Monday, December 1, 2008

Extraordinarily popular bargains and the madness of crowds

How is it that 27 million people visited the 1893 Chicago World's Fair—716,000 on a single day, the largest peacetime gathering in American history—with no trampling fatalities, but Wal-Mart can't manage a crowd it has been expecting for weeks or protect its staff? Concerning the 1893 exposition, which took place, remember, in the same era as lynchings and gunfights, we learn that

According to the security department report, only 954 arrests were made over the six months of operation, 10 attempts were made to pass counterfeit coins, 408 people were able to get over the fence into the grounds, and only 33 attempts were made to gain admission on fraudulent passes.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and Time printed a decidedly different account of the closing of Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1934:

In the Avenue of Flags elderly matrons fought like savages for bits of bunting. For their backyard gardens housewives stripped the Horticultural Building of rare plants and flowers, some worth as much as $200 each. Roving bands of youths stormed the booths of concessionaires. A 13-year-old boy was caught by police lugging off two huge bones of a prehistoric monster, to feed to his dog. Recurring showers of bottles from the 64-story Skyride Tower grew so alarming that the elevators were finally stopped. Dancing feet stomped into ruin landscaped lawns. Into Lake Michigan went benches and tables, and when policemen sought to admonish the revelers, they tossed the policemen in, too.

On the night of those fateful events in Chicago, Sam Walton was just 16 and had presumably followed his normal practice of delivering surplus milk from the family cow to his neighbors in Columbia, Missouri that morning, so we can't blame everything on the man from Bentonville, whatever may be said about his company's emerging corporate ethics or labor practices.

But what was Wal-Mart management at the store in Valley Stream, New York thinking before they opened before dawn on Friday, November 28? (The peculiarly American touch of someone being trampled to death in a mall with the name Green Acres is something you couldn't make up.) According to The New York Times, Hank Mullany, a Wal-Mart regional vice-president, claimed the store had hired additional security guards and erected barricades that morning. Really? Where were they? Why was a temporary employee, Haitian immigrant Jdimytai Damour, delegated to be a human barrier, trying to hold two sliding glass doors secure against a surging crowd of hundreds? Was it because he weighed about 270 pounds?

Four shoppers were also injured in the melée, including an 8-months' pregnant woman, and Times reporter Peter Goodman was right to call it "A Shopping Guernica." It's heartening to read that union representatives are demanding an investigation:

"This incident was avoidable," said Bruce Both, President of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500. "Where were the safety barriers? Where was security? How did store management not see dangerous numbers of customers barreling down on the store in such an unsafe manner?" asked President Both. "This is not just tragic; it rises to a level of blatant irresponsibility by Wal-Mart. UFCW Local 1500 will demand a full investigation by all levels of Government to ensure both justice for the surviving family members and to ensure the safety of current employees and the general public. This can never be allowed to happen again and those responsible must be held accountable," Both concluded.

Director of Special Projects for Local 1500 Patrick Purcell called Wal-Mart's comments in response to the incident both "cold and heartless." "If the safety of their customers and workers was a top priority, then this never would have happened," Purcell stated. "Wal-mart must step up to the plate and ensure that all those injured, as well as the family of the deceased, be financially compensated for their injuries and their losses. Their words are weak. The community demands action," Purcell concluded.

Sympathetic Wal-Mart employees held a prayer vigil at the shattered front door for their hapless fellow worker. An employee in the store's electronics department offered a different perspective on the circumstances of Damour's death:

"It was crazy—the deals weren't even that good."

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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