do anything about it. Too many people are sitting back, comfortable, while lives are being lost and constitutional rights are being violated on a regular basis, and I just find that unconscionable.
Cat Salonek: I grew up in Robbinsdale, but I’m a South Minneapolis resident now and I work for Outfront.org, because I saw how Outfront was not only working for LGBTQ justice, but was constantly for other parts of the movements. For me, racial justice is a life or death situation in our cities and our state and our country. Growing up in Robbinsdale, the police were very aggressive; it’s on the border of North Minneapolis, and police there would do everything they could to arrest poor people and black people and hold them to a different standard than white folks. So to me, when Black Lives Matter started emerging it was sort of an “of course; makes sense.”
I feel really angry, and infuriated, that the reaction to police accountability is an increase in police force and a manipulation of our constitutional rights to free speech. They’re not only charging us with these five misdemeanors – which are unconstitutional; we have the right to protest – but they’re also charging us with about $70,000 in restitution that, not so coincidentally, comes from an increase in police force that we didn’t ask for at this protest.
These charges are absurd. I didn’t trespass and none of the people they targeted with these charges were trespassing. We were, in fact, the people who attempted to coordinate with the police and pull people out of the action when they wanted but they wouldn’t allow us to do what we do best, which is run disciplined, safe and effective direct action. The police created the chaos. It was very unnecessary. The risk of any [chaos] would have been eliminated had the police followed the protocol I laid out for them. We wanted to have marshals at the event. We had 250 people trained weeks before the event, and not only did they infiltrate it, but they wouldn’t allow us to use the people we trained as marshals and instead decided to wrangle 21 different police units and law-enforcement agencies instead of just letting us have our marshals peacefully maneuver the crowd out of the space. I mean, we shut down two highways. We shut down other spaces. Never has there been an issue about directing people until the Mall of America.
Kandace Montgomery: I’m originally from Maine, and I work for TakeAction Minnesota as an organizer focusing mainly on economic issues impacting women of color. [These charges] are annoying, and oppressive. It’s not a scary feeling, because I feel oppressed every day of my life; it’s just another one of these tactics that they’re using to oppress my voice and thousands of other people’s voices. What they want is for us to think twice about going to a mall and demanding that black lives matter. That’s frustrating, because all of our work is about people speaking their minds and speaking their truth and holding this country accountable. It’s not scary. It pisses me off, more than anything.
It’s obvious that our politicians and people who work in our government are inside the pockets and at the hands of major corporations, and protecting their interests, not ours. So if anything, what we showed from the protests is that our cities and governments are still willing to protect the interests of corporations even if it means persecuting young people of color for gathering at a peaceful protest. That’s absurd, but it gives us more energy in helping us to create more strategy to really think about: How do we create structural change that says black lives matter in this state and in this country?
Adja Gildersleve: What’s the goal of putting us out there as the MOA 11? It’s kind of like a star-status type thing, that’s how I see it, and I don’t want us out there like that. I want there to be talk of deeper issues, and I don’t want to just like highlight me being a defendant because it’s not about me, it’s about a larger movement, and so the media that’s going out right now is really important, to be telling the story of everyone who is affected, because there’s nothing really special about the eleven.
Todd Dahlstrohm: I’m married to an attorney and have two children, 21 and 25, and I’ve been a long-time labor organizer here in the Twin Cities. I currently work for the Minnesota AFL-CIO as the director of organizing and growth. I think that any time you directly take on power, power strikes back and with the Mall of America, we’re taking on corporate power and they’re striking back at us. It’s always worth putting yourself out there when you’re on the side of justice.
Anytime when folks who have decided to change this country they’ve had to make other people feel uncomfortable, and that’s what has led to change in this country. Sometimes disruption and sometimes inconvenience is part of that, just like folks who sat at lunch counters during the civil rights movement – people were uncomfortable with that. [Our] staging a peaceful protest in the mall made folks feel uncomfortable; it wasn’t convenient, but it was really about institutional racism in this country and changing that. I feel confident that we’re going to stand strong and stay together and the movement will make change in this country.
Amity Foster: I’m from a small town in the southern Black Hills in South Dakota, and graduated from Concordia University in 1998 and worked in the library there for 10 years. I’ve worked as executive assistant and data/database manager at ISAIAH for four years, and my life has changed drastically since I’ve been here. When I started, I told my boss that I wanted the job because “I want to be part of something bigger.” I had no idea what community organizing was, and now it is so much a part of my life that I’m not sure who I would be without it.
I hope that people are angry about the protest because it made them look at a hard truth — that black lives don’t matter in so many systemic ways and that’s what is wrong. The major inconvenience to shoppers was caused by the police, that’s where their anger should be. Black lives are disrupted unjustly every day by racial biases in policing and by our criminal justice system, by the achievement gap, by systemic racism. That’s what Black Lives Matter leaders are saying, and that’s what you need to hear.
Jie Wronski-Riley: I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and I’m a senior in high school at Avalon School, which is a charter school in St. Paul. I’ve been involved in other social justice community organizing. I worked at Minnesotans United For All Families and TakeAction Minnesota. I went to the Mall of America on December 20 to honor the lives of black men and women and children who have been murdered by police in America. I went with the intention and spirit of love and mourning, and I think the way the mall and the city of Bloomington reacted … I just don’t think they understand why we were there.
Because if they did, they wouldn’t be doing this to us. We were there in the spirit of love and grief and standing up for your community and people you’re around. They’re very scared of what Black Lives Matter is saying and they’re valuing profits over people.
I’m 18, and when I think about how having criminal charges on [my record] will affect college and my future, I feel proud and I feel anger. I feel very proud, because I don’t think there’s anything else I’d want to be arrested for, than standing up for what I care about and my values. This is living my values. So I’m proud of that, but I’m also really angry about the fact that the Mall of America is not valuing black lives. Their actions seem to be out of fear and punishment.
Shannon Bade: I’m been a community organizer for over 16 years. I’ve organized in five states for over seven different organizations. I moved to Minneapolis a year and a half ago; I’m from the Chicago area. Most recently I was in Kansas, organizing for immigration rights. I’m currently an organizer with Minnesotans for a Fair Economy.
I’m organizing bank workers. My involvement with Black Lives Matter comes out of a deep set of values; I don’t want to live in a world where African-Americans are shot every 28 hours by law enforcement or vigilantes, and I think we’re at a tipping point in this country and it’s time to push it out into the public arena and start having these very hard conversations.
I think I’m a little numb right now. It hasn’t really started yet, and the trial hasn’t begun. In some way, it is scary, because we’re going up against corporate America and very few people have won those fights. On the other hand, I’m super hopeful. I feel excited to be part of such a really cool team that was really “organically” formed and now we’re being deemed the organizers, even though 3,000 other people made it out there. We have a team of lawyers, all of whom are working pro bono and are really impressive, and they’re pretty confident but I haven’t seen them in action yet.
Pamela Twiss: I’ve been doing organizing for 29 years. I was the organizing director at TakeAction Minnesota, and now I run a training program for National People’s Action. I go around the country now and I just don’t know if people appreciate what an [organizing] infrastructure we have here in Minnesota; it just does not exist everywhere.
I’ve been an advocate for us not calling it a protest; I never went to it as a protest. It was a rally in support of black lives. I think calling it a protest confuses people, as if we’re protesting a mall. We’re not protesting a mall. No one was there with anything against the Mall of America; the Mall of America was chosen as a site because it’s a very public place that will get attention.
I will tell you that in the 29 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve worked with many communities of color, and systemic racism is obvious to me. I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of stories that cannot be explained by people’s individual behavior at all — people who have been doing everything to be as responsible in their lives as possible, and they still get screwed, and that’s about systems. I’m kind of amazed how unclear it is in the dominant culture. For one example, the mortgage crisis, [during] which in many corners people took out loans they couldn’t afford, and you dig a little deeper you see that Bank of America and Wells Fargo were selling subprime mortgages in communities of color to lower-income people. A slimy, slimy business.
That’s just one of a thousand examples. I feel like there are points in history where stuff that’s obvious in some communities start becoming obvious in the dominant culture, and I think with all the high-profile killings of unarmed black people lately, we have a moment in time to actually create some policy change that will lead to systemic change. But we can either use that moment, or we can squander that moment, and I think the mortgage foreclosure crisis was a squandered moment. That ship sailed, and it’s too late now, the moment of crisis is gone. I do not want to squander this moment of crisis.
Part of how organizing works is you take a thing that’s been a crisis in some communities, and you make it a crisis in the mainstream. Part of the Mall of America action was about making this an issue, a crisis, for mainstream Minnesota. We want to have a fight that keeps the conversation alive. It was not our intent for Sandra Johnson and Bloomington and these charges to be a battleground, but if that’s the battleground, fine, we’ll use it to keep the conversation focused on the actual problem, which is that there’s systemic racism in Minnesota, and in fact we’re the worst in the nation on a lot of it.
However, we can get people’s attention about that. That’s what we want to do, and that’s what I want to be part of. We would like the charges dropped, but the main issue is we would like the city of Bloomington to address systemic issues of racism there.