It is an early fall morning in Long Island, as orange and red colored leaves drift down to gather in piles along the empty streets, rustling from the gutters and sidewalks to gather in drifts against the row of tents set up outside the packed Walmart parking lot. The tent’s inhabitants crowd in front of the closed doors, sipping coffee, collars up and hats pulled low to protect from the morning chill.
As the 5 o’clock hour approaches, the tension in the crowd begins to rise. Those who had sacrificed their comfortable beds to camp out in front of the store glare angrily at those who had just shown up, jockeying for position in front of the still locked doors, eyes glazed, shuffling closer and closer to the entrance until the crowd presses up against the glass, the frames creaking with the weight of hundreds, then thousands, of eager consumers itching to buy, and fill carts and baskets with the discounted goods just out of reach behind the glass.
4:55am. Five minutes before the planned opening, the crowd reaches critical mass and the doors collapse inward under the weight of the crowd. They flood into the Walmart by the hundreds, fueled by sleep deprivation and bargain hunting fervor, a tsunami of hysterical shoppers which completely overwhelms the blue-vested employees. Jdimytai Damour, a Haitian immigrant known as “Jimbo” to his friends who had picked up the temporary job for a little extra cash for the holidays, is knocked over by the crowd and trampled, stepped on and over by shoppers rushing to get into the aisles and snag those great Black Friday deals. Emergency medical technicians who rush to his rescue are jostled and stepped on by the shoppers as well.
Damour was pronounced dead just after 6am. He died of asphyxiation, literally trampled to death. In the same stampede, three others were hospitalized, including a pregnant woman who suffered a miscarriage as she was knocked down by the crowd.
This was the Black Friday scene in 2008 in Valley Stream, New York, possibly one of the most brutal examples of the mass consumer hysteria that grips the country every day after Thanksgiving, on what’s become to be known as the busiest shopping day of the year. But it isn’t the only instance where the throngs of shoppers have become violent.
That same day on the opposite side of the country in Palm Desert, California, a brawl inside a Toys “R” Us turned into a deadly shootout as two women and their husbands escalated an argument into a gun battle which left two dead. In 2011, at another Walmart in Los Angeles, a woman began pepper spraying her fellow shoppers in an act of “competitive shopping” to get to a display of heavily discounted Xbox games.
This tactic seems to have caught on; many similar reports have come out from different areas of the country over the years, as many consumers resort to brawling, stabbing, and shooting in order to snap up all those sweet deals. Just last year in Hoover, Alabama, multiple brawls broke out on Thanksgiving night at the Riverchase Galleria, causing authorities to shut down the entire shopping mall in an attempt to stop any further violence.
Black Friday can be traced back decades in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving that many retailers look forward to as the beginning of Christmas shopping season, when sales go from the “red” solidly into the “black,” but the advertising blitz and hype has increased exponentially since the early 2000s, with stores opening their doors earlier and earlier, some even staying open all night after Thanksgiving to attract the attention of eager consumers waddling in, still digesting their turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
It’s not as if overconsumption of material goods is anything new in our culture. We’re constantly bombarded with advertisements for products that don’t just serve a useful function, they actually (if you believe the hype) make our lives better, more exciting, more entertaining and fulfilling. Advertising has gone from a picture of a toaster in a magazine to product placements in your favorite TV shows and movies, a sophisticated industry that now employs psychologists and neuroscientists to figure out the best way of influencing you to buy whatever product the company is trying to sell, from cheese puffs to cholesterol-reducing medication.
But advertising is just one facet of this consumer culture that’s become the norm in the United States and, now, the world, as transnational corporations push their products across the globe. The push for profit above all else – above quality hand-made goods, art, people, the natural world, the planet – has become so insidious that companies actually design products to break down and fall apart after a certain amount of time. This is known as “planned obsolescence,” and has been utilized by many different industries since the 1920s-1930s as factory owners began to realize the assembly-line style of manufacturing was creating more products than people could afford to buy. Their solution? Design them to fail, so people would be forced to buy replacements.
On top of that, a recent trend has emerged of “perceived obsolescence,” exemplified by the fashion industry and the tech world, where the products themselves still function perfectly fine, but a new, faster, trendier version is released every few months to keep consumers scrambling to acquire the next best thing, only to discard it a few months later as the next version, the next fad, the next ground-breaking, life-changing innovation comes into style. You know, like mom jeans or some new flavor of Doritos.
This constant push to consume isn’t anything new, but it’s becoming more widespread as heavily populated countries like India and China are seeing a growing middle class and a surging demand for the kind of material luxuries we in the United States take for granted. As the demand for goods increases, so does the need for raw materials, and the mining, logging, and extraction industries are scrambling to meet the demand. The problem, which is a much larger problem than just not having enough lithium for the batteries in your iPhone, is that if the level of consumption continues to increase at the current level, the Earth’s resources will not be able to sustain it.
Now that’s a very simplified explanation of a very complex problem, but there are a growing number of engineers, scientists, artists, and activists who are proposing different solutions to this very serious issue of overconsumption of our finite planet’s resources. One of the more creative and accessible examples of this was created by the artist Ted Dave in Vancouver, Canada, and subsequently promoted by Adbusters magazine, the same publication that gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
Buy Nothing Day
Started in the late ‘90s in Canada, Buy Nothing Day is an annual day of actions and protests that occurs on Black Friday to draw attention to the destructive nature of this consumer culture and offer an alternative to the advertising, shopping, and mindless consumerism of the holidays. From its roots in Canada, BND quickly spread to the U.S., U.K., Japan, Austria, Israel, and now includes participation in more than 65 countries worldwide.
The message is very simple, and anyone and everyone in the world is encouraged to participate. For 24 hours, go on a complete consumer fast and buy absolutely nothing. That’s it. Some might think that’s easy, but really, it’s a bit more tricky than you’d think.
Do you have any debt that’s accruing interest? Stocks? Utilities? Automatic bills set up online? Can you really spend a whole day not buying or participating in the monetary system at all? Now, some of these examples are extreme and its next to impossible to just completely drop out of the entire capitalist system for 24 hours, but BND is about examining your lifestyle, recognizing the extent to which you as an individual participate in supporting this culture of overconsumption. Where does your money go? What do you spend it on? Is it necessary? If it is, where do you get it from? What kind of business are you supporting with your hard-earned dollars?
Buy Nothing Day can be as simple as spending the day curled up on the couch with a good book (maybe Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, or even a copy of Adbusters magazine?). Another common practice is to go for a hike: Spend the day out in nature and away from the crowds and hysteria of Black Friday. Others have used the nature of the crowded streets and shopping centers for other forms of protest.
The past years have seen a broad diversity of tactics all over the world in support of BND. Some of the more common activities include a “Zombie Walk,” where participants dress up and lurch en mass through crowded shopping areas satirizing the mindless consumerism, and “Credit Card Cutups,” where people draw attention to the predatory credit card industry by publicly cutting up their credit cards. More direct forms of action include forming a long line of carts and weaving through a store while buying absolutely nothing, or disrupting business as usual in other ways like sit-ins, lockdowns, blocking entrances. Others have opted for more constructive, inclusive tactics like free street parties, or the Buy Nothing Coat Exchange started in Rhode Island, where winter coats are collected over the month and distributed on Black Friday/Buy Nothing Day to those in need.
From sticker campaigns to billboard reclamation, street theater to activists chaining themselves to the doors of designer clothing boutiques, BND is an event to draw attention to the consumer culture we live in however you see fit. As a decentralized, open source event, the possibilities for participation are limited only by your imagination, the only unifying theme is to, as Adbusters puts it, “curb your consumption,” even if only for 24 hours. If anything, it’s a chance to sit and reflect on this culture, contemplate the direction we’re headed, and maybe even think of ways we can change it for the better.
We live on a finite planet, in a country that consumes vastly more than we need to survive. While we complain about the lack of a headphone jack on the new iPhone, entire villages across Africa don’t have access to clean water. We wonder what gifts to buy people for Christmas while Yemeni children starve to death. This culture of consumption, of materialism, of profit is an incredibly privileged one, and incredibly unsustainable.
As we move forward into the uncertain future, it’s about time that all of us, as individuals, take a good hard look at the companies we support and the systems of debt and consumerism we perpetuate by our participation. The election may be over, but we vote with every dollar we spend.
Coming into the holidays, it’s good mindful of where those dollars go, especially here on the islands, where so much of what we spend goes to mainland companies and isn’t reinvested back into our communities. By shopping at locally owned stores, farmers markets, and craft fairs, we can help bolster the local economy and keep the money circulating here at home rather than having it leeched away, creating more demand for imported goods. As the saying goes: Think globally, shop locally.
Buy Nothing Day/Black Friday is a day to recognize that power that we hold as participants in this economy, and decide how we want to exercise it. Personally, I’m going to exercise it by buying nothing at all. Save the planet: Curb your consumption.
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Image 1 courtesy wikimedia commons
Image 2 courtesy Greenpeace