Black Lives Matter has right to protest

Updated 1:46 PM EST, Thu December 24, 2015
02:43 - Source: CNN
Black Lives Matter protestors allowed at mall

Story highlights

Mall of America has pursued a restraining order against Black Lives Matter for wanting to protest before Christmas Eve

Mark O'Mara: The fact that Wednesday is a huge shopping day should not hinder people from their right to assemble

Editor’s Note: Mark O’Mara is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

By pursuing a restraining order against members of Black Lives Matter, Mall of America guaranteed that the eyes of the country will be watching the inevitable confrontation on the day before Christmas Eve.

Judge Karen Janisch granted the order as it pertained to three named leaders of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, but stopped short of issuing an order against Black Lives Matter protesters at large. The order upheld that the mall is private property, and the current state of the law allows Mall of America to prohibit public demonstration.

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But just because the judge says Mall of America can expel protesters from “private property” doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The mall has become the current day replacement for the town square of days gone by. The rights of such quasi-public places must be balanced with the necessary conversations that we can no longer ignore regarding disparities in the criminal justice system.

Black Lives Matter, which has staged peaceful and effective demonstrations across the country, staged a rally the day before Christmas Eve to draw attention to the November 15 killing of Jamar Clark by police in North Minneapolis. Authorities have refused to release the video of the event.

Protesters at the mall were met by a phalanx of police officers who ushered the peaceful demonstrators out as the largest mall in the country went into lockdown. Outside, many protesters boarded the light rail bound for the airport, causing massive transportation disruptions. This should be held up as an example of how not to address an important social discourse.

Our right to free speech and assembly, the first right guaranteed in the Bills of Rights, is the cornerstone of our liberty. It is what set America apart at our founding. It’s what makes us free and allows us to speak freely and criticize our government.

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That right has seldom been more important that it has been during the past few years. Social media has added a vibrancy and complexity to the American people’s collective voice, and we have heard that voice call for us to finish the efforts for true civil rights – work that’s been stalled for some 40 or more years.

And the message of Black Lives Matter – the idea that our society at large does not regard a black life with the same value as a white life – may very well be the most important and relevant message that Americans need to hear.

Their right to peacefully demonstrate, whether at Rockefeller Center, the United Nations or the Mall of America, should not be restrained. The fact that Wednesday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year is of no consequence compared with their right to assemble.

Mall of America’s efforts to stop this demonstration is an arcane throwback to efforts to stymie the civil rights movement. A similar scene unfolded a year ago when Black Lives Matter protesters chose the mall to raise awareness of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. This year, the demonstration was more personal, as Clark’s death is a hometown tragedy.

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Black Lives Matter organizer Miski Noor has said that a restraining order will not stop the group from protesting.

What the restraining order did do, however, is draw more attention to the demonstration, and cause protesters to move to other locations.

I’m not sure the owners of Mall of America have thought through what it would look like if police in riot gear show up to their mall two days before Christmas to arrest peaceful protesters. They should have responded with open arms to those with such an important message, not with an outstretched arm holding a court order.

An attorney for the mall, Susan Gaertner, pressed for the restraining order saying, “The Mall of America is no more an appropriate place for a demonstration that it would be around my dinner table.”

Thanks to her efforts, the protest was well-covered by the press, and as families converge this holiday, I can’t help but think that this demonstration will provoke countless debates about race and justice – and that these debates will happen around the dinner table, which is, perhaps, the most appropriate place to have this important conversation after all.

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