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Wal-Mart stampede: Where’s Woody Guthrie?

Condolences to the family of Jdimytai Damour. It is very sad that he was trampled while trying to make a living as a worker at a Wal-Mart store.

Now, what can we learn from this? And, who is to blame?If we were to turn to philosophers or folk musicians, we might get the proper answer. An artist like Woody Guthrie might be inclined to point out that the situation was more of the usual games between the rich and the poor. The rich Wal Mart owners set the stage for the working class bargain hunters to trample the working class temporary worker. And, now, some in the corporate media are willing to side with the corporation, of course.

I am horrified to see some mainstream news coverage vilify the shoppers who went through the doors. And, an AP headline that threatens to hunt the shoppers down. The AP/Yahoo News headline is: “Sought: Wal-Mart shoppers who trampled NY worker”. And, it states:

Police were reviewing video from surveillance cameras in an attempt to identify who trampled to death a Wal-Mart worker after a crowd of post-Thanksgiving shoppers burst through the doors at a suburban store and knocked him down.Criminal charges were possible…

It is very clear from the story, and the obvious facts, that Wal-Mart is at least equally, but perhaps more to blame than the shoppers. Who profited from the chaos being created? –the shoppers who believed they were getting a discount on goods which are already marked up for retail? or, the company who would make a profit, nonetheless from every customer they could get to the door, the ones who got the sale, and even the ones who would feel the need to buy something else when the sale item got sold out? (What is the term in retail? Bait and switch? Evidently these shoppers had experienced it before, or they would not have started lining up before 3 am in the morning.)

The AP/Yahoo News story is amazing in its distraction on the shopper, instead of the corporation. It quotes someone as saying that the shoppers acted like “savages”. It paints a portrait of them being uncaring by continuing to shop (instead of noting that the shoppers could have been confused or in shock by having been in such a large crowd and experienced a tragedy, when they were only going somewhere to shop.) It assigns no blame to Wal-Mart, and even publishes the official line from the spokesperson/Vice President from Wal-Mart, which will help to bolster the company image and get their spin on the story out in public before the inevitable civil or criminal lawsuit against them.

The VP says, “Despite all of our precautions…” What precautions did Wal-Mart take?

Wal Mart didn’t have enough staff. Didn’t have staff trained properly to know to do their job, or understand when things were out of control and they should give up. Wal Mart doesn’t allow unions, where the workers might have had a system to advocate for themselves and give feedback about job assignments such as holding back the door on Black Friday. Didn’t have a strong enough door to keep out the amount of shoppers you lured to the store. Didn’t have enough trust with the community and the shoppers to make them believe they could get the sale items they advertised if they showed up at regular business hours.

In addition, Wal Mart allowed people on their property and encouraged people on their property since the night before. But, did they provide them water on the line? Chairs on the line? (In some cultures, there are strict codes for hosts and hostesses. In this country, it is still appalling to invite someone onto your property who is going to be your customer, and have them stand in the cold with no water for up to 8 hours like some of those people had been.) Wal Mart opened at obscenely early hours, so that some people who would usually have been asleep had interrupted their sleep schedule. (Do you remember the good old days, when retail stores did not open on Sunday? That was an acknowledgment that business should step aside for the cycles of family and human rest and activity.)

The AP/Yahoo story even ends with a pitch for some Wal-Mart products and prices. What could possibly be the meaning of this? Couldn’t the AP/Yahoo abstractly refer to the fact that the shoppers believed they would get bargains? The last lines of the AP/Yahoo New story are: “Items on sale at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart included a Samsung xxx for $xxx, a Bissel xxx for $xx, a Samsung xxx for xxx and DVDs such as xxx for $xxx.”

Don’t the reporters or editors realize that listing items a store carries might make people go back to the store? Was it listed in that way so the reader would be encouraged to believe that Wal-Mart really does have good bargains that makes lining up at 3am a good idea? And, why does the AP and Yahoo News want to leave us with that last impression, specific items and prices as Wal-Mart, as we study the death of a fellow human being?

And, who is going to study all the psychological games involved of Wal-Mart and other retailers trying to create a sense of urgency in people, knowing that urgency is the best way to make a sale? Wal-Mart’s advertisements, and its gimmick of “The Blitz” whipped those people into a buying frenzy in the way Wal-Mart wanted. Wal-Mart didn’t plan enough on what hundreds of strangers do when whipped up into a frenzy and left to stand out in the cold, outside their store, until Wal-Mart decided they should open the doors.

Also, with the AP/Yahoo quote above, suggesting that police are going to hunt down the shoppers for possible criminal prosecution, wouldn’t that discourage witnesses to a tragedy/possible crime from coming forward? If we as a society need to study what led to this incident so it doesn’t happen again, and if the District Attorney of Nassau needs to investigate who is at fault, wouldn’t it be better if the hundreds of people who witnessed what happened were encouraged, and not discouraged to come forward?

I was gratified that the New York Times had a much better story about this incident. The New York Times focused much more on what Wal-Mart could have and should have done to prevent this incident. The New York Times allowed a speaker on behalf of workers and not just the capitalist, corporate owners to make a statement for the press.

The New York Times wrote:

Wal-Mart has successfully resisted unionization of its employees. New York State’s largest grocery union, Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the death of Mr. Damour “avoidable” and demanded investigations.

“Where were the safety barriers?” said Bruce Both, the union president. “Where was security? How did store management not see dangerous numbers of customers barreling down on the store in such an unsafe manner? This is not just tragic; it rises to a level of blatant irresponsibility by Wal-Mart.”

The New York Times also points out another fact that indicts Wal Mart, who set the scene, over the people who specifically trampled Mr. Damour. “Four other people, including a 28-year-old woman who was described as eight months pregnant, were treated at the hospital for minor injuries.”

Woody Guthrie knew who the outlaws were. He was always writing about the hypocrisy of men who were called robbers for stealing bread or money because they were poor, versus men who stole money “with a fountain pen.” Wal Mart wrote the advertisements that lured shoppers to the store. Wal Mart architects designed a store where there was not easy entrance and exit, because that is better for them to watch their wares come and go. Wal Mart works in public relations, lawsuits, and even lobbying, to make sure that they don’t have to unionize.

Wal Mart’s guilt resonates in the words of a Woody Guthrie song put to music by Billy Bragg on the album “Mermaid Avenue.” In the song “The Unwelcome Guest”, an outlaw reflects: “I’ve never took food from the widow and orphans, And never a hard working man I oppressed…” At Wal-Mart on Black Friday 2008, a worker died, and four other people, including a pregnant woman, were trampled. And, none of them were going to save anything close to the amount of money that the Wal-Mart CEO’s were going to make, if sales were high on Black Friday.

Blogger’s note: Ian and I are going to Carnegie Hall tonight to see Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, sing with Pete Seeger and friends. The Guthries and Pete Seeger have a long history of promoting unions, celebrating the working man, and singing out against injustice. Perhaps there will be a new song about Wal Mart? – KW

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4 Responses

  1. […] Newsday.com: LI Wal-Mart worker dies in Black Friday stampede Link to Kimberly’s onthewilderside commentary is: here. […]

  2. What are you taking about!! What happened to the personal responsibility of the people that stampeded this person! I am so tired of this country giving people an excuse to break the law or hurt people. Its a disease, their mother,father, sister,brother priest (pick one) abused them and thats why they do the things they do. What has happened to common decency? The people that killed that employee are animals! Walmart shouldn’t have to put up barricades. We can use reasonable and customary decency if we want to, these animals just didn’t want to, and if there were barricades they would have gone over them. They should be tried to the full extent of the law for involuntary manslaughter.

  3. First of all, my prayers go out to the family…..
    The people that caused this should be ashamed, and realize no sale is worth a persons life. After that first person saw the store employee on the ground they all should of stopped and tried to help, not run for a sale. Black Friday is the worst thing to ever happen, people are pushy and rude., grab things out of your hands and I don’t see them as animals, I see them as ignorant. I heard about this in Tennessee, and I believe people should be made aware of the stupid things people do for a sale. The people that done this, I hope it haunts them for the rest of their lives. There is a family here minus 1 because of SHOPPING, what is wrong with this picture.

    Once again My deepest sympathy goes to the family and will be in my prayers.

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