For Black Lives Matter protesters, the term “leader” often has a very different meaning. At any protest, ask them who their leaders are, and they’ll often simply say: “Just look around you.”
A movement of mostly the young, and connected by the informal ties of social media, the broad protest movement that has emerged in past two years has mostly rejected what they call the hierarchies of top-down leadership models.
So when a Minnesota judge issued an injunction barring three Black Lives Matter organizers from joining the potentially-disruptive protest they helped plan at Mall of America on Wednesday, they simply brushed it off.
"We are a leader-full organization,” said Kandace Montgomery, one of three organizers barred by the judge's order on Tuesday. “Just barring three of us does not mean that you've stopped our work," she said, saying the Wednesday protests would proceed.
Earlier, the nation’s famously sprawling supermall, located in the Twin Cities suburbs, had sought a temporary restraining order against these three young organizers and others. But attorneys for Mall of America had also asked the court to restrain anyone who might be affiliated with “Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.”
The judge, Karen Janisch of Hennepin County, refused. She noted there was no legal entity called Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. “Although protests and actions within shopping malls or other spaces have been an issue of legal disputes and requests for injunctions for decades,” she reasoned, the court could not, issue “a broad temporary restraining order enjoining the future acts of unidentified individuals or the public at large.”
Legal experts note the long tradition of litigation when it comes to free speech and private property, and the unique issue this case presents, as protests are often informally organized now on social media.
Judge Janisch rejected Mall of America’s request to force the organizers to tell potential protesters that the event would be cancelled. The retail mecca could eject trespassers, but they could not control people's behavior outside the mall’s premises.
Last December, a boisterous crowd of more than 2,000 protesters disrupted Mall of America shopping for nearly two hours, chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and participating in “die ins” – part of the nascent movement coalescing around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown last year.
Dozens of stores were forced to close and police arrested at least 25 people – on one of the busiest shopping days of the year last December.
On Wednesday, Mall of America officials were bracing for protests, even after the judge issued an injunction barring Ms. Montgomery, Michael McDowell, Miski Noor.
Last year, protesters told the Monitor, too, that they were a “leader-full movement.”
"It's a horizontal, leaderless organization, so basically what that means is that we all work together as a team and we all decided what we want to do as a group," Andrea Schmidt, a nursing student protesting in St. Louis, said.
And they often consciously reject any leadership style featuring dynamic, visible heads of the movement – like a Martin Luther King Jr. or the Rev. Al Sharpton, many observers note. From the dozens of independent groups to the larger umbrella coalitions that have formed throughout the country, these often remain unofficial in the legal sense.
The protest planned to take place at Mall of America on Wednesday comes after a tense year in Minneapolis. In November, police shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man. During subsequent protests urged by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, five black protesters were injured after being shot by four men – three who were white and one who was Asian. The men have been arrested and charged with assault, but not hate crimes.
Under the hastags #BlackXmas2 and #Justice4Jamar, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis's Facebook and Twitter pages helped spread the word of the Mall of America protest on Wednesday.
Though Janisch did not issue a temporary restraining order barring Black Lives Matter protesters as a group on Wednesday, Mall of America can remove, with the help of law enforcement, any person who participates in an unauthorized protest.
"The Court's decision should not be interpreted as authorizing or permitting others to engage in political demonstration at the Mall of America without the express permission of the Mall of America," Janisch wrote.
Some legal experts, however, believe even her restraining order on the three organizers may have gone too far – handing down an injunction against a vaguely defined potential act of advocacy.
“It is perhaps understandable that the Mall worried about the impact of a large demonstration on customer attendance on one of the last shopping days before Christmas,” writes Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group, in the Consumer Law & Policy blog. “But from a First Amendment perspective, I wonder whether the law might not have been better served by denying the requested restraining order and leaving the plaintiff to have the police eject specific individuals whose behavior was objectionable.”