The head of security at Santa Rosa Plaza is publicly denouncing his employers for suspending him after a controversial encounter between mall guards and a group of activists who were eating in the food court following a downtown protest on Presidents Day.
Acting on the mall's policy of not allowing signs, banners or T-shirts on the day of a protest, the security guards ordered activists protesting the October shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez to either remove their "RIP Andy" shirts, turn them inside-out or leave the mall. Among the activists were the parents of Andy, who was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who said he mistook the boy's airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle.
The food court incident has turned into a free-speech issue that has mall owner Simon Property Group revisiting its security policies. It also has drawn the downtown shopping center into a political minefield that has gripped the city and Sonoma County for months.
But Russell Aharonian, who has been director of security at both the downtown mall and Coddingtown Mall for more than three years, said he and mall security guards are being made "scapegoats" by Simon in its efforts to diffuse the controversy.
"Why are you throwing me and my crew under the bus?" Aharonian said, adding that guards were only following mall "code of conduct" policies and rules that were set up for dealing with protests and demonstrations.
"If we made a mistake, it's a corporate mistake — me, Simon and everybody else," Aharonian said.
A week after the free-speech furor, Simon took action.
Aharonian said he had just arrived at work the morning of Feb. 25, eight days after the food court incident, when his new regional manager came up to him and exchanged pleasantries before politely telling him to clear out his desk, pack his things and turn in his keys.
Aharonian, a retired Mono County sheriff's sergeant, said he was told he was being suspended without pay "pending corporate review." That was more than a week ago, and he's heard nothing since from Simon or his direct employer, U.S. Security.
"They immediately took me off payroll, and closed out my email accounts," he said. "They've already posted the position. How obvious do you have to get?"
Simon Property Group, which has apologized to the protesters involved in the incident, declined to comment for this article.
"We are unable to provide a comment for you at this time," said Jennifer Carroll, a spokeswoman for Simon.
U.S. Security did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Aharonian, who moved to Sonoma County 3 1/2 years ago after he retired, said that Simon could have revised its policies regarding protests without heads rolling.
The retired sheriff's sergeant said he and his security guards were following their interpretation of the mall's "code of conduct" rules, as well as previously enforced prohibitions against demonstration-related signs, banners or T-shirts on the day of a protest.
Those rules, in place since the Occupy Santa Rosa protests in late 2011, now have been called into question, and the mall since has removed all signs and fliers related to its code of conduct.
The Presidents Day incident followed an afternoon protest by Andy Lopez activists in downtown Santa Rosa, after which some of the demonstrators entered the mall and went up to the food court for dinner. Among them were Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez, Andy's parents.