Last fall, I entered a Walmart for the first time. There aren’t any Walmart stores in New York City (where I’ve lived for more than a decade), and Walmart did not become a presence in the Long Island suburb where I was reared until after my emancipation from high school. Nonetheless, the mega-chain occupied territory in my mind long before that fall day, when I tagged along with my father to one of its Suffolk County locations.
I left my dad at one end of the store and walked for what seemed like a mile, overwhelmed. After picking up a 24-pack of waffles, I moseyed in the general direction of where I’d come from, and soon felt the onset of anxiety — not only was my dad nowhere to be found, but my cell phone had died. That was when I overheard someone in a supervisory position talking to three blue-vested staffers about “ammo.”
It’s a cliché to speak of moments when time slows and you take leave of your body, which, from a bird’s eye view, becomes a mere object among many in a substrata of reality. I didn’t feel anything close to that, but out-of-body experiences offer the closest analogy to the hyper self-consciousness that pulled me outside of myself to surveil my own movements like a security guard.
Just the sight of those three or four workers congregated in the store’s gun section made me freeze, even if for less than a second, and consider how to walk away undetected. As I drew back with seeming nonchalance — if not unnoticed, then hopefully below suspicion — I thought of John Crawford III. More precisely, I saw him, replaying in my mind video footage capturing the 22-year-old as he was gunned down by police in the pet food section of a Dayton, Ohio, Walmart.
For me, what stands out in the Crawford video is not the sudden barrage of bullets striking him in the side, or the armed police officers who rush into the frame as if on some battlefield in Fallujah. Rather, it is the earlier scenes showing a lone Crawford, cellphone pressed to ear, browsing while idly swinging that pellet-less BB gun, its barrel down by his hip. (Unbeknownst to him, a concerned shopper had informed 911 that Crawford was brandishing a loaded assault weapon.) Those early shots are so quiet, so mundane. And they betray, on Crawford’s part, a presumption of solitude that he did not know he couldn’t afford to make. That is what I find horrifying.
Unselfconsciousness: the trait that people find so charming in dogs and babies; the quality that harried adults are encouraged to recover through “mindfulness.” Crawford’s mannerisms showed a seemingly covetable lack of concern about being observed seconds before he was gunned down. Sure, from surveillance cameras to “cookies” to GPS to the NSA, the expectation of privacy that abets unselfconsciousness is rather naive. But for Crawford, his blackness was its own tracking device that, in and of itself, called for heightened scrutiny and alarm. Even in an empty pet foods aisle in Walmart.
My body has long been conditioned against making false moves, particularly around merchandise. As a teen, I used to marvel at how freely my white friends would move in stores — how they would routinely fondle whatever item they’d sometimes drop and haphazardly shove back onto the wrong shelf. I was always a bystander in these scenarios, awaiting with dread a firm reprimand that would never come.
But my self-consciousness wasn’t always consistently keen. Back in the day, I could also be spotted tagging along with my dad to the mall, maybe checking out bunches of plastic flowers at McCrory’s or scanning a wall of CD singles at Sam Goody. I wouldn’t be as uninhibited as my white friends often were, but I would nonetheless get lost in my own mundane experience. I would slip into “a pure mode of losing myself in the world,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “of causing myself to be drunk in by things as ink is by a blotter.” I would usually be wearing baggy jeans, distressed brown boots and my favorite oversized bright green hoodie. I thought I was trying to look like T-Boz from TLC, but store staffers must have thought otherwise, as my dad used to warn when he’d pull me aside to say I was being followed.
I was an adolescent girl, yes, but, baggy-jeaned with hoodie up, I must have looked like what many call a “thug” — and, once branded, neither restrained mannerisms nor polite handling of sale items will redeem you. Indeed, amid the outrage over the ongoing killings of unarmed black men and women, there has been an undercurrent of talk that blames the victims. I’m not referring to overt smear campaigns that tar those killed as criminals who had it coming, but to remarks that question the common sense of victims who dared stir in any way that could be misconstrued as a threat.
“Put the gun in a cart or buy the BB gun don’t carry it around,” said one comment on a YouTube video of Crawford’s killing, among several extolling the utility of shopping carts. In other words, it was Crawford who had a duty to convince his would-be assailants that he was harmless. However obnoxious, such comments mirror the uncomfortable conversations many black parents are forced to have with their children, carefully instructing them on how to interact with the police. Don’t argue. Don’t run. Don’t make any sudden movements.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” What DuBois was referring to, in part, was the internalization of the white gaze — that fixed and seemingly omnipresent regard that observes you through a distorted racial lens, scrutinizing you for signs of inferiority and danger. Whether or not you are actually the object of a white person’s suspicious glance, this gaze is nevertheless always there, and panoptic, enforcing self-discipline in those it scans.
Internalizing this gaze is not a slide into paranoid schizophrenia, but a matter of survival. I’m reminded here of the last moments of two others who did not survive: Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell. Both car-wrecked and panicked, both pounding on the doors of suburban homes, both shot dead, the former point-blank in the face by the man who answered, the latter by ten bullets as he ran toward police officers called, unbeknownst to Ferrell, to respond to his presence.
Would Crawford have survived if he had just used a cart? I suspect he would have. But I know for certain that, in his place, I definitely would have used one; and the BB gun, though little more than a toy, would have lain flat in the deep belly of the cart, which I would have pushed at arms length. A preemptive defense against a preemptive strike.
As I tried to find my father in Walmart, I was struck by how empty the place seemed. There were occasional people here and there, negotiating their shopping carts around one another, scanning shelves with glazed expressions. But I found it surprisingly easy to feel alone in the store. At any given moment in some florescent-lit aisle, I, like Crawford, could have been a subject of an Edward Hopper painting — standing before some prosaic background, in a stupor of solitude unknowingly intruded upon by some unseen eye.
My experience that day contrasted with yet another viral video, or amalgam of videos, showing rushes of Walmart shoppers fighting over trendy electronics on Black Friday, the massive sales day after Thanksgiving that heralds the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday represents one of the few examples of the word black used as a positive descriptor, referring to that time of the year when commercial outlets can expect to finally operate at a financial gain — to be “in the black.”
By the look of the clamoring crowds, retail stores are not the only ones eager to reevaluate their assets. For many shoppers, Black Friday is an opportunity to at last gain access to spoils that would otherwise be economically out of reach. A chance to redistribute, if not wealth itself, then its supposed signifiers — flat screen TVs, the next generations of tablets, video game consoles. These Walmart videos show mosh pits of consumers crushing, pushing, and shoving to grab hold of anything they can, with crowds sometimes cordoned by police tape, or even doused with pepper spray. These images look a lot like riots.
“A person is guilty of riot in the first degree,” according to Section 240 of the New York penal code,
when he . . . [s]imultaneously with ten or more other persons engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly causes or creates a grave risk of causing public alarm, and in the course of and as a result of such conduct, a person other than one of the participants suffers physical injury or substantial property damage occurs.
Surely, the stampede that killed a temporary employee in another Long Island Walmart in 2008 would qualify. On Black Friday that year, around 2,000 people were eagerly awaiting the store’s 5:00 a.m. opening. Chanting “push the doors in,” the front-end of the group bum rushed the entrance. Crowds surged into the store, trampling Walmart staffers in their way, including 34-year-old Jdimtytai Damour, who died of a heart attack underfoot. When an announcement was made that everyone would have to leave because someone had been killed, some shoppers refused, arguing that they had waited on line all morning. Not one person was charged for the mob violence that killed Damour.
Black Friday of 2008 arrived only two or so months after the height (or, more to the point, the nadir) of arguably the worst financial crisis in US history. The throngs of people who crushed Damour and injured his coworkers might as well have been seized by apocalyptic fervor, and their frenzied spree was a much-needed shock to the economy’s flagging heart. Perhaps that is why riotous abandon is sanctioned on Black Friday. Especially in times of crisis, as president George W. Bush urged Americans after 9/11, it is imperative to “go shopping.”
This charge, to shop for your life!, conveys not only a fearful resolve to stay alive, but also a trace of the inescapability of death and the delusion that consuming can somehow spare us from it. Black Friday, accordingly, is a spectacular, orgiastic release, which appears to flout the limits of the market and mortality while reinforcing both — in the case of Damour, actually sanctioning his death. And those who partake in this costly free-for-all move their bodies with abandon, without a care for who is in their way or who might be watching.
Had Crawford been shopping on Black Friday, he could have moved his body however he’d liked. With that unwrapped BB gun, he could very well have (as one YouTube commenter exaggerated) been “’playing with it’ and using it as a cane and swinging it around like its [sic] a Charlie Chaplin old silent movie.” But when Black Friday is over, order is restored and it’s back to business as usual. Any suspected criminals and would-be crimes, including those against property, are swiftly punished.
Shelly Frey was shot twice in the neck and killed at a North Houston Walmart by an off-duty police officer, moonlighting as a security guard, who thought he saw Frey stuffing merchandise into her purse. Suspected of shoplifting two Blu-ray/DVD players, Vidal Calloway was asphyxiated via chokehold by a Walmart security guard in the parking lot of an Atlanta branch. There are no reports of charges ever having been filed in either incident.
Deadly force, it seems, is sanctioned in the name of protecting property, and rioting authorized when it culminates in a purchase. This explains why just last year, on the eve of Black Friday, the National Guard was deployed in Ferguson, Missouri to patrol the local Walmart and safeguard it against looting. Videos of the scene were posted on YouTube. They showed the familiar big box store, its signage in crayon-blue with six yellow sun-ray spokes. Lined up in front was a row of armored Humvees, each topped with an ominous blue light that swirled in the dark.
Then again, as I well know, the appearance of a threat does not always correspond to an actual one. I’m thinking of another mall, this one in south Dade County, a suburb of Miami where, when Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992, the majority of the residents were white. (Or, really, “census” white, likely mostly of Cuban descent.) Florida’s then-governor deployed the National Guard to protect the Cutler Ridge Mall against looters in what was later disclosed to be a PSYOP, short for “psychological operation.” Like Crawford’s “gun,” the M-16 rifles the troops carried contained no bullets. The objective of this false move, it seems, was to make sure no one was harmed.
Walking through Walmart, I noticed that the other shoppers’ carts were nearly as empty as the store itself. I passed by the bagless vacuums, the five-piece dinettes, the sparkling grape juice, aisle after aisle of everything, and eventually spied one woman with some consumer good in hand, wavering over whether to place it next to the one or two items in her metal web. I knew that drill. Her halting movements were borne from self-consciousness of another kind; it was as if I could see the thought bubble above her head, scribbled in with financial calculations.
If only she could get on that television show Supermarket Sweep. There would be no need for overthinking, and she would once again be reintegrated with her whims and with her body. I recalled those manic contestants racing around a store-like set, tossing as many groceries as possible into their carts before a closed-captioned timer in the corner of the screen ran all the way down. Think if Black Friday were a game show — the same competitive frenzy, but in a controlled setting with only two contenders. But unlike with Black Friday, all of the items successfully bagged are free, or “won.” This last distinction makes looting a more apt comparison.
I found myself, during a foray that was one-part research and two-parts voyeurism, viewing a number of online videos capturing the 1992 Los Angeles riots — sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who had been caught savagely beating Rodney King by a bystander’s hand-held video camera. I had been writing about the riots, but was unmoved by the death toll, number of buildings burned, and other static facts recapped in the reports I’d read. I wanted to see the riots for myself. So, I watched plenty of aerial footage comprised of jerky copter shots (not those eerily slow, drone-smooth pans that have become more familiar). But I wasn’t very interested in the top-down views of smoke rising from strip malls and cars steering through constellations of people roving in the streets. It was the footage taken “on the ground” that caught my eye. Particularly of the looters.
“The crowd was working in and out of the stores like ants around spilled sugar,” says the narrator of Invisible Man as he witnesses a fictionalized version of the Harlem Riots of 1943. Ralph Ellison encapsulated what I saw on YouTube — a bustling, rather industrious collective. There was far more order to the disorder than I had expected. The people in this video did not form the menacing mobs that I’d seen on Black Friday. They were indeed rushing in and out the storefronts, seemingly single-minded in their pursuit of swag; but, as in one clip filmed outside of one ABC Market, they stalked past one another rather quietly with their carts or arms full of stuff. In another clip, I watched folks patiently waiting on a makeshift line to get through some crawlspace into a store, with some even helping those on their climbs in or out. In short, what I saw lacked the kind of dog-eat-dog, Hobbesian competitiveness that I had expected, and was instead sort of . . . communal. “Quit shoving,” Invisible Man‘s narrator overheard one looter telling another, “There’s plenty for everybody.”
Moreover, anecdotally, trendy electronics were not the most popular items looted during the Los Angeles Riots. Diapers were. Such an item is, of course, less a mirror of greed than a mirror of need. While diapers are hardly edible, the apparent dire need for them evokes that proverb about not despising a thief who steals to satisfy his hunger. Even so, like thug, the word looter transmogrifies the manifold person referred to into a one-dimensional brute. This could explain why, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Agence France Presse published a photo of a man and woman wading chest-deep in floodwater “after finding bread and water from a local grocery store,” as the caption read. However, this captioned photo, of the white man and woman “finding” food, is usually juxtaposed with another one published by the Associated Press, showing a black man wading chest-deep in floodwater “after looting a grocery store in New Orleans.”
One of the times I felt most free — really free — was in a crowd. I was at a demonstration, marching. That word, marching, is often used to denote the act of moving your body in protest. But it also implies movement that is regimented, militaristic, something that is not at all what I experienced. This was no choreographed advance made in lockstep. To the extent we all moved together — down sidewalks, over barricades and into the streets — we did so as if riding an invisible wave. My movements, then, were not propelled by force, but by flow.
Losing myself in that crowd was also nothing like getting lost in Walmart. I had no anxiety, and only a minimal awareness of myself as a “self.” Lost in that crowd, all holding the same intention, I was no longer a “self” but rather a cell of an infinitely larger organism. Reduced to a simple function — of chanting and marching — I was unselfconscious and content. I felt the way a bodily organ would feel if it had feelings.
I did not, however, feel the way I would have felt if I’d been part of a mob, which I imagine is more like catching a highly infectious disease than the metaphysical merging of a drop into the ocean. While dispensing with inhibition, mob mentalities grasp on tightly to fear — hence the indiscriminate mauling of bystanders or targeting of scapegoats, all pawns in the mob’s delusional game of suppressing fear by imposing power. So, the deep sense of safety I felt while protesting was not merely borne from numbers. As I dissolved into the crowd, so did my fear.
This business of staying alive, of eluding death, is beyond my control, and certainly beyond my movements. But I keep moving nonetheless, for the easiest target is one that stands still.
I finally found my father in an aisle dedicated to coffee makers and all their accessories. He was looking, to no avail, for the right-sized carafe to replace the one that had cracked. A fellow shopper intervened; various boxes were picked up, roughly turned over and loudly assessed, activities in which my dad and I would never engage absent this lady’s presence. This episode finally ended with performative shrugs and my helpful suggestion that he just buy the thing online, from the safety of home.
Hawa Allan is a lawyer and writer of cultural criticism and fiction.
Image from Flickr (creative commons).