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Attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds attended the Reclaim MLK March on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, Jan. 19, in St. Paul. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

For civil rights attorney, kudos and criminal charges

With more than 16,000 tweets under her belt, a blog at the Star Tribune, frequent appearances in other Twin Cities print media and a freshly launched podcast of her own, attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds has established herself in recent years as one of Minnesota’s most visible and vocal civil rights advocates.

Both an activist and an academic, Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St Thomas Law School and director of the Community Justice Project, devotes most of her energy to shining a light on the persistent disparities that are a fact of life for many black Minnesotans.

If there is a public policy discussion involving race in Minnesota, it’s a good bet Levy-Pounds, 38, will be on hand whether the dialogue involves education or crime or health outcomes or economics.

So it was hardly a surprise when she emerged as a spokesperson for Black Lives Matters, the hashtag-propelled grass-roots movement that was born in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida and went viral following controversial police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.

After grand juries declined to indict officers involved in the latter two cases, Levy-Pounds joined in with BLM Minneapolis demonstrators in a headline-grabbing protest at the Mall of America five days before Christmas.

Although there were no reports of violence or property damage, 25 people were arrested in the course of the two-hour protest. On Christmas Eve, Levy-Pounds signed a letter with 40 fellow clergy members. Their message: If prosecutors intended to pursue criminal charges against those activists, charge us, too.

Earlier this month, Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson obliged and lodged a slate of misdemeanor against Levy-Pounds and nine of the other alleged “ringleaders.”

In the wake of that development, Levy-Pounds sat down with Minnesota Lawyer to talk about her case, the Mall of America, and the state of race relations in Minnesota. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Minnesota Lawyer: Trespass, unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, public nuisance, and four additional counts of aiding and abetting. Are they throwing the book at you?

Levy-Pounds: I’m one of two defendants with eight charges. I feel I’m being singled out for my political beliefs and my outspokenness about police misconduct and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. They’re calling me a leader and organizer. Well, I held myself out publically as an advisor. Lawyers are advisors to people and I have served as a spokesperson for the group. For them to single me out like this, I think that’s an attempt to publically humiliate me.

ML: The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the Mall of America is a private space. Do you think the Mall of America is a public space?

Levy-Pounds: That’s a good question. But if we keep this conversation grounded in the notion of public versus private, we miss a lot of the nuances. We miss the fact that Mall of America is engaging in preferential treatment. Some groups are allowed on site to promote their causes. Others – like Black Lives Matter – are treated like criminals.

When the Cloud Choir came to Mall of America to sing to raise awareness about cancer– with twice as many people — the welcome mat was rolled out. Black Lives Matter protestors were met with police in riot gear. Why such a hyper-vigilant response? Why expect violence? Why expect rioting?  When you look at Black Lives Matter here in Minnesota, it has an excellent record for carrying out peaceful protests.

They’re drawing distinctions in terms of which causes are important to them without giving people an opportunity to make their case, or even being invited to request a permit. That’s problematic to me — especially given the fact that the Mall has received over $400 million in tax subsidies.

ML: You probably don’t relish have to go to criminal court. But doesn’t the decision to press charges help your cause by keeping the issue in the spotlight?

Levy-Pounds:  There are other ways to keep this in the public eye. This is a distraction from our core focus which is to raise awareness about the shooting deaths of unarmed black men, boys and, increasingly, women at the hands of law enforcement. These charges are a way of getting revenge on a select few. It’s a misuse of prosecutorial discretion and a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

ML: And yet doesn’t that help to make your case?

Levy-Pounds: If people understand these charges are retaliatory, absolutely. But do I want to be labelled a criminal? Of course not.

When you look at history, you see that the law has often been used to oppress people with dissenting opinions. We now celebrate Rosa Parks for her stand. But we sometimes fail to recognize that she was arrested, removed from the bus, and has a mug shot. We celebrate Dr. King today. But we don’t talk about the fact he was arrested over 30 times for engaging in civil disobedience. We need to recognize that Bloomington is our Birmingham of 2015.

ML: The press release from Bloomington police has a stamp on the bottom that says “an affirmative action/equal opportunities employer.” How does that strike you?

Levy-Pounds: It comes across as empty rhetoric. When I went to the Bloomington city council meeting a couple of weeks ago, the mayor honored someone for living out the legacy of Dr. King. I was thinking, Do you not see the irony? Here you are applauding Dr. King on one hand. And, on the other hand, you’ve chosen to criminalize non-violent, peaceful demonstrators who are walking in his legacy. You are repeating history when you take that approach, and you’re blind to the reality of what you’re doing.

ML: At this point, it seems like virtually everyone across the political spectrum gloms on to King.

Levy-Pounds: Yes, but it’s usually divorced from the context of the time. Dr. King was not only one of the most hated men in America, he was also considered the most dangerous. We’ve gone to great lengths over the last couple of decades to sanitize his image, to remove the bite and the sting from the words he spoke.

ML: The Bloomington police department sent plainclothes police to BLM’s organizing meetings. Did that surprise you?

Levy-Pounds: To some degree. But similar tactics were used in the Sixties to infiltrate civil rights meetings. In terms of the surveillance — and the intermingling between Mall of America security and Bloomington police department — the lines get very blurry. Police resources should be used to benefit the broader public, but they’re being used to benefit a corporation.

ML: Do you think it was wrong for police to use undercover police?

Levy-Pounds: Anyone could come to our training session but it’s appalling they would spend these resources to infiltrate the group. Is this Mission Impossible? And the fact that undercover officers were present should have given them the insight to see that this was going to be a non-violent demonstration. They should have known there was no cause for the hyper-militarized response.

It was almost as though they were hoping that something would happen to justify police brutality, or to make more arrests, or to tarnish the image of people associated with Black Lives Matter. The fact is, only ten of us have been singled out as ringleaders even though 3,000 people participated – people from all walks of life, from clergy to lawyers to professors to homemakers to children. If there was a conspiracy to aid and abet trespassing, why aren’t the other 3,000 people being charged? If this is about fairness and not about stifling defense and curbing protest, why single out just ten people?

ML: The criminal complaint says BLM is trying to draw attention to a “private cause.” Is this a private cause?

Levy-Pounds: How do they determine if something is a private cause? If Mall of America is going to continue to receive public subsidies, there ought to be some rights and privileges and benefits built in where people are allowed to use the rotunda as a public square with a permit process that ensures equal treatment for different groups regardless of racial background.

ML: The criminal complaint states that shoppers were frightened by the demonstration and describes protestors as “frantic and uncontrolled.”

Levy-Pounds: They had to be watching a different protest. That characterization doesn’t align with what actually happened. A couple of weeks later, Sandra Johnson said a charge of rioting in the third degree would be appropriate. Where was the riot? I certainly didn’t see one. That willingness to stretch the intent behind the law is disconcerting and alarming.

The only people that shoppers should have been frightened of were the police in riot gear. It reminded me of the time I spent in Ferguson in November, where I saw the same thing.

ML: The city says it incurred at least $25,000 in overtime costs and the Mall spent $8,000 on security. Do you accept those figures?

Levy-Pounds: I have no idea how much they spent. I also have no idea why they spent money to hire off duty police officers and extra security. There was no need. That was a strategic decision someone made based on racialized fear. That was a choice they made. They need to think about why they made the choices and what role race and stereotypes played. There are plenty of demonstrations where police departments have officers work over time. It sets a dangerous precedent to try to pass those costs on to the public.

ML: Do you and your co-defendants intend to take the case to trial?

Levy-Pounds: I can’t speak for the other defendants. I can say that I’m prepared to fight this tooth and nail.

ML: Will you act as our own attorney?

Levy-Pounds: That will be revealed when the time comes

ML: Are you contemplating any legal action against the city or the Mall of America?

Levy-Pounds: When the time comes, that will be revealed. What I can say, is this is a waste of taxpayer dollars and waste of time. And I think it will turn the nation’s attention toward Minnesota in a very negative way. We’re just barely getting over the repercussions from Pointergate, which was a national embarrassment. I think Bloomington will have a similar impact.

ML: You remember seeing that the message displayed on the big screen at Mall of America – which labelled the demonstration “a clear violation of Mall of America policy” and threatened those who didn’t leave with arrest? Wired magazine called that one of “the most dystopian” images of the year.

Levy-Pounds: I agree with that. They took it to the extreme. They say some businesses were inconvenienced. Some of the employees of [cosmetic retailer] Lush actually came out of their store in a show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. That company supported their employees’ decision. I think that’s the hallmark of corporate responsibility. Mall of America had an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Instead, they sent the message that black lives matter only if you’re spending money.

ML: In response to the news that you are being charged, your boss at the law school [Dean Rob Vischer] tweeted out a link to Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. That must have been gratifying.

Levy-Pounds: Absolutely. I work for an institution that understands the importance of standing up for justice.

Watch a short video below by staff photographer Bill Klotz taken during the Martin Luther King Day march in St. Paul:

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