GUILDERLAND – A man who wanted to send a message of peace by wearing a T-shirt with anti-war slogans was arrested Monday at Crossgates Mall after he refused to remove the shirt or leave the mall.
Stephen F. Downs, 61, of Selkirk, was charged with one count of trespassing, a violation.
Police said he was asked to leave the mall several times but refused and was arrested. A mall merchant had made the shirt for him shortly before security personnel confronted him.
"I was shocked," said Downs, an attorney. "They didn’t explain why they wanted me to remove the T-shirt; they just said I had to remove it or leave the mall." Crossgates representatives could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Downs said he and his 31-year-old son, Roger, went to Crossgates Monday evening and had T-shirts made there. They paid for the shirts and put them on over their other clothing.
They wanted to send a quiet message advocating a peaceful resolution to the U.S.-Iraq conflict.
The father’s T-shirt said "Peace on Earth" on the front and "Give Peace a Chance" on the back.
His son’s T-shirt said "Let Inspectors Work" and "No War in Iraq."
About 10 minutes after they had the shirts made, Crossgates security approached them at the food court and asked them to either remove the T-shirts or leave the mall or face arrest by police.
Security guards asked the pair several times to remove the T-shirts, according to police. The guards told them they were "bothering customers."
Eventually, mall security contacted Guilderland Police Officer Adam Myers for assistance. Myers approached the Downses and he repeated their choices: Remove the T-shirts, leave the mall, or face charges.
The younger Downs removed his shirt so he wouldn’t be arrested, but Stephen Downs continued to refuse.
Still wearing the shirt, he was handcuffed and taken to the police substation at the mall.
For about an hour, Downs said, he and the officer engaged in a philosophical conversation – the officer tried to convince Downs the situation was similar to being in a private home and refusing to leave.
But Downs persisted in declining to leave Crossgates or take off his shirt.
Eventually, he was taken to Town Court, arraigned before Town Judge Kenneth Riddett and released on his own recognizance.
Downs, an attorney with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, said he’s shocked by what occurred. He said after he and his son got the T-shirts, they went to the food court for something to eat. They spoke to no one and had no intentions of making a scene or trying to speak to other mall patrons.
The T-shirts were intended as a quiet way to communicate a message, he said.
Downs said he understands Crossgates has to protect itself and can’t have people going crazy, but he’s shocked by the response and said no one ever explained why he had to remove the T-shirt or leave.
The arrest raised the issue of individual rights versus privately owned public spaces such as shopping malls.
Guilderland Police Chief James Murley said Tuesday that Crossgates is private property and its owners have the right to ask individuals to leave the premises.
Murley also said he supports Myers’ actions – he said Myers was diplomatic and tried to bring about a peaceful resolution. "This was allegedly trespassing and had nothing to do with what the two were wearing. We responded and tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Crossgates Mall is a private property."
The police report indicates that mall security received a complaint from Macy’s representatives that the two were creating a disturbance with other customers, said Murley.
In a sworn statement, a mall security guard said he had received complaints the two were "stopping other shoppers. . . . Security asked the defendant to leave the property and he refused."
"We didn’t talk to anyone," said Downs. "At one point, some kids saw us and said they liked the T-shirts. We told them where we got them. That was it."
It’s not the first time mall patrons have been asked to leave Crossgates.
In December, a group of about 20 people was ordered to leave the premises by mall security. They had walked around the mall at the height of the Christmas shopping season with anti-war statements on their shirts.
Several members of Upper Hudson Peace Action said they were simply wearing shirts that expressed messages of peace, such as "Don’t Invade Iraq" and "Peace on Earth" when security officers escorted them from the building Dec. 21. They were not arrested.
Members of the group sent a letter to Crossgates asking mall officials to explain what happened. The letter described the response of mall security and Guilderland police officers as "inappropriate and unfair."
They denied they were demonstrating or creating a disturbance.
"It wasn’t really a protest," said Pat Beetle, coordinator of Upper Hudson Peace Action. "We just wanted to be a presence at the mall. We wanted people to have a second thought about what Christmas is all about."
Members of Upper Hudson Peace Action denied they were belligerent and said they would like an apology from the mall for what they regard as an overreaction.
Downs said he knew about the group forced out of the mall. But his actions were not part of an organized effort and were not intended as a protest, he said.
"I think it was in part to just see what would happen if I put a T-shirt on that said, `Peace,’ and walked around in Crossgates," Downs said. "I really hoped that nothing would happen because if something did happen, it would mean that I was living in a country where you really don’t have free speech.
"I still think I have the right of free speech."
The New York Civil Liberties Union said it would assist Downs with his case if he requests the group’s help.
"We don’t think that someone whose behavior is consistent with the normal uses of shopping should be excluded for displaying as part of their personal effects a message that the proprietor dislikes," said Heidi Siegfried, interim executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the NYCLU.