MOBILE, AL. As the national president of the NAACP maneuvered to be arrested outside an empty local office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the private building owner and 16 other tenant businesses complained of work disruptions and safety concerns from some 100 protesters and 25 media covering the demonstration.
Sessions, the junior U.S. Senator from Alabama, is due for a Tuesday Senate Judiciary Committee vote on his nomination to be U.S. Attorney General. Neither he nor his staff were in their Mobile office, but that did not deter protesters.
NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks and five others had been arrested Jan. 3 for a similar occupation of Sessions' office in this southern Alabama city, but those charges were dropped Monday morning. Just hours later, Brooks and ten others were arrested again.
The new arrests came after Brooks led the NAACP and eight other sponsoring organizations in a rally against Sessions on a public corner outside the parking lot of the BB&T bank building just off Interstate 65. After several group spokesmen outlined their case against the senator – they allege he is biased against racial and sexual minorities and opposed to civil rights – Brooks invited the protesters to join him in forcing the new series of arrests.
"I'm asking all of you literally to break the law," he said, repeating the line several times, before adding: "to honor the lineage and legacy of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis."
When the protesters followed Brooks through the parking lot and towards the entrance of the building where Sessions long has maintained a small satellite office, a building manager stood in front of one of the doors, informed them the senator's suite was empty and asked them to keep their rally on public property.
Instead, the protest leaders walked to an adjacent doorway, pushed inside, and began cramming into elevators to reach the second-floor balcony astride the hallway to Sessions' office.
As the full 100-strong group filled the narrow hallway, the small balcony, and part of the lobby below, they chanted slogans and familiar call-and-response refrains of 1960s civil rights vintage. The building manager – who requested anonymity – asked NAACP State Conference President Bernard Simelton to quiet the crowd so his other tenants could continue to work. The protesters heeded Simelton's request for quiet for a few minutes, only to intermittently start back up again as one demonstrator with a bullhorn revved them up.
Tenants in almost every visible office entrance (and in a popular ground-floor lunch restaurant) – bank offices, financial planners, commercial realtors, and the like -- looked out their doorways, quietly signaling their support for the manager's efforts to clear the building.
"It's a definite annoyance," one tenant, who insisted on anonymity, told AMI. "We're here to serve our clients. They have to have access to us, and they see this crowd between the elevators and our office and some, especially some little old ladies, probably just give up."
At least one tenant, whose office shares a hallway with Sessions', was temporarily blocked from reaching his suite until he could finally get the attention of enough crowd members to let him through. The protesters remained polite and peaceful (aside from the noise) throughout, but the crowd compared to the size of the hallway was large enough to block access without intending to do so.
After about 45 minutes, police arrived and asked the protesters to peaceably disperse. It took another hour before police had shooed away most of the crowd. The 11 who remained politely and quietly accepted the handcuffs (according to Mobile Police Department spokesman Terence Perkins), and were driven away in two police vans and one car.
A half-hour later, Philip Burton, a principal of the company that owns the property, explained the dilemma he faced as a landlord when he decided to call the police.
"I have tenants who have a right to expect they will be able to conduct their business, and I also have liability concerns," he said. "What if somebody had a medical emergency? What If the crowd stayed until the end of the day like they did last time, there's an automatic magnetic door lock at 6 p.m. What if one of them was in the elevator, or in a restroom, when we closed the building for the night? I can't have somebody stuck in there all night."
Burton continued: "I have no problem with them doing or saying what they want there on the sidewalk outside of my lot. And if they were my tenants and others were protesting against them, I would be protecting them the same way. If something were to happen to one of the tenants or one of the protesters, I'd feel horrible."