Crossgates Mall officials have dropped trespassing charges filed Monday against
war protester Steve Downs, who wore a pro-peace T-shirt as he
walked through the building that afternoon.
The decision to negate the arrest came Wednesday evening, after
more than 100 anti-war protesters descended upon the mall wearing
shirts similar to Downs'.
Tim Kelley, who works for the Pyramid Management Group that
manages Crossgates and other malls throughout New York, said
local managers had called the police.
The decision to drop the charges did not mean mall policy pertaining
to inappropriate clothing had changed, he added.
"We'll have to address these things as they happen,"
But Downs said late Wednesday that mall officials are avoiding
the central issue of free speech.
"The fact that they dropped the charges means they don't
realize what the problem really is," he said.
Downs' arrest was the first of its type at the mall, although
on Dec. 21 several people wearing similar attire were asked
to leave the mall. Kelley added that all protesters asked to
leave must have been causing a commotion. Mall officers have
since asked people wearing anti-war T-shirts to exit the premises.
Shopping "is what (protesters) say they were doing, but
that's not what people tell us they were doing," Kelley
The 100 or so protesters met at a mall entrance at noon to support
Downs, who they believe was asked to leave the mall Monday afternoon
because of the message on his shirt: "Peace on Earth"
on one side and "Give Peace a Chance" on the other.
Wednesday's march, which lasted about two hours, was relatively
peaceful, although there was a minor skirmish between a protester
and someone apparently opposed to the anti-war cause. No one
was arrested despite the desire expressed by many that they
wanted to be handcuffed for their cause.
"This is a policy that's not enforced equally," said
Erin O'Brien, an organizer with Women Against War and a leader
of Wednesday's protest. Her organization sold anti-war, pro-free
speech shirts to protesters for $15, "$12 if you are willing
to be arrested in the shirt," according to an e-mail sent
to supporters. She said she sold about 60 shirts.
About half of those at the mall were anti-war protest veterans.
The rest appeared to be galvanized by what they labeled a civil
"Whatever your belief is, you should be able to wear that,"
said Sharon Springs resident Leigha Stuber, 24, who took the
early afternoon off from her job at the Special Olympics office
The protest included mothers pushing strollers, youths sporting
skull and crossbones bandannas and salt-and-pepper haired teachers
"Many in my congregation will not approve of what I'm doing,"
Pastor Maggie Sebastian of Tomhannock said. She was prepared
to miss Ash Wednesday services at Poestenkill Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) if she was arrested. "I have to be
true to what I feel God is calling me to do."
Shortly after 12 p.m., O'Brien led the group into the mall,
up the escalators and into the food court. They occupied tables
for about a half an hour. They then walked past stores and wound
up at mall management offices.
Jared Levin and Ronald Wilson watched some of the goings on
from their BC Sports Collectibles store. They had mixed opinions
on whether the protesters should be there.
"As long as they're not disrupting anything, it's OK,"
said Wilson, the store manager.
But added Levin: "They're disrupting people's lunch."
Henry Marks, a World War II veteran, was eating lunch at the
mall with his wife. He supports President Bush's stance. His
wife is against the war.
"I think they could find a better way to spend their time,"
he said of the protesters.
A minor disturbance broke out when one man, dressed in a vest
with a large, black POW patch on the back, raced into the food
court at one point, shoved a man with a no war statement handwritten
on his shirt, and demanded the protesters leave.
"You freaks!" he yelled.
He was quickly ushered away by plainclothes mall security.
Downs' arrest the day before drew worldwide attention.
Guilderland Police Chief James Murley said his offices received
hundreds of e-mails, from California to London, that would have
made his secretaries blush. Officials were called Nazis and
"We didn't go down because the guy was wearing a T-shirt,"
Murley said. "We went down because we were called."
According to statements given the police, a customer complained
to Macy's security that Downs and his 31-year-old son, Roger,
were arguing with a group of individuals, and "was afraid
of what might happen."
A mall security officer asked them to remove their shirts, the
statements read. Charges were filed, which Murley said gave
the police officer no choice but to arrest him. Downs denied
Mall officials distributed a written statement Wednesday defending
their actions. At first the officials promised that someone
would address the crowd at 1:30 p.m., but after 2 p.m. they
said no one would be available.
A proposal that addresses the issue of free speech in malls
was filed last month in the state Assembly by Suffolk County
Democrat Steve Englebright. The legislation would require privately
owned complexes with at least 20 stores and 250,000 square feet
of leasable space to stipulate in the building's master plan
an area where citizens can congregate to express their opinions.
The bill is co-sponsored in the state Senate by Carl Kruger,
a fellow Democrat from Brooklyn.
Colonie Center Marketing Manager Amy Raimo said that her mall
does not permit protests but would never ask someone to leave
because of words on T-shirts unless they were obscene.
"We sort of have to be like Switzerland," Raimo said.
"We don't allow groups to come in and hand out information
on elected officials. We don't allow church groups."
Professor Lawrence Wittner, who teaches history at the University
at Albany, said the differences in anti-war protests today are
that people are more concerned about the prospect of mass destruction
but find themselves with fewer public outlets for their opinions.
"These malls seem to be walled cities of a kind where freedom
of speech and freedom of assembly is banned," Wittner said.
At Crossgates, the protest disbursed quietly around 2:10 p.m.
O'Brien seemed disappointed.
"What do you have to do to get arrested around here?"
She said she has been negotiating with mall officials to allow
her organization to set up an information table in the mall.
She expects that to happen next week. Until then, she told the
remaining crowd same place, same time, same protest Sunday afternoon.