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At Least 116 Arrested in Planned Civil Disobedience at Walmart Stores on Black Friday

Black Friday demonstrator arrested in Chicago, IL (Photo by UFCW International)

Update – 9:30 PM EST: This post was updated to reflect five more arrests in San Leandro.

Protests planned by current and former Walmart Associates and a coalition anchored by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UCFW) were held at various Walmart locations across the United States. Over 110 arrested were arrested while engaging in civil disobedience.

UFCW, which consists of “small business owners, religious leaders, community organizations, women’s advocacy groups, multi-ethnic coalitions, elected officials and ordinary citizens,” helped mobilize people through a campaign called Making Change at Walmart. It was designed to call attention to the hundreds of thousands of employees at Walmart living in poverty, including those who work full time.

—Ten were arrested in Ontario, California. Police in riot gear stood by as they were handcuffed. One of them was dressed as Santa Claus and another was a worker who had been fired in June.

—Fifteen were arrested in Sacramento, California. One twenty-six year-old Walmart worker arrested reportedly declared, “I’m standing with associates all over the nation, and, “We want to make $25,000.”

—Five were arrested in San Leandro, California.

—Ten were arrested in Chicago, Illinois. Two were Walmart employees.

—Twenty-six were arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota. The arrests took place near Walmart and Target. One worker employed by a cleaning company contracted out by Target, Maricela Flores, said, “We want people to see us. We want people to notice.” She added, “The truth is for me and for other people who are making this low wage we sometimes have to have two or three jobs.” She has five kids and hoped her action would be “worth more than she’d earn if she were at work.”

—Thirteen were arrested in Secaucus, New Jersey. They were charged with disorderly conduct. Police stopped hundreds from congregating in front of the Walmart store. One protester said, as he was arrested, “I’ll be in my grave before I’ll be a Walmart slave.”

—Thirteen were arrested at a Walmart in a small city called Balch Springs. It was unclear if any local reporters bothered to interview any of the people getting arrested to get quotes for their stories.

—Nine were arrested in Alexandria, Virginia. One of them was a Walmart worker.

—Nine were arrested in Fairfax, Virginia. According to a police statement, all protesters were entirely peaceful and officers knew they would engage in civil disobedience and would be arrested.

—Fifteen were arrested in Bellevue, Washington. About eight-five other demonstrators stood by and supported them as the fifteen as they were arrested.

According to The Nation’s Allison Kilkenny, who reported on the protest in Secaucus, the protests came one week after the National Labor Relations Board announced “last week that it plans to pursue charges against Walmart for threatening and punishing workers who planned to go on strike last year.”

The NLRB found that the corporation had “unlawfully threatened” employees who had participated in Black Friday walkouts last year.

Josh Eidelson, who covered the demonstrations for Salon, outlined how 400 non-union Walmart workers had participated in demonstrations on Black Friday in 2012. One hundred “strikers” traveled to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas for a week of protests in June. Twenty strikers were fired weeks after and fifty-plus were later disciplined in retaliation.

One of the key ways Walmart can maintain the status quo of not providing workers a living wage is to stifle demonstrations through trespassing lawsuits that ban protesters from their property. Five states have seen Walmart file lawsuits barring people from locations and, for example, in Florida a judge granted the corporation a temporary injunction prohibiting a group of defendants from going near any Walmart in the state.

To internally discredit those demonstrating, Eidelson reported an email sent around hours before protest suggesting unions were rewarding people with $50 gift cards.

“The NLRB said the practice of giving $50 gift cards to anyone who shows up to a protest is legal. Let’s remember when union-backed demonstrations brag about their numbers, they’re paid to be there,” the email read. It also incorrectly claimed the Los Angeles Times had reported the unions were paying anyone who was willing to protest on Black Friday.

Eidelson explained the NLRB decision actually recognized that the payment of gift cards to the first 700 workers who signed up to “strike” on Black Friday was legal. It represented, according to an NLRB memo, a “non excessive strike benefit designed to reimburse employees for some of their lost wages if they struck, and was non discriminatory.”

“In other words, it’s legal for unions or supporters to chip in to help cushion the economic cost of giving up wages to strike (though such collections may be more common in longer strikes than in one-day walkouts),” Eidelson added.

While protests gave Walmart executives something to confront publicly, the store also had to grapple with various brawls that broke out at locations. #WalmartFights was trending at one point and the store seemed to have earned a new nickname: “Brawlmart.”

This sort of action was something Walmart executives did not want the world to see. Brian Spain, a New York filmmaker, reportedly was booted from a Walmart in Elkin, North Carolina, when he was caught recording a melee.

Around fifty people gathered around televisions and pushed and shove each other. A man was thrown to the ground. That is when Spain was told to stop recording and leave the store or he would be arrested for trespassing.

Store executives may not want to admit it, but violence is just what gives Black Friday its draw. Numerous Americans come to stores not just to get cheap deals (which are an illusion) but also to see if someone gets beat up. Some even go ready to stand their ground in order to get their hands on a flat-screen television from another if necessary.

This year, after more than 150 years where stores did not open on Thanksgiving, Walmart and other retailers called in hundreds of thousands of Americans to work. This meant hundreds of thousands were not able to spend time with family at home.

Corporations have created an annual experience where Americans can leave family Thanksgiving gatherings early or go to a store together. They can stand in lines or gather around palates of supposedly discounted products made by factory workers in Asia that make slave wages. When the time comes and the deals begin, they can go in arms swinging and snatch up anything with a price tag they think in that moment they should have so the person next to them doesn’t take it from them. If it means throwing a body to the ground, that is what they will do. Rarely will they think anything about the workers tearing plastic off piles of goods for them to grab. And, meanwhile, many Americans go to stores hoping to witness violence so they can share a kind of story of survival with friends or family at the end of the day.

As Pope Francis recently declared when he attacked capitalism as a “new tyranny”:

It is essential we recover interpersonal relationships to which we must accord a priority over the technology which seeks to governor relationships as with the remote control deciding where, when, and for how long to meet others on the basis of one’s own preferences. As well as the more usual and more diffused challenges, however, we must be alive to those which impinge more directly on our lives. The sense of daily uncertainty with evil consequences, the various forms of social disparity, the fetishism of money and the dictatorship of a faceless economy. The exasperation of consumption and unbridled consumerism. In short, we find ourselves in the presence of a globalization of indifference and the sneering contempt towards ethics, accompanied by a constant attempt to marginalize every critical warning over the supremacy of the market which with its trickle-down, creates the illusion of helping the poor. If the church, today, appears still highly credible in many countries of the world, even where it is a minority, it is because of her works of charity and solidarity.

Walmart and other retailers, capitalizing on the Thanksgiving holiday, are clearly at the forefront of this “new tyranny.” And Americans, where are they? Sadly, most seem unaware of how their actions contribute to a loss of decency and empathy for others.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."