Behind the cancellation of the Atlanta/Gwinnett Mall Tea Party

With 15,000 to 20,000 people in attendance, the Atlanta Tea Party on April 15 was a resounding success.  Hoping to match or surpass the success of their peaceful and well-organized Tea Party in April, organizers of the July 4 Atlanta Tea Party had planned for a family-friendly Independence Day event that would accommodate a very large crowd of Tea Party Patriots. 

The Atlanta Tea Party would have included musical entertainment, face painting, jumbotron televisions, food vendors and speeches from talk show hosts and grassroots activists.  The celebration would have brought thousands of potential shoppers into an economically depressed area and would have featured the only Independence Day fireworks show in the county.

With the generous support of a local property owner, George Thorndyke, who made his property available for the Tea Party free of charge, the Tea Party organizers thought they had secured an ideal location for their event.

However, at the eleventh hour, the Atlanta Tea Party was forced to cancel its Independence Day celebration in Gwinnett County after being blind-sided by the objections of Gwinnett Place Mall (a Simon Company). The Tea Party had been scheduled to take place in the parking lot of the old Macy's building at Gwinnett Place since March.

"It is unfortunate the event had to be canceled," said Julianne Thompson, event co-organizer. She continued, "The old Macy's building is on private property, and is not owned by Simon Malls, however the mall manager asked the property owner and I to come in the office on [June 18], and told us Simon does not want political events on its property. They were also concerned about the fact we were using the term 'protest.' Although the event was on private property, the mall was able to assert authority on the matter due to reciprocal property easement agreements."

With just a few days left until their Tea Party was to have occurred, the timing was devastating.

Event co-chair Debbie Dooley stated, "Our Atlanta Tea Party team tried for the next day and a half to find an alternative location large enough for the event, and with the proper layout for our vendors, children's activities, and fireworks show, but we could not find anything suitable that would have been available on July 4th."

Thompson said, "...we felt there was no alternative and that we had to be cancelled because they told us we had to be cancelled."  Simon's seemingly unassailable authority on the issue was reported unquestioningly by the local news media.  But as news of the tea party smackdown quickly spread, and as Simon's financial ties with Team Obama and the Democrats came into focus, anger began to simmer and questions began to surface.

"This has activated and angered a lot of people," said Dooley.

In the face of unflattering exposure on national television and widespread calls for a boycott from the blogosphere, Les Morris, a spokesman for the mall, disseminated the following statement:

Gwinnett Place Mall is not public property, but is privately owned. In order to preserve the shopping experience for all guests, it is our standing policy not to permit political protests or rallies on mall property. To clarify the timing of our decision, mall management was not notified of the event or contacted for approval on event plans until just last week.

Speaking in a radio interview with Rabbi D.F. Eukel, Michael Sullivan, an attorney from Atlanta who is very well acquainted with the situation, points out several holes in Simon's statement:

The particular property in question is not owned by Simon.  It's owned by a gentleman by the name of George Thorndyke. He owns the title to that property and he is the sole owner.  Simon doesn't have any ownership interest in that property.

Mr. Sullivan addresses the Mall's lack of legal authority in further detail:

There were a set of declarations of covenants and restrictions that were placed on the mall when it was originally built in 1984, but those covenants state very clearly by their own terms that they would expire after a period of twenty years if they were not affirmatively renewed. That 20 years expired in 2004 and the covenants where NOT affirmatively renewed.  So you're dealing with a Mall that doesn't have any covenants or restrictions restricting general use in place.

Sullivan speaks specifically to the issue of parking:

What is in place on the properties is a reciprocal parking agreement that provides that the other mall property owners have a right to the use of certain portions of Mr. Thorndyke's parking lot.  But what makes it reciprocal is Mr. Thorndyke likewise has the right to use certain portions of the parking lots off of his property.  ...There's nothing in that agreement that gives either property the right to restrict uses of the other's property. 

More to the point:

So what you have here is...a successful attempt, unfortunately, by Simon to overreach their rights to the use of Mr. Thorndyke's property.

What if these facts had come to light sooner? 

We would have made it clear that Simon's only right to control the property was really for parking.  ...It's not something that gives them overarching control over the property.  ...It would have been possible, for example, to hold the event on Mr. Thorndyke's property, but to exclude the portions of Mr. Thorndyke's property over which there's a parking restriction.  You could have left those areas open and been completely within the terms of the parking restriction.

Did Simon have any relevant rights in this situation?  Perhaps not, according to Sullivan:

It's my understanding that Gwinnett Place Mall is going to close for business on July 4th at 6:00 P.M., when the Tea Party was not scheduled to occur until 7:30 P.M.  It would be very hard for them to argue that they had the right to parking spaces without customers in the mall.

So much for disrupting the shopping experience!

The events surrounding the cancellation of the Atlanta Tea Party run counter to accusations that the Tea Party is a GOP-driven astroturf movement.  Debbie Dooley explains: "I will say and stress to everyone we are not professionals, we are not backed by Republicans or any kind of millionaire, so we were somewhat naive...and we took Simon at their word that they had the authority to actually stop our Tea Party.  We did look for another location, but we're not experts.  This is a grassroots effort."

In spite of the sabotage, the Atlanta Tea Party organizers have not been discouraged.  "The message is too important to be sidetracked," Dooley said in an interview with me.  "We'll send everybody to [the Cobb County Tea Party] and any other tea party, and we'll just keep fighting behind the scenes.  We'll keep fighting and never give up."

Several other Tea Parties will be held in the Atlanta area on July 4. 
With 15,000 to 20,000 people in attendance, the Atlanta Tea Party on April 15 was a resounding success.  Hoping to match or surpass the success of their peaceful and well-organized Tea Party in April, organizers of the July 4 Atlanta Tea Party had planned for a family-friendly Independence Day event that would accommodate a very large crowd of Tea Party Patriots. 

The Atlanta Tea Party would have included musical entertainment, face painting, jumbotron televisions, food vendors and speeches from talk show hosts and grassroots activists.  The celebration would have brought thousands of potential shoppers into an economically depressed area and would have featured the only Independence Day fireworks show in the county.

With the generous support of a local property owner, George Thorndyke, who made his property available for the Tea Party free of charge, the Tea Party organizers thought they had secured an ideal location for their event.

However, at the eleventh hour, the Atlanta Tea Party was forced to cancel its Independence Day celebration in Gwinnett County after being blind-sided by the objections of Gwinnett Place Mall (a Simon Company). The Tea Party had been scheduled to take place in the parking lot of the old Macy's building at Gwinnett Place since March.

"It is unfortunate the event had to be canceled," said Julianne Thompson, event co-organizer. She continued, "The old Macy's building is on private property, and is not owned by Simon Malls, however the mall manager asked the property owner and I to come in the office on [June 18], and told us Simon does not want political events on its property. They were also concerned about the fact we were using the term 'protest.' Although the event was on private property, the mall was able to assert authority on the matter due to reciprocal property easement agreements."

With just a few days left until their Tea Party was to have occurred, the timing was devastating.

Event co-chair Debbie Dooley stated, "Our Atlanta Tea Party team tried for the next day and a half to find an alternative location large enough for the event, and with the proper layout for our vendors, children's activities, and fireworks show, but we could not find anything suitable that would have been available on July 4th."

Thompson said, "...we felt there was no alternative and that we had to be cancelled because they told us we had to be cancelled."  Simon's seemingly unassailable authority on the issue was reported unquestioningly by the local news media.  But as news of the tea party smackdown quickly spread, and as Simon's financial ties with Team Obama and the Democrats came into focus, anger began to simmer and questions began to surface.

"This has activated and angered a lot of people," said Dooley.

In the face of unflattering exposure on national television and widespread calls for a boycott from the blogosphere, Les Morris, a spokesman for the mall, disseminated the following statement:

Gwinnett Place Mall is not public property, but is privately owned. In order to preserve the shopping experience for all guests, it is our standing policy not to permit political protests or rallies on mall property. To clarify the timing of our decision, mall management was not notified of the event or contacted for approval on event plans until just last week.

Speaking in a radio interview with Rabbi D.F. Eukel, Michael Sullivan, an attorney from Atlanta who is very well acquainted with the situation, points out several holes in Simon's statement:

The particular property in question is not owned by Simon.  It's owned by a gentleman by the name of George Thorndyke. He owns the title to that property and he is the sole owner.  Simon doesn't have any ownership interest in that property.

Mr. Sullivan addresses the Mall's lack of legal authority in further detail:

There were a set of declarations of covenants and restrictions that were placed on the mall when it was originally built in 1984, but those covenants state very clearly by their own terms that they would expire after a period of twenty years if they were not affirmatively renewed. That 20 years expired in 2004 and the covenants where NOT affirmatively renewed.  So you're dealing with a Mall that doesn't have any covenants or restrictions restricting general use in place.

Sullivan speaks specifically to the issue of parking:

What is in place on the properties is a reciprocal parking agreement that provides that the other mall property owners have a right to the use of certain portions of Mr. Thorndyke's parking lot.  But what makes it reciprocal is Mr. Thorndyke likewise has the right to use certain portions of the parking lots off of his property.  ...There's nothing in that agreement that gives either property the right to restrict uses of the other's property. 

More to the point:

So what you have here is...a successful attempt, unfortunately, by Simon to overreach their rights to the use of Mr. Thorndyke's property.

What if these facts had come to light sooner? 

We would have made it clear that Simon's only right to control the property was really for parking.  ...It's not something that gives them overarching control over the property.  ...It would have been possible, for example, to hold the event on Mr. Thorndyke's property, but to exclude the portions of Mr. Thorndyke's property over which there's a parking restriction.  You could have left those areas open and been completely within the terms of the parking restriction.

Did Simon have any relevant rights in this situation?  Perhaps not, according to Sullivan:

It's my understanding that Gwinnett Place Mall is going to close for business on July 4th at 6:00 P.M., when the Tea Party was not scheduled to occur until 7:30 P.M.  It would be very hard for them to argue that they had the right to parking spaces without customers in the mall.

So much for disrupting the shopping experience!

The events surrounding the cancellation of the Atlanta Tea Party run counter to accusations that the Tea Party is a GOP-driven astroturf movement.  Debbie Dooley explains: "I will say and stress to everyone we are not professionals, we are not backed by Republicans or any kind of millionaire, so we were somewhat naive...and we took Simon at their word that they had the authority to actually stop our Tea Party.  We did look for another location, but we're not experts.  This is a grassroots effort."

In spite of the sabotage, the Atlanta Tea Party organizers have not been discouraged.  "The message is too important to be sidetracked," Dooley said in an interview with me.  "We'll send everybody to [the Cobb County Tea Party] and any other tea party, and we'll just keep fighting behind the scenes.  We'll keep fighting and never give up."

Several other Tea Parties will be held in the Atlanta area on July 4.