Today I participated in an Idle No More round dance flash mob at Macon Mall in Macon, Ga. Within a minute of the first drum beat, security told us we couldn’t drum, sing or dance there. I was asked to stop recording, my sister was asked to put away the poster-board sign she had made. We were barely able to emerge and assemble before it was essentially shut down, but none the less received an applause when we finished and had a group of approximately 40 people taking pictures, videos and watching.
As soon as my sister and I got to the parking lot, I uploaded the two short videos I had recorded of security asking us to stop, leave and stop recording. I posted the videos to our private Idle No More Southeast Facebook group (if you would like to be added, please add me on Facebook and send me a message indicating you would like to be a part of the group). I updated my Twitter and Facebook accounts saying that Idle No More had been removed from the mall. Reactions were strong and swift, and while hearts were in the right place, many of the angry reactions were are little misguided, claiming that our Constitutional rights had been violated, etc.
So I decided to put together a brief and (hopefully) simple guide to Constitutional rights as they relate to Idle No More and the flash mob round dance gatherings. Please keep in mind that my First Amendment law training occurred within the state of Georgia and therefore this is all contingent upon Georgia law, and the law within the United States. If laws different in your state or if you are in Canada and understand free speech laws (specifically in regards to right to assemble), please let me know and I will add your knowledge to this post. In addition, if you know anything about freedom of speech laws on reservations, please let me know! I would like this post to eventually serve as a resource for those of us who are participating in Idle No More gatherings.
When the round dance revolution began, it was about five days before Christmas. Malls were packed. It began in places where Indigenous populations were quite high — much higher than the population here in Atlanta, Ga. The idea was to create a presence and awareness with more than just a hashtag, and it worked.
However, malls are private property. Yes, you can enter one anonymously and freely, but they are owned by private owners — whether the ownership is an individual or a company doesn’t matter. This is why many stores won’t let you photograph displays — the photography is considered imagery theft. The security guards who work at malls are paid by this private ownership — they are not public servants, they are not the same as police officers and they do not, in any sense of the word, work for “the people.” They are paid by and work for the mall’s ownership, which means they are essentially there to protect commerce. Anything that disrupts the money-making machine of commercialism is a threat. You might not like it, but it’s the truth and it’s legal.
Does this mean that peaceful assembly is illegal in malls? Not necessarily. The security at Arbor Place Mall in Douglasville, Ga. let us assemble, dance, drum and sing. The security at Macon did not. It is completely up to them, because we are operating on private property. If we had continued to assemble and perform (round dances, in Georgia, would fall under the “live theater” provision of freedom of expression), we would have been engaging in illegal activity. Because we peacefully and calmly stopped and dispersed, we did nothing illegal.
It is the same body of law that protects your personal property. If someone began demonstrating in your front yard, you could ask them to leave. If they did not, they would be participating in an illegal activity and, depending on the state, you might even be within your rights to use force to remove them. Make sense?
Someone asked me about relocating to the parking lot — for the same reasons I explained above, we would not be allowed to assemble in the parking lot either, because the mall owns and maintains that space.
Which brings me to what we call “free speech zones.” Free speech zones are places such as sidewalks where people can peacefully assemble in protest. Therefore, those protestors that were demonstrating in your front yard earlier? If they’re on the sidewalk in front of your house (and you don’t live in a housing development), there’s very little you can do about it. What about roads? Not necessarily — blocking traffic is usually deemed a threat to public safety, which is why movements such as Critical Mass are often required to file for parade permits before assembling. What about public universities (hopefully it is obvious to you by now why private universities are exempt)? Sort of. Most public universities have specified “free speech zones” where students can peacefully assemble and protest. At my alma mater, Georgia State University, this area is known as “the courtyard.”
Someone asked how unpopular groups such as Westboro Baptist Church get away with assembly at soldier’s funerals, etc. while Indigenous people can’t peacefully assemble in a call to action for land and water rights. Because Westboro is smart. They know the law backwards and forwards. Many of their leaders hold J.D. degrees. They are always careful to operate well within the free speech zones, and whether you like it or not, they are therefore protected by the First Amendment.
And this is where this post begins to relate specifically to Idle No More. In order to continue to grow and gain momentum, we must make sure we are within the law. I realize that this will anger some of you, because we are supposed to be sovereign, we have had this law forced upon us via colonialism, etc. These things are true, but as it stands, these are the parameters within which we must operate.
Again, if you have anything to add, correct or comment on please do so! And if you have any questions, please ask and I’ll do my best to find the answers!