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Mall of America temporarily closes stores amid Saturday protest

Hundreds of demonstrators filled the rotunda at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., on Saturday, while others marched around the mall during the protest organized by the group Black Lives Matter. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Thousands of protesters ignored warnings not to gather at the Mall of America on Saturday, prompting the shopping destination to close for part of the afternoon on one of its busier shopping days of the year.

The group organizing the protest, Black Lives Matter, was warned repeatedly by mall officials and Bloomington authorities that the mall was not a public space and therefore not a suitable place for demonstration.

Regardless, about 1,500 people, according to police estimates, showed up to voice their opposition to the deaths of several black men over the past six months, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.

More than 20 people were arrested during the demonstration for various offenses, according to Bloomington police Cmdr. Mark Stehlik. He said he was not aware of any injuries or incidents of violence or theft related to the event.

Michael McDowell of Black Lives Matter said the protest was an important disruption for the Twin Cities area.

“We wanted to raise awareness around this issue because it’s not just Ferguson or New York,” said McDowell, who helped organize the demonstration. “It happens right here in Minneapolis; we have our own Michael Browns and Eric Garners. We did this because corporations have a role in this, too.

“We wanted to show people who have the everyday luxury of just living their lives that they need to be aware of this, too.”

The protest began at 2 p.m. McDowell said protesters were able to actively demonstrate for about a half-hour inside the mall’s rotunda. That space was blocked off by lines of police officers in riot gear as protesters chanted messages such as, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and, “Black people cannot breathe while you’re on your shopping spree.”

Police dispersed the crowd about 2:30 p.m.. Many reassembled on the second floor and began marching in front of stores, chanting and clapping their hands.

Over the course of the protest, the mall closed stores on the east side of the facility and disabled elevators and escalators as police in riot gear tried to herd demonstrators to the exits.

As late as 4:30 p.m., some storefronts remained shuttered and portions of the mall were closed to pedestrian traffic.

The mall released a statement about 6 p.m., saying that business had returned to normal but that the hourslong disruption had been “extremely” disappointing.

“We are extremely disappointed that organizers of (the) Black Lives Matter protest chose to ignore our stated policy and repeated reminders that political protests and demonstrations are not allowed on Mall of America property,” the statement read. “It’s clear from their actions that these political activists were more concerned about making a political statement and creating a media event than they were about the safety of others, who came to Mall of America for an afternoon of shopping and family entertainment.”

Several shoppers interviewed at the mall described the protest as frustrating.

Others said it was an important exercise in free speech.

“It gives people an opportunity to speak their opinion about the police and the brutality,” said Franklin Johnson, 21. Johnson was shopping with a friend when he saw the crowd of protesters begin to gather.

Roberta and Jason Houle of Savage said the event had interfered with their family shopping day. Their son was trapped inside Barnes and Nobles for more than 45 minutes as the protest got underway.

“I can understand it, but it’s really disrupting our day,” Roberta Houle said.

Victor Chavez, 64, of Minneapolis didn’t know anything about the demonstration until police suddenly started redirecting him. He sat on a bench inside Nickelodeon Universe until he was allowed to leave.

“It’s crazy, you know, you can’t even do nothing. … I should have just stayed home,” he said.

Staying away didn’t feel like an option for Kamirah Green, 15, of Minneapolis, who said she made it a point to show up for the protest with her older sister.

“This matters to me. I’m African-American; my younger brother and his friends and stuff, their lives are in danger if cops are allowed to kill kids … especially with Tamir Rice. My brother’s 12; man, if a cop can shoot someone as young as my brother for holding a toy gun, that’s scary, man. I had to be out here. This matters to me,” Green said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.