Friday, November 28, 2008

The Angry Consumer: Black Friday Death at Wal-Mart

At five a.m. today, a 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by bargain-hunting shoppers in Long Island, New York.

An AP report said:

"'He was bum-rushed by 200 people,' co-worker Jimmy Overby, 43, told the Daily News. "They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too. . . . I literally had to fight people off my back.

". . . A police statement said . . . shoppers 'physically broke down the doors, knocking [the worker] to the ground.' A metal portion of the door was crumpled like an accordion. "

. . . [Before police temporarily shut down the store], eager shoppers streamed past emergency crews as they worked furiously to save the worker's life."

Several other people were injured, including a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was knocked to the floor. She was taken to the hospital for observation.

The NY Daily News reported:

"'They were working on him, but you could see he was dead,' said Halcyon Alexander, 29. 'People were still coming through.'

"Only a few stopped."

An updated AP report added:

"'This crowd was out of control,' said Nassau police spokesman Lt. Michael Fleming. He described the scene as 'utter chaos.'

"Dozens of store employees trying to fight their way out to help the man were also getting trampled by the crowd, Fleming said. Witnesses said that even as the worker lay on the ground, shoppers streamed into the store, stepping over him.

"Kimberly Cribbs, who witnessed the stampede, said shoppers were acting like 'savages.'"

These were not people in a country ravaged by war or natural disaster, desperately trying to get food or water to keep themselves and their families alive; these people were clawing their way into a mega-store to get cheap prices on stuff. Savages, indeed.

Police are reviewing the store security videos and it is possible that there may be criminal charges brought against some shoppers.

But when does our society get indicted for making a $400 TV more valuable than a human life?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Continued . . .

At 4:30 this afternoon, the LA Times online reported that two people were shot to death at a Toys 'R' Us in Palm Desert, California. According to the Times, it was apparently "a personal dispute between two groups of shoppers."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Buy Nothing Day - November 28th

November 28, 2008, is Buy Nothing Day, an annual observance promoted by Adbusters Media Foundation, publisher of Adbusters Magazine:

"Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Adbusters is a not-for-profit, reader-supported, 120,000-circulation magazine concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces. . . We want a world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance. We try to coax people from spectator to participant in this quest. We want folks to get mad about corporate disinformation, injustices in the global economy, and any industry that pollutes our physical or mental commons."

Check out the history of Buy Nothing Day here.

So, how do you participate in Buy Nothing Day? Buy nothing on November 28th, "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Buying nothing for one day is a stuff consumption fast; it's not meant to prevent us from shopping ever again, but simply to make us aware of how much shopping we do, often without even thinking about it. And this is definitely the time to think about it.

We're in the midst of a financial meltdown and the entire structure of our society needs to be reconsidered. We can't continue to buy mindlessly (the personal financial losses of many people make that idea impossible anyway) and we can't continue to deplete Earth's natural resources mindlessly either.

We need to convert our consumption-oriented society into one that is much more nurturing and service-oriented. It will take some very wise leaders to figure out the specifics of how this will work, but it will also require a general shift in thinking so that people no longer value excessive possessions at all costs. We're seeing right now what those costs are and they're too high.

So let's hold off on shopping for just one day. Pay attention to how it feels. Watch the news and see if the crowds descend on the malls like crazed locusts or see if things are not quite as frantic as usual because of the failing economy.

Maybe spend the day thinking of ways that you can change your own buying habits and help nudge the world in a new direction that will benefit everyone on our small planet.

All you have to do to get started is buy nothing.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shop 'til You Drop . . . or Until the Economy Collapses

Who knew that George W. Bush was right? After 9/11, he instructed the citizenry to go out and shop. Shop because that's what real Americans do. Shop or the terrorists win.

Well, he was only partly right to tell us to shop; he missed the boat by not giving us the most important reason to keep on spending, even in the face of a national disaster of epic proportions:

Americans have to shop or our economy collapses and when that happens, the world's economy collapses, too.

Easy to get, sub-prime mortgages were a boon to shoppers looking for homes. The fact that our country became an importer reliant on schlocky, cheap, Third World-manufactured products was a gift to shoppers looking for bargain prices. The stock market was a fabulous windfall for shoppers looking for a secure retirement. So shop, fellow Americans, and keep the machinery of consumerism chugging along!

Until everything falls apart.

Turns out the entire financial system of our country (and much of the world) was being run like a shameless scam maybe one notch better than a Ponzi scheme. The guys on top were raking in plenty of money (they always do) and most of the rest of the population of the western world consisted of poor suckers who thought that happy days were here again forever. Not so.

Recently I've read several fine articles and posts about the precarious state of our economy and its effects on corporations and individuals. I'm particularly fond of one in the LA Times by Judith Freeman, who wrote a touching story from a different perspective. It's called "Americans or Economic Beasts of Burden?" in which she writes about having observed people over the years as they shopped in thrift stores. But she begins her article with her memory of a night that she says haunts her to this day:

"On the night of Aug. 21, 2001, my husband and I checked into a motel in Miles City, Mont. Once settled, we poured ourselves a glass of wine and turned on the TV in order to relax after a long day's drive. I've never forgotten that night. It's haunted me ever since. An economist on the evening news was discussing the economy, then in the midst of a serious slump. The economist looked into the camera and said, 'If the American consumer packs it in, the entire global economy is in jeopardy. The American consumer better hang tough or we're in real trouble.'

"I don't think I had ever before quite understood in such stark terms just what beasts of burden we'd become. What the economist said made me realize something I'd never considered -- that the entire global economy, as he put it, depended on Americans continuing to consume."

Notice that the economist made this observation prior to 9/11 so the foundation for Bush's exhortations to keep shopping was already in place.

Ms. Freeman concludes her article with speculation about a possible benefit from the current malaise that is keeping shoppers from doing their "civic duty" -- I agree with her:

"It seems to me there might be a good side to this. It's as if the consuming fever has broken, if only temporarily. We're disinclined to carry more debt or keep shopping, even if we could, even knowing that the entire global economy might depend on us getting and spending. We're all wondering where this economic meltdown is headed, and how long it might last . . . And will there be a time when we can hope to be relieved of our burden of hanging tough? Can there be some different kind of engine to drive the world economy other than the endless, often mindless consumption by ordinary Americans?"

Yes, there must be another way. I'm a great believer in hope for the future and feel optimistic that this economic downturn is part of the endless cycle that humanity seems intent on repeating: greed that gets out of control until the system collapses; then a period of reflection, restructuring and ethical, responsible behavior that builds until opportunities are so prevalent that greed kicks in again.

Okay, on the face of it that doesn't sound particularly hopeful, but I like to think of the process as a spiraling forward motion in which, over time, more and more people become responsible and ethical, while fewer and fewer people are tempted by greed.

So, even though we're in turmoil and certainly many people are suffering, on a larger scale, maybe we're headed toward that rebirth of a caring, less consumption-oriented society. Maybe we're realizing that we don't have to shop 'til we drop to keep the world afloat. And maybe that realization will help us ensure that the terrorists won't ever win.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob