Not to be morbid here, but if we had to pick a way to die, we could probably think of “better” ways of meeting our Maker than being stomped to death by frenzied bargain-hunters at our neighborhood discount store.
And not to be morally condescending, but if we had to pick the worst possible image of American consumers, that one snapshot that depicts us as the mindless, de-humanized, materialistic fiends much of the world thinks we are, the recent Wal-Mart stampede in New York—the one that resulted in the death of a store employee—would be it.
It’s hard to conceive of a more vivid or devastating image.
That it happened on the doorstep of the world’s largest retailer of foreign-made junk, as well as the world’s most celebrated and defiantly anti-union corporation—and that the employee who was killed was one Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year old Haitian national—adds a weird, Third World quality to this already tragic, mind-boggling episode.
No, we’re not saying that this incident could only have occurred at Wal-Mart, or only at a non-union facility. Accidents happen. We all know that. There have been fatal stampedes at European soccer games, Asian religious pilgrimages and American rock concerts, so this is not something we’re trying to pin exclusively on a big-time merchandiser, union or non-union.
But let’s be honest. Wal-Mart has a well-deserved reputation for not only doing “more with less,” but for being ruthless in driving down costs, employing the fewest possible workers, and utilizing skeleton crews. And it did expect a huge crowd on this occasion. Therefore, it shouldn’t be out of bounds to ask whether they were looking to save a buck or two.
It shouldn’t be out of bounds to ask whether Wal-Mart had scrimped on the number of security people they’d hired for Black Friday—despite the fact that this was expected to be, unquestionably, the busiest shopping day of the year—or whether those security people they had in place had been adequately trained. It’s a fair question.
Again, no one is suggesting that the incident was wholly Wal-Mart’s fault. There’s no denying that these eager shoppers were a restless and unruly group. Indeed, local police had been called in earlier to calm down the antsy crowd, many of whom had been gathered there since before midnight, awaiting the store’s 5:00 a.m. opening.
Still, because it was Wal-Mart’s own security staff (and not the local cops) who was responsible for crowd control, we need to be reminded that quality costs money. Attracting quality employees costs money, and providing employees with quality training costs money. Wal-Mart may live off the slogan, “Everyday low prices,” but there’s another slogan, a time-honored bromide, that comes into play as well: “You get what you pay for.”
Also, upon closer inspection, those examples of aforementioned stampedes don’t quite apply here. When you have tens of thousands of people at a rock concert or sports event, and they suddenly, inexplicably surge forward, the spectators in front, those pinned against barricades, are likely to be crushed. Macabre as it is, the simple “physics” involved explains what can happen.
But this Wal-Mart stampede was different. By all accounts, this was no sudden, spontaneous crowd swell, energized by the sheer inertia of tens of thousands of people inching forward. This was a crowd of a 2,000 anxious people looking to be the first ones at the bargain rack.
And this crowd didn’t crush each other. They didn’t inadvertently injure those in the front of the pack by pinning them against an immovable object. Rather, they broke down the front door and knocked to the floor one of the very staff people hired to maintain order. And then they trampled him to death.
But if Wal-Mart isn’t to blame, who is? If Wal-Mart management is correct in righteously contending that all they did was advertise a big, monstrous, blow-out sale, and that the unfortunate “riot” that ensued was in no way their fault, then who’s to blame?
Is it the customers? Do we blame the mob? Even though no one in that frenzied crowd believed, in their wildest dreams, that something as tragic as this could happen, do we blame those dedicated bargain-hunters for reverting to such primitive behavior at the mere prospect of toys on sale?
Do we blame the mall for not supplying more private security? Do we blame the police for not hanging around to make sure things didn’t get ugly? Or do we blame ourselves? Do we blame the American System—that high-octane consumer mentality that dominates the country, declaring, You Are What You Own?
Most likely, we’ll blame no one. We’ll simply write it off as one of those unfortunate, “shit happens” stories that piques our interest on the evening news before we forget about it and move on to the next economic juggernaut awaiting us . . .Christmas.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org