Black Friday

James Wolcott.

“Blitz Line Starts Here”

Back from my whirlwind inspection of Maryland, which I’ve become convinced no longer exists except as a simulacrum of itself, as Jean Baudrillard might observe, were he ever to spend Thankgiving in Maryland, watching the shopping malls roll by through the passenger window. The mood was modestly upbeat among the kinfolk and the kind strangers who roped me into conversation, betraying little distress over the prospect that next Thanksgiving many of us may be living in rusty sheds and hunting squirrel for food, depending on how all those stimulus packages go. This morning, as I packed, I had the TV on the local stations and CNBC, where it was one fluffy report after another about Black Friday, an annual event I have come to loathe to the very marrow. I had the TV on mute and noticed that one of the female anchors was pulling a long face, unusual given the iron-baton upbeat tone that prevails on this most hallowed of shopping days. I unmuted, and heard the report about the temporary store employee trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Long Island by a frenzied mob unable to contain themselves by the mad scent of deep discounts. “Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains.” Jdimytai Damour was the victim’s name.

Whether or not this particular store was negligent in providing security and crowd control will be determined following an investigation, but it seems to be that local and cable news also bear partial responsibility for this man’s death, for helping incite such trampling. For days preceding Black Friday the local and cable news outfits run item after item about “doorbuster sales,” stoking the sense of anticipation and making it seem like family fun, reminiscent of that old game show where contestants raced through a store stocking their cart with anything they could pull from the shelves. Local news stations position reporters–usually bright, chipper young women who joke with the anchordesk about how cold it is or how late they often wait until the last minute to do their own shopping, har har–to interview the idiots in line. The next morning more reporters are stationed out in front of individual malls, with cameras positioned inside the show to capture the store opening from the store’s perspective. One network had the camera sitting at a low angle for that thundering-hooves effect, and when the doors opened and the bodies piled through it did look like something out of Red River. The reporters later interview shoppers after they’ve snared their booty and it’s all done with this air of frolic, even this year, when the anchors made so many nodding allusions to the “bad economy” you would have thought it was a meteorological condition, an oppressive damp fog that had blanketed the nation’s midsection, impeding visibility.

What you don’t see in these Black Friday updates are interviews with the people who work in these mall chains, who have to show up at even more ungodly hours than do the shoppers in order to stock the shelves and prepare for the store openings. Openings that get nearer to the Thanksgiving meal each year, with some stores opening at midnight on Thanksgiving day and others at 4 AM on Black Friday, forcing workers to cut short their own holiday plans and put in exhausting zombie hours. It’s become an arms race between the major chains, and putting a stop to these excesses and exploitations is a stellar case for unionization. I see countless inane interviews with shoppers carrying bags full of booty, interviewer and interviewee competing to see who can be more effing cutesy, but nothing with the cashiers or shelvers after they’ve put in a long shift. How much does a security guard or greeter make at one of these malls? It never occurs to any reporter (or assignment editor) to ask; it would be a breach of journalistic etiquette to try anything that Studs Terkel. If nothing else, it would be nice if CNBC and the other cable networks would at least stop hyping Black Friday as if it were the Super Bowl, grinning and ruminating about it as if it were some durable and endearing national tradition. Quit treating shoppers loaded with merchandise dragging their fat butts across the parking lot as if they were some hardy breed of buffalo hunter heeding the call of the wild. For an ironic postscript, you can hardly do better than this:

About the time that Mr. Damour was killed, a shopper at a Wal-Mart in Farmingdale, 15 miles east of Valley Stream, said she was trampled by a crowd of overeager customers, the Suffolk County police reported. The woman sustained a cut on her leg, but finished her shopping before filing the police report, an officer said.

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