The Mall of America: A Case Study in Public Space Ideological Differences

In the span of just a few months, the Mall of America (MOA) became the center of two debates regarding peoples’ rights in quasi-public spaces. On December 20th, 2014 the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization staged a protest in the MOA rotunda:

If you’re unaware of the whole issue, bone up here. Specious allegations that masses of people in the rotunda disrupt shoppers aside, BLM was warned in advance by the mall. The MOA even graciously offered up a parking lot far from where people can see or hear their message. I guess I wasn’t shocked Black Lives Matter didn’t take them up on the offer. In response to the illegal actions of the protesters, 10 members may face charges from the City of Bloomington. It should be noted that, from a strictly legal point of view, the right to protest at the Mall of America has already been weighed by the MN Supreme Court. Despite tax increment financing and other public bone moneys used to improve the site and build infrastructure to serve it, the public is not granted right to free assembly as the MOA is still a private place of business.

A quick perusal of the (always-enlightening) comment sections of any article or Facebook post showed some considerable vitriol toward the protesters – the odds they may inflict bodily harm on other shoppers, their disturbance to the shopping experience during the busiest time of the year, the mall’s clear legal right to restrict free speech and assembly, to say nothing of some more insidious comments about race and BLM’s overarching mission. I distinctly remember questioning whether these exact folks would stand behind the MOA’s right as a private entity to ban guns on its premises.

Fast forward to February 2015. The Mall of America falls victim to a terrorist threat on Sunday, February 23, which may or may not have been credible. State of Minnesota Representative Tony Cornish (R, Vernon Center), a strong gun rights advocate, came out in strong opposition of the MOA’s policy banning guns.

Rep. Cornish’s logic follows the landlord/tenant/guest clause of MN Statute 624.714, Subdivision 17(e). I’m no lawyer, but this seems to be a clear continuation of the residential discussion in the sub-section (d) right above it, or at the very least the legislative intent seems reasonably clear.

As you might expect, this particular discussion of guns brought out a metric grip-ton of comments and social media shares. I have no direct proof, but again I would wager a strong bet that gun proponents commenting and sharing would tend to be the type of people disparaging the BLM protesters. The same is true the other way around – many folks I know who attended the MOA protest or supported it think the MOA is entirely within its right to ban guns.

Talking Past Each Other

In both cases, you have two groups who are mostly talking past each other about the nature of our public spaces. In the BLM protest, most people acknowledge that the law is clearly settled on whether or not it was actually legal to assemble for whatever reason at the MOA. The argument is more one about the erosion of public spaces – where can people march, assemble, etc in our environment where an increasing percentage of places that matter are private (or simply don’t exist).

Would you meet a friend here for a stroll or coffee? Is it an effective place for protest? Artistic performance? If not, does it matter?

Is an unused parking lot 100% exchangeable for a place with thousands of humans who might actually pay attention owing to slight inconvenience? Why was the MOA fine with a protest on their private parking lot but not in the mall itself? Are there real-world implications for building places with private security that now act as the social gathering places once handled by town squares, prominent parks, street-fronting retail districts, and more?

I don’t think anyone is advocating every private structure be forced to allow any assembly by any group, but we have to acknowledge the deterioration of the number, quality, and proximity to people of our public spaces today as a direct result of a few private sector businesses, and that this most likely has a negative effect on a healthy democracy. To top it all off, this definitely applies for malls receiving (continued) public subsidy. That’s the argument, at least (one I subscribe to, for the record).

On the flip side, many in support of conceal-and-carry at the MOA are arguing from a stance of how the law should apply to them regarding bearing arms as a right of personal protection (those with a loose grip on legislative intent notwithstanding), while gun control activists are more than happy to defer to current statute. We could argue whether or not you’re more safe carrying a gun than without one. In my opinion, you’re not, but just like we all believe we’re above average drivers, so too do gun owners think they’re less likely to injure themselves or others.

It’s obvious that political ideologies are at play in forming opinions about what activity is tolerable in public spaces, or even what should be considered “public” in the first place. Both sides could reasonably accuse the other side of hypocrisy. While neither has the law on the side of their current viewpoint, both believe they have the moral right to advocate for change based on personal beliefs shaped by a mix of science and perceived social good. Public space advocates see the harm done by a potential accident (no matter how unlikely) from a “good guy with a gun” as immensely worse than the impacts from free assembly. Gun rights advocates believe the slow trickle of inconvenience and loss of business is worse than the potential errant bullet or inability to defend oneself from a terror attack (no matter how unlikely).

How do we reconcile these differences, especially when no one directly engages with one another?

There are so many topics where this problem rears its head – the right to road space for different modes, the value of subsidized transit (and roads), how many parks should we have, the benefits/drawbacks of new construction in existing neighborhoods, etc. We need to identify more productive ways to have these conversations rather than simply talking past each other.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at

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