PART II: TWO TRAGIC INCIDENTS – WHAT DO THEY TELL US ..ABOUT OUR SOCIETY …ABOUT OURSELVES? AND WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR …THIS? THE WAL-MART DEBACLE – A WORKER’S DEATH IN SHOPPING MELEE

Part II – As we wrote yesterday, in our next of the woods, here in suburban Long Island, New York, two recent tragic incidents have shocked newspaper readers and TV watchers, whether they live in these parts, elsewhere in the country…or in some distant place on the planet.  These incidents raise many disturbing questions about the state of the American society in this 21st Century.

 

“Black Friday,” they call it.  It’s traditionally the day after Thanksgiving, when many mass retailers supposedly can see black ink on the ledgers (vs. the red ink of lost sales, especially in these economic times), and the signal that the Christmas season shopping frenzy in on.  In our local newspapers, and on television, we saw endless promotions for store sales leading up to Thanksgiving.  One of the busiest manufacturers’ outlet malls in the nation is in our neck of the woods, and the stores there were open at Midnight on Thanksgiving.  The highways and byways were jammed with mall-bound bargain seekers, so much so that auxiliary parking had to be arranged nearby.

 

We should tell you that there are two populous counties on [the physical eastern portion of)] Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk.  (Two other counties to the west are part of the 5-county incorporated City of New York – Kings and Queens.  You know one by the name “Brooklyn,” and Queens is the home of LaGuardia and Kennedy International airports.)

 

In Part I yesterday we wrote of the tragic death of immigrant from Ecuador, Marcello Lucero, that has put Long Island, New York on the world’s media radars because of the way he died:  as police have alleged, and as a grand jury has agreed, at the hands of a gang of local youth on the prowl for immigrants to taunt and attack.  Part II is about the tragic death of another man – Jdimytai Damour – who was a temporary maintenance worker for giant retailer Wal-Mart in its Valley Stream store.

 

Valley Stream is a border town, also an incorporated village (equivalent to a small city elsewhere) like Patchogue an hour’s drive to the east.  If you landed at Kennedy International surely you have flown over this area, which lies below on your plane’s final approach, and right on the border of Nassau and Queens counties.  All roads seem to lead to Valley Stream:  there are several major highways and thoroughfares bringing heavy volumes of traffic eastward from the two heavily populated New York City counties on the west end of Long Island.  And so it was as Thanksgiving gatherings ended and late night approached that crowds headed for the Wal-Mart store and other retailers for the Black Friday events.  And here is where the national and even international news coverage would be centered.

 

The headlines on Saturday, November 29 in Newsday read:

 

LI Mall Stampede

 

Fatal Frenzy

 

Wal-Mart worker killed as crowd rushes door

 

At the Wal-Mart store literally thousands of people gathered through the night to await the opening of the store, scheduled for 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Nassau County Police Department officials estimate that at least 2,000 people were at the doors by that hour.  There’s an active post mortem of the day’s events going on now locally, but this is what Newsday is reporting in its extensive coverage.

 

In the early morning hours, police visited the store (which is located in a large regional mall) and found nothing unusual going on (“no criminality”) – the crowd (about 500 at that point) were told to remain orderly over a bullhorn.  Wal-Mart had hired its own security guards to keep order.  At 5 a.m. the crowd surged – breaking the store’s doors and overwhelming staff inside.  According to reports, 34-year old Jdimytai Damour (who was reported as being physically large) was told to help keep order.  He was not trained in crowd control or security.  As the mob –this is what the eager shoppers became – surged forward, the young man was knocked down, and despite the efforts of his co-workers, was run over by the crowd…and died.  Died.  In a mad dash to grab bargain-priced items off Wal-Mart shelves, this young man was stomped to death.

 

The recriminations have begun (also a couple of lawsuits with more to follow, you can bet.) Wal-Mart did not hire enough security guards, police say.  (The store was visited beforehand and police suggested some steps, they report.)  Newsday reported that the company left the decisions on security up to the store managers.  (Reading into this, given the Wal-Mart track record in recent years of allegations and lawsuit testimony on employee and contractor abuse, does this mean the cost came out of the store receipts?  You want security, they might say in Bentonville – you pay for it!)

 

At Bentonville, Arkansas company spokespeople were saying:  they were cooperating with the Nassau County Police Department; the store had hired outside security help; put up barricades; and had consulted with local police before Black Friday.  But – we learned that each store decides how much security to hire.  Each store is responsible for taking extra precautions on days like Black Friday to make sure that there’s a safe environment for shoppers and employees.  (As reported by Newsday, November 30, 2008.)  Retailing experts point out that other large chains develop standards to guide local outlets.

 

The store closed for a brief time.  You can see the video reports (being played over and over) on cable news shows now, as police and rescue workers try to revive Jdimytai Damour on the floor of Wal-Mart – as a few passersby and employees look on.  The broken doors were replaced that morning.  Shoppers continued to wheel their goodies to cars. And in the early afternoon two young people set up a prayer vigil, as the good people in Patchogue did two weeks earlier.  One of them told the reporters, “Jdimytai was a casualty of consumerism…we have placed such importance on material possessions that we would even trample someone to death…”

 

It’s another week now; the holiday shopping goes on at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart; his family and community mourns the death of the young man – whose family is in New York and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Jdimytai is described as a good man, always helping friends, who attended the local community college in Nassau County.

The tragedy is not only told in the death of this man, but also in the widespread reports that no one would stop in the mob’s run to the counters to help him!

 

And so expect continuing news coverage of this tragedy, and what these stories say about us as a nation and a people.  (If you look at Black Friday on Wikipedia, Jdimytai’s death is already part of the definitions offered.)  Criminal charges may be filed. The local police department is being criticized for its lack of officers at the scene; the department shot back that security is the job of the stores and the mall operators. The criticism of Wal-Mart will continue – in so many instances, this seems like a company whose management just doesn’t get it.  (Jdimytai Damour was a temp hired through a contractor to Wal-Mart.)

 

And we ask ourselves:  How could this happen?  How could we get to the point as a people that things (in the store) matter much more than people? In a microcosm, the Valley Stream mob stampede tells us a lot about the American obsession with things, shopping, bargain, sales, materialism, consumerism, and more.

 

We seem to have forgotten the reasons why we celebrate Christmas, and we have strayed a very long way from the way the Holy Day was celebrated in early decades and centuries.  Is this only about shopping frenzy for many Americans?

 

No matter where you live, chances are you’ll be following the aftermath of these two tragic stories.  For those of us who live where the deaths happen, many questions remain – and the answers (and lessons) to come are most important.

 

In Part I, December 1, we commented on the tragic death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, allegedly killed by a teen gang seeking immigrants to taunt and attack.

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