Shut It Down!
Madison Van Oort on the disruption of retail stores and shopping malls in the age of fast fashion, precarious labor, and Black Lives Matter.
I had to stop by Times Square before heading to the protest. It was the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, and I was working as a sales associate at a major retail store – one of those places that rips off designer clothes and sells them for cheap. I was already heading into the city, I figured, so I could stop by work to check my schedule for the following week to avoid making a separate jaunt later. Once inside, I darted past customers, through awkwardly placed clothing racks, and down multiple flights of a crowded escalator to reach the break room. About fifteen of my coworkers – most of whom are young people of color– slumped on metal folding chairs, taking a brief respite from the hours of standing, sorting clothes, and appeasing entitled tourists. I found my name among the hundreds listed on the schedule; I was assigned 18 hours for the next week since, like nearly everyone else there, I worked only part-time. I weaseled my way out the store and headed north to meet the other demonstrators at Columbus Circle.
After the requisite speeches, the crowd took the streets, with hundreds of us marching through Central Park and weaving our way down 6th avenue. Together, we repeatedly shouted “I can’t breathe”: the infamous phrase Garner yelled 11 times at the Staten Island cops who attacked and killed him for selling loose cigarettes. The demonstration culminated in a die-in in the middle of Herald Square, under the glowing lights of the newly opened, world’s largest H&M. Police stood at the ready, batons in hand, while shoppers weaved their way through the unusually dense crowd. While I had been on other protests that went through major shopping spheres, something about this one felt especially significant. Maybe it’s because this was the first time I related to area simultaneously as protester, consumer, and worker; but I got the sense that we were in the streets, not merely to enact some sort of “democratic will,” but to make historical and political connections with the very presence of our bodies. Garner had died in part because he labored in the informal economy; he was punished for being structurally surplus to capital and “daring to survive.” And here we were, screaming about his death, and so many other deaths, in one of the centers of capitalism and precarious labor.
At first, it seemed like Black Lives Matter’s focus on shopping centers was simply a matter of timing. Since Darren Wilson’s non-indictment last year closely preceded the holiday season, it made sense that protesters would disrupt the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, hold nation-wide protests on Black Friday, conduct die-ins at retail giants H&M and Forever 21, and take over the pièce de résistance of consumer capitalism – the Mall of America – as a way to symbolically shake up “business as usual.” Over the course of the next year, though, retail spaces have continued to be a key protest target; in recent weeks, we’ve seen Black Friday actions in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, as well as a national call to boycott the shopping melee altogether. Many of these stores – like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 – are considered part of the “fast fashion” industry, which is characterized by speeding up the time it takes to design, produce, and circulate trendy, inexpensive clothes. New stores are popping up so quickly, their density is beginning to outpace Starbucks; New York’s 34th street alone holds three separate H&M stores within .2 miles of each other. As new items make their way to clothing racks each day and companies spend billions constructing glitzy flagship stores, disasters like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh – which killed over 1,000 workers – bring attention to the horrific working conditions that support this global commodity system. Yet one need not travel the world to witness how the industry is built on exploitation.
Each day I went into work, for example, I stood in line behind a dozen or so other employees waiting to have our fingerprints scanned. This biometric system for clocking-in is framed as a boon to workers; during orientation, we were told it would ensure that we were paid accurately. But it’s part of a growing trend in workplace monitoring that analyzes vast amounts of data in order to reduce overhead – like employees – as much as possible. In fact, it was only once Forever 21 adopted this scheduling system that it shifted its labor force from primarily full-time to part-time workers. Where I worked, a piece of paper hangs on the break room wall, where employees scrawl their names and phone numbers if they “want more shifts.” Of course, nobody actually wants to work more, but since we were paid next to nothing and our hours fluctuated dramatically, we had to take what we could get.
Vanessa, who worked at a similar store near Herald Square, told me she was forced to work on-call and regularly got sent home early: “[My manager]’d be like, ‘Ok 12 o’clock, y’all can go home.’ And we’d be like, ‘Oh really, what happened? Some of us got bills to pay!’ One of my friends, she had a daughter. It was hard for her.” Over the last few years, a number of labor campaigns have targeted on-call scheduling, and some companies have responded: Urban Outfitters, the Gap, and Victoria’s Secret have all said they will soon end these practices. Vanessa, however, was eventually fired due to the store’s strict attendance policy; workers are not allowed to be even a few minutes late without facing reproach or termination. This policy hurts the majority of employees who work multiple part-time jobs and live in neighboring boroughs, relying on the city’s increasingly expensive public transportation.
At the neighborhood level, malls, department stores, and shopping areas are key nodes of capitalist restructuring, and in Manhattan, the city’s most frequented districts have also justified sweeping gentrification. Keeping these areas safe and clean for consumers – meaning free of those deemed dangerous or surplus – often relies on quality-of-life policing, which has led to so many black and brown deaths. Walk around any major commercial district in Manhattan, and you’re likely to run into cops. Police cruisers sit at nearly every busy corner, highlighting so clearly the non-spectacular, mundane ways in which policing and consumer capitalism go hand in hand.
Stores also overtly profile shoppers, utilizing the police’s stop-and-frisk tactic as a means to protect these sanctified sites of consumption: A young black man was arrested last April at Barney’s after purchasing an expensive belt, an act deemed suspicious by undercover cops merely because of his skin color. And when the Mall of America launched the poorly planned social media campaign “It’s My Mall,” Tweeters swamped the site with accounts of the ongoing and regular harassment of black shoppers. Darla a.k.a Missy tweeted: “My fave moments of MOA is when I witnessed the mall police harassing black teens that were shopping. Not loitering. No curfew.” Earlier this year the store Zara was called out for referring to black shoppers as “special orders.” And Cinthia Carolina Reyes Orellana filed a class action lawsuit against Macy’s just last month, claiming the store detains shoppers of color and forces them to pay exorbitant fines even if they haven’t stolen anything.
In many ways, then, the consistent return of Black Lives Matter protests to shopping zones reveals an emerging repertoire of tactics against the interlocking logics of abjection, white supremacy, and the commodity form.
A few of these actions have gone the route of culture jamming. Last spring, an anonymous group calling itself The Never21 Project snuck into Forever 21’s Union Square location and, posing as employees, placed “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts on the store’s window display mannequins-- a sort of Situationist prank for the 21st century. According to the group’s website, their actions attempt to bring attention to the number of “countless underaged lives [that] have been lost at the hands of self-proclaimed 'vigilantes' and disgruntled police officers.” It’s impressive that The Never21 Project was able to widely infiltrate the premises without notice considering the surveillance that pervades these stores – security guards and cameras abound. This courageous stunt created a substantial media buzz and caused a spectacle in an area frequented by thousands of shoppers, tourists, and commuters each day.
One downfall of this strategy, of course, is that it can be easily co-opted by the stores themselves. Not long after the incident at Forever 21, Urban Outfitters released a line of t-shirts celebrating the leaders of the Stonewall uprising, including trans women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. All of the proceeds from the t-shirt sales went to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, but clearly, these retailers are taking note, attempting to turn social struggle into a trend on which they can easily capitalize. Just last week at H&M, I spotted a blouse featuring the more well-trodden slogan, “Feminism: The Radical Notion That Women Are People.” This, coming from a company whose Cambodian garment workers toil in such severe circumstances that they regularly experience mass fainting.
As sneaky and subversive as the Never21 project was, I have found myself drawn to the larger movement’s attempts to more thoroughly obstruct spaces of power. As I stood in the middle of Herald Square last July, I thought about the popular imperative to “shut it down.” I thought about what it’s like to be inside those spaces – whether as patron or employee – and how the loud music, bright lights, and seemingly endless piles of stuff overstimulated people so absolutely that there was no way our street protest was actually interrupting what was going on inside. Yet activists across the country continue to try to do just that, sometimes with notable success. Last week in Chicago, thousands of protesters flooded Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, scaring off customers and allegedly costing area stores 25 to 75 percent in sales, underscoring the possibility that these protests do indeed have material effects.
My conversations with activists have revealed other possible impacts as well. I recently chatted over Facebook with my friend Charmaine, who last Christmas supported a die-in at the Grove, an outdoor shopping hub in Los Angeles. I mentioned that the transition to online sales might actually allow protesters new opportunities to interrupt commodity circulation; with some flagship stores fulfilling online orders on-site, these spaces are now another point along the global supply chain, connecting point of production with point of sale. She told me that the intent in LA seemed to be less about blocking the movement of capital than to simply “fuck up this perfect little paradise…I can't say how much the interruption cost stores, but I think more importantly, the disruption of Christmas as usual, the disruption of exorbitant consumption by bodies literally lying on the street, interrupted the circulation of consumer desire more than it might have interrupted the circulation of commodity flows.”
Sometimes protesters have actually gone inside stores. One of the biggest and certainly most dramatic actions was last December at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Over 2,000 protesters flocked to the suburban shopping sanctuary, filling the main rotunda reclaiming the space as almost a public square. The spectacle was made all the more dramatic by the police themselves, who projected on a large screen: “THIS IS A FINAL WARNING: This demonstration is in clear violation of Mall of America policy. All participants must disperse immediately. Those who continue to demonstrate are subject to arrest.” Eli, also a friend of mine, was at the protest. He told me over Facebook, “the disruption wasn't just of the space-time of the stores but also of people's subjective dispositions as consumers – both at the protest and through circulation of images of the protest – for example, highlighting the '1984' dystopian character of the giant TV screen telling people to leave.”
The rift at the Mall of America wasn’t just between protesters and police, but also amongst the protesters themselves. A few weeks ago, I met with Jeff, who used to live in Minneapolis and was there for the holidays when the protest occurred. He recalled how the official Black Lives Matter protest marshals cut off a snake march that attempted to break away from the official event. I asked him how he felt when the protest was over: “If the goal was to shut down the Mall of America, we could have done it in a more sustained fashion.” But, he continued, “the whole idea of shutting it down is a put-on. It’s a militant demand, a declaration, but it’s not really the goal.” In spite of the on-the-ground tensions, the action incited wide sweeping support on social media. “It was breathtaking. It created a spectacle leading up to it and in its aftermath. Everything stopped. Everyone who was there, for the protest or not, became totally enthralled.”
Most of the time, however, these commercial disturbances are less sensational than what occurred at the Mall of America. On Black Friday of last year, approximately 15 protesters, including Jeff, splintered off from a larger organized demonstration outside New York City’s 34th street Macy’s and paraded into the store’s jewelry and fragrances section, chanting things like “We are all Mike Brown” for about five minutes. At no point did the protesters encounter security, but according to Jeff, there was little response from anyone: “It was an especially busy day…It’s just kind of what people expect.” Overall, he felt underwhelmed. “It felt like commotion for commotion’s sake.” There was no premeditated call for action, and few people seemed clear about why they were there.
Some people who work at these stores, too, are confused by the events. One of my coworkers, Ryan, told me he dreaded working on days when there were big demonstrations planned and he feared riots would erupt in the store. Other workers are notably invested in the project of disruption: At a planning session for a Black Friday march that I attended last month, a few workers mentioned that to them, Black Friday is an extension of the slave market. They recalled how the term Black Friday comes from the practice of selling slaves at a discount before the onset of winter. This may be a folk tale, but it points to the deep connections that people are making between histories of racial violence and contemporary capitalism.
Part of what has been so intriguing about these Black Lives Matter actions is that they are some of the most dramatic forms of activism to take place in retail spaces in recent history, while having little to do with traditional labor organizing. When upsetting commercial spaces, Black Lives Matter activists are not just calling for better working conditions or more ethical consumption, just as they are not simply demanding better police. At their best, these struggles have the potential to make connections between interrelated systems of domination and present opportunities for building new ways of life, free from white supremacy, free from sexual and gender oppression, free from exploitative labor, and free from police.
Five months after the Eric Garner protest, I found myself back in Herald Square. This time it was Black Friday and I had just completed the march with the retail worker’s advocacy group. I was grateful not to be working, but my curiosity couldn’t keep me out of H&M. In the span of just a few minutes, I overheard two workers – or “gift advisers,” as was scrawled across their t-shirts – complain about how tired they were: holidays are often the only times workers can actually get enough hours to pay their bills. I went upstairs to the second floor balcony, and, crouching next to the live DJ, I peered out to the streets below. The intersection looked surprisingly similar to how it did that hot July night: flooded with people – only this time it was shoppers, not protesters – and a police van sat parked near the entrance.