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.