GUILDERLAND – The owners of Crossgates Mall late Wednesday asked town police to drop the charge against a man arrested at the mall after he refused to either remove a pro-peace T-shirt or leave the mall.
The arrest of Stephen F. Downs, 61, of Selkirk, on a charge of trespassing led to a protest at the mall Wednesday by more than 100 people.
Protesters wore anti-war T-shirts and gathered in the food court for lunch. They said they were outraged by Downs’ arrest, the mall’s policies and the infringement on the right of freedom of speech.
Crossgates security guards patrolled the food court during the protest. Although many of the protesters wore anti-war T-shirts and peace pins, no one was arrested.
By early evening, after news of Downs’ arrest drew national and international attention, Crossgates management asked town police to drop the trespassing charge against Downs.
"Our goal was to have individuals engaging in inappropriate behavior leave the area. We had no desire to pursue it in a legal manner," said Tim Kelley, director of center management for Syracuse-based Pyramid Management Group, which owns Crossgates.
He said the request by Pyramid to withdraw the charge was not the result of Wednesday’s protest.
Kelley said Pyramid has very strict policies based on patrons’ behavior, not their attire. He said mall security received complaints that Stephen Downs and his son were approaching customers and expressing their opinions on the possible war with Iraq.
"I can assure you if the two were just wearing T-shirts and walking around the mall, there would have been no arrest," said Kelley.
Town Police Chief James Murley could not be reached for comment Wednesday on Pyramid’s request to drop the charge.
Downs said he and his 31-year-old son, Roger, went to Crossgates on Monday evening and had the T-shirts made by a mall merchant. His read "Give Peace a Chance" on one side and "Peace on Earth" on the other side.
He said he wanted to send a quiet and peaceful message about a possible U.S. war with Iraq.
Downs, an attorney with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, said he and his son were not disruptive and were not seeking publicity. He said he spoke to no one at the mall, except for a group of youngsters who simply asked where they got the T-shirts.
He was handcuffed, arraigned Monday evening at Guilderland Town Court and charged with trespassing, a violation.
Police said that they tried to reach a peaceful resolution and were addressing the trespassing issue – not the message on the T-shirts.
News of Downs’ arrest spread quickly and drew widespread expressions of outrage.
Protesters said they were stunned by the arrest. "I feel everyone should have the right to free speech," said Kathy Manley, an attorney from Albany, who said she protested because the right to free speech is important to her.
"How can anyone be against peace?" asked another protester.
The Rev. Debra Jameson, of the Focus Churches in Albany, said she made plans to join the protest when she heard of Downs’ arrest. "Mall management is inconsistent about freedom of speech and what is appropriate and what is not," said Jameson, a street minister.
"There is an underlying sense that peace is unpatriotic. I want to be here as a person of peace and to promote peace and stand up for everyone’s right to speak," she said.
Protesters requested a meeting with Crossgates management Wednesday to clarify the mall’s policies. Management initially agreed to meet with the group and with media at 1:30 p.m., then postponed it until 2 p.m. as members of the group waited.
But no meeting was ever held. J. Mark Wagner, general manager at Crossgates Mall, refused to meet Wednesday with anyone and issued a brief written statement.
"While Crossgates Mall is perceived by some to be a public place, it is privately owned. The courts have affirmed that private properties, including shopping malls, have the right to restrict actions and behaviors deemed inconsistent with its intended purposes – in this case a shopping environment," Wagner said in the statement.
Wagner said Downs was asked to leave the property Monday for "his conduct based on customer complaints of disruptive behavior."
Existing rules at Crossgates prohibit loitering, disorderly or disruptive conduct, harassment, offensive language, fighting or any illegal activity. The mall will not tolerate violations of these regulations, the statement said.
Murley said the mall is private property and management can ask people to leave the property.
He said that several times Monday evening mall security asked the Downses to remove the T-shirts or leave the mall. They refused.
Security sought assistance from town police, who approached the Downses and repeated the request that they remove the shirts or leave the property.
Stephen Downs refused again and was subsequently arrested. His son removed his shirt.
When they heard of the arrest, members of the Albany-based Women Against War, other anti-war groups and churches began to organize Wednesday’s protest. Erin O’Brien, a member of Women Against War and a former security guard at Crossgates, said the group demanded charges against Downs be dismissed.
"This man did not represent any peace group, and he was arrested. The statements by the mall are filled with hypocrisy. Our recourse is to keep coming back. This is private property, but we are not creating a disturbance," said O’Brien.
She said mall security randomly enforces policies, and she said that peace groups are scheduling another protest at the mall for Sunday.
During Wednesday’s protest, a brief scuffle occurred about 12:30 p.m. at the food court when Vietnam veteran Howard Downs, 55, of Ravena, approached the protesters.
"Freaks, freaks!" he screamed out at the protesters as he waved a cardboard sign reading "Remember 9-11."
"I see these jerks out here when mothers and fathers are going out to war and people are trying to eat their lunch. They can wear what they want – what they’re wearing is a minor issue. For once, people should stick by their president," said Downs, who is no relation to Stephen Downs.
At one point, Howard Downs lunged at Tom Lahut of Nassau, and there was a brief struggle. But no one was arrested.
"I heard there would be a gathering. If our First Amendment is infringed upon, we are losing what we can do as Americans," Lahut said afterward, explaining why he was there.
"If I want to have a soda in the mall and am wearing a T-shirt that says `Peace,’ I shouldn’t be arrested," he said.