The ridiculousness of Black Friday and Wal-Mart

I heard a great riddle over the Thanksgiving break. What’s worse than a holiday that celebrates the 1636 colonial massacre of an estimated 600-700 men, women and children of the Pequot Indian tribe (which, of course, no longer exists) while simultaneously claiming to celebrate a day of peace and gratitude?

That’s right — the day after.

Perhaps more than any other day of the year, Black Friday represents the most sickening and repulsive aspects of American culture. At least on Christmas Day, we’re giving gifts to other people and presumably spending time with family; Black Friday is a day in which we are expected to take a little time for consumerism. While it’s not technically a national holiday, it has the same effect as one, because most people have the day off from work and school as part of Thanksgiving weekend. Getting a day off isn’t a luxury Americans can afford on, say, Election Day, but it seems hardly anyone ever questions the idea of a holiday for shopping. In today’s America, it only makes sense to make our national reverence for the almighty dollar official for 24 hours, our collective knees bent in prayer, our heads raised in object adoration for the rows upon rows of shelves upon shelves of bright and glorious stuff we don’t need.

Not only do many Americans celebrate Black Friday with almost religious zealotry, some take their shopping so seriously that they begin to value material goods at discounted rates over the well-being of their fellow human beings. This past Friday, a man was stabbed over a parking space in a Wal-Mart lot. Two men were arrested in Wal-Mart for brawling over a flat-screen TV; another was pepper-sprayed by police after another television-related Wal-Mart incident. Perhaps most horrifically, an 11-year-old girl was trampled at a Wal-Mart and sent to the hospital by a surging crowd of “bargain shoppers.”

That’s just this year.

Stories of Black Friday injuries and deaths have become an annual occurrence, with perhaps the most extreme example coming in 2008, when a Wal-Mart employee was run down by a mob that shattered the windows of the Long Island retail store and ripped the doors off their hinges. The 34-year-old was dragged to the ground by the frenzied mass of discount-seeking consumers, where he proceeded to die of a heart attack.

By the way, notice anything about all these stories? Wal-Mart sure seems to bring out the worst in people. Why shouldn’t it? It’s certainly one of the worst examples of corporate sociopathy the world has ever seen. The fact that Wal-Mart consistently finds itself the target of protests, particularly on Black Friday, is no accident. The world’s largest big box retailer is also one of the world’s lowest-paying employers, consistently refusing to offer its poverty-stricken labor force a livable wage. Wal-Mart management frequently resorts to strong-arm tactics to prevent its workers from striking or protesting, and it certainly doesn’t see any problems with lowering prices on Black Friday and stoking customers into a frothing, murderous furor. Which is not to say they don’t care for their employees on some level — a Wal-Mart store in Canton, Ohio recently organized a food drive for its workers with signs that read “Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” Isn’t that nice of them?

Flagstaff has its own history with the retail giant dating back to 2004, when the Wal-Mart funded group Protect Flagstaff’s Freedoms successfully reversed a city council ordinance requiring big box stores of a certain size to get certification from the council in order to operate (Oh, horrors! Special certification! Why does Flagstaff hate the free market?). Shortly before Thanksgiving this year, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce publicly thanked Wal-Mart for its 25 years of chamber membership. This act alone drew a crowd of Black Friday protesters in solidarity with mistreated Wal-Mart workers and deteriorating small businesses in Flagstaff alike. If Black Friday is the worst element of American culture, Wal-Mart is the worst element of Black Friday.

Still, it’s not all Wal-Mart’s fault. All they’re really doing is taking advantage of a system that rewards them for heartless profiteering and a society so desperately unhappy in its materialism that it will flock to the altar, year after year, begging for the latest plastic products.  Maybe the Wal-Mart issue is actually deeper than the retailer itself. Maybe it has its roots in the fact that we as a people consciously go out and prostrate ourselves before the gods of capital every year on the day after Thanksgiving. That would mean Wal-Mart isn’t really the problem. The problem is us.

Originally published in The Lumberjack (http://jackcentral.com/opinion/2013/12/opinion-the-ridiculousness-of-black-friday-and-wal-mart/)

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