The Martyr of Black Friday (Why I Won’t Shop Today)

Black Friday has never been the same since 2008. That year, it turned from something mildly annoying to something approaching evil. I know, I know. You’re already calling me a Debbie Downer. I know, I know, I’m probably too late to stop you from shopping today.

But if I could, I would.

Yes, I’m a junkie for consumer electronics. Yes, I love to buy as much as the next guy. Yes, I know and understand that retail sales will help drive economic recovery. Blah, blah, blah…

But there is something about Black Friday that reveals the dark underbelly of our consumerist economy. There is something about the pushing, shoving crowds, eager to save a few bucks, that causes the skin to grow cold. There is something about the gleeful TV reporters, interviewing the early shoppers like they are some kind of modern-day heroes, that makes me sick.

You see, I can’t help but remember the Martyr of Black Friday. Do you remember him? He was a Haitian immigrant named Jdimitai Damour. who worked at a Wal-Mart in New York State. And on Black Friday, 2008, he was trampled to death by hoards of shoppers who apparently did not see, or did not care, that a man’s life was at stake.

What makes his death even more surreal is that he was apparently not a *small* man. He was a big guy. But there is something about the push of a hoard that can overwhelm anyone.

The best retelling of his death I ever read was from the LA Times, and reporter Erika Hayasaki. A good portion of that story is below, with a little editing for space….

 CRUSHED IN THE RUSH FOR BARGAINS
by Erika Hayasaki

“He took his last breath on a gray floor, between a row of soda machines and a device that disperses change for cans and plastics.
Trampled by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers, Jdimytai Damour, 34, died by asphyxiation, leaving people across the world asking: Why, and how?

Audio-enhanced chatter captured on a cellphone video posted on YouTube, along with interviews with witnesses, offers a hint. The video shows a police officer crouching by a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man lying at the entrance of a Long Island Wal-Mart. A paramedic pumps the man’s chest so forcefully his limp legs and feet joggle. Shoppers peer in from behind glass doors, as others stand a few feet away, hands in pockets.

“They need to shock him,” a voice says. The paramedic stops pumping.

The man’s shirt has been pulled to his neck, revealing his large belly. A woman in the crowd mutters “pregnant.” Another cracks a joke.

The women begin to laugh.
The trouble began well before the sun rose.
Just after 1 a.m., Jennifer Jones, 25, and niece Alicia Sgro, 14, parked themselves behind the 200 or so early shoppers, in front of the Valley Stream store, 20 miles east of Manhattan. Jones wanted the 32-inch plasma flat-screen TV on sale for $388. Sgro hoped to pick up DVDs, like “Cloverfield,” on sale for $2 to $9.

Dressed in heavy coats and a blanket, they brought Pop-Tarts, muffins and Chex Mix for the wait. The couple in front of them wanted the $25 microwave. The guy behind wanted the $5 blender.

By the time Nakea Augustine showed up at 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 25, the line had grown to 1,000, snaking down to a National Wholesale Liquidators store, stopping near a fire hydrant….

By 3:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to 2,000, and Jones and her niece decided to fold their chairs, standing to mark their territory. In the 30-degree darkness, their bodies felt hot-glued to everyone else. The line began to heave and sway, like a tugboat dragging its vessels through a heavy current…

Shortly before 5 a.m. an announcement went over store intercom: “Doors are about to open in the next five minutes.” As opening got closer, people started counting down: “Five, four, three, two, one!”

Augustine saw a worker inside begin to open the door, slowly. Suddenly, everyone started pushing from all directions. They knocked the door off its hinges. A worker tried to use it as a shield, but the glass shattered.

The crowd ran right into the soda machines. Pop Pop and others darted to the side where Damour had been, and held the machines in place as the crowd surged forward.

He didn’t see Damour anymore…

Augustine tried to keep her balance as she was pushed forward. She saw people fall and knew she had to keep moving or she’d fall too. One woman had cuts from the glass across her face. Augustine saw Damour sprawled out. She managed not to step on him.

Durell George, 26, who works in Internet sales, heard people screaming and tried to jump out of their way. A woman in brown pants and a long coat fell but others pulled her to the customer service section. George went to see if she was OK.

Augustine kept going, down the jam-packed aisles, still moving with the crowd, still heading to the deals. People guarded the televisions so no one else could grab them. Augustine raced for the toy section and snatched up a bike, a dollhouse, 10 Hannah Montana dolls for $5 apiece.

Two hours later, Augustine checked out, just as the store announced it was closing. She got in line, and spent $495 on 36 items. She did not know what became of the man who had fallen to the ground.

Pop Pop had continued to staff the door, but word eventually spread through the employees that Damour was dead. Paramedics took his body away and police declared the area a crime scene. Pop Pop joined other workers in a prayer.

Later, Pop Pop thought of his daughter. She works at the same Wal-Mart, but was off on Black Friday. It could have been her, he thought, or him…

Nearly a week after Damour’s death, candles burned next to photos of him, atop an altar near the spot where he died. People left comments in a condolence book:

So sorry that people did this to a young and honest hardworking gentleman.”

“You damn animals, there was no reason to rush in like a herd of cattle and kill an innocent young man.”

“Jdimytai is an angel and he’s not doing maintenance anymore.”

On Monday, a coroner ruled Damour died from suffocation. On Wednesday, his family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wal-Mart.

By Thursday evening, life at the store had mostly returned to normal. Bored-looking greeters stood hunched at the front doors. Workers rounded up stray grocery carts. Employees clocked out. Overnight staff clocked in.

Pop Pop came outside for a cigarette break, standing steps from where it all happened.

“To me, that boy got killed over $100, for a TV,” he said. “When you see somebody on the ground, you just don’t step on them and keep going. . . . That’s somebody’s life.”

Damour’s altar stood mostly ignored for nearly two hours that night. Customers rushed by without stopping, or even looking. They were too busy getting to the deals.”

Let’s be clear: no bargain, no sale, no “one-day-only” deal is worth a human life. Not then. Not now. Not ever. In fact, it’s an event like this that truly shows the final horror of Black Friday, and what it means for us.

My friend and colleague, Rev. David Weber, well described it last year in a short post on Facebook. He said:

“Americans stopped for awhile yesterday to give thanks for what they have, then rose this morning, early, and left the house, praying ‘But it’s not enough.’ “

Exactly.

Frederick Buechner once said that if you really want to know what you value in this world, watch where your feet take you. As each year passes, I see the wisdom in this. The feet are a great barometer for,  and window to, the soul. The places we end up spending our time, the people we spend it with, the things we do, they show us, more than our words who we are and what we value.

Yes, we SAY we value giving thanks. Yes, we SAY that we are grateful for the simple things –shelter, clothing, food, friends, family. Yes, we SAY that the “best things in life are free.”

But is that how we live? On Black Friday, as we watch the local news reports of the pushing, shoving crowds at our local stores, is there any evidence that we really believe this?

No. Our feet tell us otherwise. They tell us we are still far too afraid and far too empty of all that really matters. We fill ourselves up with the latest gadgets. We convince ourselves that money is so tight that the few bucks we save today will somehow make some lasting difference in our family’s lives. (Hint: it won’t)

Jim Wallis pointed all this out in a great blog yesterday. He writes:

“The relentless pressure of advertising tells us that “there is never enough,” and that you should “worry” constantly about what you eat and drink, what you wear, whether your future is secure, and more. But Jesus says the exact opposite. They say, “Worry all the time!” But Christ says, “Don’t worry!”

The pressure we feel doesn’t just come from the ads we get in our inboxes or see on television. All of us have family and friends who are going to be doing a lot of shopping. If a friend goes out and spends money on us, we feel guilty if we don’t reciprocate at roughly the same level. What’s worse is if someone gets us a gift and we don’t get them anything at all. The problem is not giving gifts.  Giving gifts becomes a problem when the exchange of stuff replaces building relationships.”

Wallis notes the final insanity: All of this happens allegedly in the service of “holy days.” The idea that the Christian holiday of Christmas –celebrating the birth of a poor peasant child into the world– is appropriately marked by an orgy of consumer spending is INSANE. It’s sick. It’s a twisting and bastardizing everything that holiday used to mean. (And still does…)

Christmas is about:

PEACE
HOPE
JOY
LOVE

No amount of mall shopping can buy any of these things.

That is why so many people are increasingly opting out of consumerist giving at Christmastime. At Northaven, for example, we’ll begin our “Alternative Gift Market” next week.

It’s a very simple idea: members pick out one of a dozen agencies in Dallas and beyond that works with the poor, the homeless, lgbt rights, women, children, etc…

Then, they give a donation that we forward on to those agencies (100 percent of it. We pay for any overhead internally…). The member then gets a card to give to their loved one that says:

“A gift has been given in your honor to (Christ’s Foundry) or (Reconciling Ministries)” or about a dozen other agencies that are familiar to our members.

That way, people give gifts of real meaning; and gifts that actually help others! There’s no pushing. There’s no shoving. And, more than any other kind of external gift, the people who get these gifts can know and understand that they are cared and loved….because the whole process is simply a “paying forward” of the gifts we’ve been given.

The beauty is, you don’t have to do this through our little “Alternative Gift Market.” You can do it through hundreds of agencies and groups near and dear to your heart, or the hearts of those you love.

Wallis suggest what we most need in our society is to move from “greed is good” and to “enough is enough.”

I think he’s right. If Thanksgiving means anything, it should remind us of the thousands of blessings we take for granted each and every day. Our lives are dripping with blessings. If you have forgotten this, start with the big ones: food, clothing, shelter.

Do this today: Open up the crawl space, and take a look at the furnace in your house. I mean this literally. Use your feet to take you there (remember: they teach us what we value) go and LOOK at it.

Then, go check the outside temperature. And give thanks for the heater. Give thanks for every day it works.

Yes, it sounds silly. But sometimes we have to start there to really remember and realize the extent of the blessings all around us. And the more content we become with who we are, with what we have, with all of our gifts (large and small), the less we’ll have the need for “MORE.”

At the Jim Finley Retreat last year, he cited a prayer that is attributed to the Buddha (although apparently he probably didn’t say it.) It’s a prayer of Thanksgiving that breaks down thankfulness to its more basic component:

“Let us all be thankful for this day, for we have learned a great deal; if we have not learned a great deal, then at least we learned a little; if we did not learn a little, then at least we did not become sick; if we did become sick, then at least we did not die. So, let us all be thankful.”

All gratitude begins with gratitude for the gift of being alive right now, and for the gift of things like food, clothing, shelter, friends.

And! The more we give thanks for the “big” blessings, the more we’ll be able to see and recognize all the small ones in our lives too.

Every great religious tradition speaks of this kind of “mindfulness” or “paying attention.” Jesus did it when he called us to “consider the lilies of the field,” and the “birds of the air.” The more we meditate on simple things like this, the less we’ll worry about tomorrow.

And the more content we will become with who we are. The more that “hope, peace, love and joy” and spread into our hearts, and keep us from mistaking the love of family or friends with the love of a new XBox 360.

Honor the holidays.
Honor your loved ones.
Honor Jdimitai Damour.
Make difference choices this holiday season.
You can celebrate the real reason for the season.

And nobody has to die.

2011 Updates: Today, I have written a second blog on these issues, and invite you to check it out. If further explains and clarifies my own personal views on these issues. Find it here.

I’ve also written a new song about it, that you can find here.

Finally, in doing some Googling, I discovered a pitiful CODA to this story…
In the years since this has happened, apparently Walmart has been vigorously contesting a measly $7,000 fine from OSHA.

First reported in the New York Times, many observers have been baffled: Why has Walmart spent upwards of $2 MILLION to fight a $7,000 fine?

The answer seems to be: precedent. Walmart appears to believe that agreeing to the fine will bind them to legal precedent and perhaps bigger fines, should there be additional incidents in the future. The bottom line seems to still be the bottom line, and not concern for people. How pitiful.

(As always, if you like this post, then “like” this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too…)

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

4 thoughts on “The Martyr of Black Friday (Why I Won’t Shop Today)

  1. Excellent commentary! Years ago I began the practice of doing all my holiday shopping and gift wrapping (well, except for food!) BEFORE Advent Sunday. This allowed me to observe Advent with my focus on what God has in store this new Christian year. Subsequently, Christmas is no longer about gifts, or shopping, or eating … it's about growing closer to God and service to others. And go ahead and call me a Liberal (I take it as a compliment!) but I'm also moving in the direction of practicing Epiphany as the day of gift giving, a custom observed in much of Christendom. Let the kids have Santa on Christmas, but how about us older kids deferring gift giving and receiving to the 12 Days of Christmas with the biggest and best on the Twelfth Night? Hmmm, what a novel idea!

  2. The beauty is, you don't have to do this through our little "Alternative Gift Market." You can do it through hundreds of agencies and groups near and dear to your heart, or the hearts of those you love.

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