Wal-Mart Death Stampede Revisited

It was a scene reminiscent of “The Day of the Locust,” a 1975 film based on Nathanael West’s shattering iconoclastic novel.  The movie ends with a riot breaking out at a Hollywood movie premiere, where a frenzied mob tramples to death a child actor.  Flash back to Black Friday, 2008 (the day after Thanksgiving).  A crowd of overzealous shoppers intent on being the first to reach the bargain bins stormed a New York Wal-Mart and trampled to death a security guard, one Jdimytai Damour, a citizen of Haiti.

It’s a gruesome tale, an Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches story as written by Stephen King and illustrated by Gahan Wilson.  A young immigrant (Damour was 34) comes to the Land of Opportunity in the hope of bettering himself.  Damour knew that, in America, hard work and perseverance resulted in cash money, that consumerism was the national pastime, and that there was virtually an infinite amount of stuff to buy.

How important was it to buy stuff?  Following the 9-11 attack, President Bush went on television to implore Americans to “go shopping” at the malls.  Don’t stay home and pray.  Don’t mourn.  Don’t spend time with your family trying to make sense of the insanity.  Get out there and buy stuff, he urged.  Unfortunately for Damour, it was this shop-til-you-drop consumerism that killed him.  The indomitable vitality and sanctity of human life is one thing; flat-screen TVs at rock-bottom prices is another.

Following his death, leftist pundits and various Wal-Mart haters (their numbers are legion) cynically suggested that the store’s slogan be changed from, “Save money.  Live Better.” to “Shit Happens.”  Ouch.  No matter what your opinion of the voracious, mega-retailer, that was clearly a cheap shot.  In Wal-Mart’s defense, blame for the Black Friday tragedy can’t be laid entirely at its feet.

After all, there have been many episodes of customer stampedes resulting in injuries at retail outlets other than Wal-Mart (although none on record resulted in the death of a security guard), not to mention stampedes at rock concerts, soccer matches, and religious pilgrimages.  Put a large, unstable group of bodies in a confined venue and you have all the ingredients for a disaster.

But what works against Wal-Mart—what makes this particular corporation appear so tantalizingly culpable—is its intense (some would say “pathological”) desire to cut costs, a desire manifested by its hysterical opposition to labor unions and its stubborn unwillingness to pay a nickel more than is “necessary” for employee training.  The way Wal-Mart sees it, why blow money on comprehensive training programs when some old-fashioned OJT (on-the-job-training) will accomplish the same thing?

By all accounts, Jdimytai Damour was woefully under-trained.  He knew nothing of the rudiments of crowd control.  The mob that broke through the front door of Wal-Mart was estimated to be in excess of 2,000 people.  Not only was he a rent-a-cop hired as temporary help for the holidays, he was a lower echelon rent-a-cop—an unarmed, uniformed guard whose sole purpose was preventing customer mischief and shop-lifting.

Resisting an aroused mob of sharp-eyed, bargain-hunting fanatics wasn’t part of the deal.  Indeed, if Damour hadn’t been so conscientious and determined to finish the job he was hired to do—had he fled in the other direction at the first sign of a stampede, instead of trying to prevent it—he would still be alive.  His conscientiousness and determination were what cost him his life.

Just as it takes a gory train wreck to get railroad safety legislation passed, it took a tragedy like Damour’s to result in improved crowd control.  In the wake of the episode, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has vowed to put in place security measures that will prevent riots from occurring.  More guards, more training, more preparation, more foresight.

The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year.  Which means there’s no way in hell America’s retailers are going to curtail or limit it.  Not a hundred—not a thousand—Haitians being trampled to death would cause Black Friday to be scaled back.  We Americans are the world’s consummate shoppers.  All we can do is hope to get the dirty job done without bloodshed.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com