Crossgates Mall drops charges in T-shirt incident

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," he said.

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 said.

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 rights violation.

"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 in Schenectady.

The protest included mothers pushing strollers, youths sporting skull and crossbones bandannas and salt-and-pepper haired teachers wearing ties.

"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 worse.

"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 confronting anyone.

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 asked.

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.