Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Class, Strategy And Shopping: What Happened At Occupy Black Friday

After weeks of what Shon Kay at one point described to me as "march, cops, march, cops," this was going to be something new. Occupy Oakland was going shopping.

Shon has been an integral member of the Occupy Oakland media committee since its inception. When I hear critics say OO doesn't understand media relations, I think of people like Shon—and I think of plans like this one, and their role in the days since all the encampments were cleared.

Over the course of the week prior, Shon organized a group of participants who planned strategy. Last Friday, on the busiest shopping day of the year, about 25 gathered in the bustling parking lot outside the Emeryville Target in the late afternoon. One by one they filtered into the store, took carts, and began shopping. Twenty minutes later, they moved back to the registers, leaving full carts in the lines. Then it was on to IKEA for more of the same, plus a dual banner drop. Shon told me the idea was spawned by the emergence of "the meme of the tent." He and others decided to "shop for all the tents in a store but then just use them to symbolically block all the shopping," nearly two weeks after riot police removed all the tents blocking the public plaza in front of Oakland's city hall.

I followed the group and cautiously tweeted the action as it moved from Target to IKEA to the Emeryville outdoor mall, Bay Street. Security and Emeryville police moved in quickly at Target; the banner drop on the parking structure at IKEA lasted mere minutes.

Customers snatched up the glossy flyers. A few even ran, grinning, toward occupiers handing them out. The flyers and banner drops were meant to make the action "less of a random drive by and more of a balanced statement," Shon said.

"Excuse today's inconvenience. We mean no harm!"

Passion has been running Occupy Oakland for the last two weeks. After the initial raid on October 25, the city cleared the plaza for the second time in the early morning hours of Monday, November 14. Without a camp, Oakland's strategic actions are more important than ever; they are the only physical manifestation of Oakland's occupation. But the high stakes have brought high pressure. Instead of that passion being channeled into meaningful and coordinated actions, I've seen great ideas rushed and bungled, like a failed West Oakland foreclosure defense that devolved into men throwing canned food, then fist fighting, then break dancing in the middle of the street.

That small proclamation of no harm is arguably the closest Occupy Oakland has gotten to a non-violence resolution since its inception on October 10th.


Despite the raids and chemical weapons, the barricades and the blood, Occupy is still a PR war.

Something I've heard often in Oakland: "The whole world is watching us!" This is most often followed by either a fantastic idea or a hellish one.

Something else I've heard often in Oakland: "This is gonna go viral!"

What tends to be popular among the masses—that beloved 99%—is 1. cute, and 2. funny. While marches, strikes and physical occupations of public spaces are central to Occupy's success in the immediate future, so is its perception amongst the public, many of whom are growing weary of marches, strikes and physical occupations of public spaces. Not to mention those are the top three places riot police go to beat on protesters. Mayhem and humor have the power to change the conversation and the tone of a political protest, if not an entire movement. Steve Lambert and the Yes Men distributed tens of thousands of fake New York Times on street corners in an act of "culture jamming" in 2008. A couple weeks ago, Mark Read's Occupy Wall Street bat signal was a new kind of public relations success for the movement. It was not laying ones body on the gears, but guiding popular attention with an actual light, a signal.

Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd was "a small part" of that New York Times action. "I was blown away by the scope of what they pulled off," he told me.

Over the year's, Improv Everywhere has been responsible for a wide variety of public pranks and creative projects, from flash mobs that freaked out Best Buy to Star Wars guerilla theater on the subway. "The large majority of our projects have been unauthorized, unpermitted and unannounced. I think the public should be allowed to use public spaces as stages to express themselves creatively. If our sidewalks and subway platforms can be covered with advertising, they should also be acceptable venues for harmless creativity."

Retail spaces are about as public as city plazas these days as far as Occupy is concerned: you can be there for a while, and then they will kick you out.


Black Friday did not mark but coincided with a shift in the nature of Occupy, following a spate of police violence across the country. After regrouping, new strategies—creative, and less confrontational ones—seemed welcome. Buy Nothing Day protests on the day after Thanksgiving have been a staple since the '90s, with various demonstration incarnations over the years. Over the course of the day, other Oakland occupiers visited Emeryville retail to do their own guerilla theater, and to protest the mall's construction on a Native American burial site with flyers disguised as coupons. Shon described his action as "a mashup."

In San Diego, Tampa, El Paso and other cities, occupiers mic-checked Wal-Mart shoppers with information on the store and its labor practices.

San Francisco occupiers blocked streets in the downtown shopping district.

In Chicago, occupiers led a teach-in outside a Sears.

One of Occupy's biggest problems has been figuring out how best to reach out to the rest of that mythical 99%—the ones so pumped to get deep discounts on electronics that they camp out for days and mace each other in the face. Plus of course all the ones who wait peaceably in the long lines to make purchases, necessary and otherwise, that they might otherwise not be able to afford in this economy were it not for that day of deep discounts.

Also: the ones who work the registers for the mace-sprayers fleeing with their Xboxes.

How do you attack consumerism without attacking consumers—or workers?

During and after my coverage of the Occupy Oakland action in Emeryville, several people wrote to me on Twitter over the weekend expressing concern; the majority were retail workers themselves, annoyed at the extra work of having to replace large amounts of stock on an already very busy day. A common refrain was, "We're the 99% too."

Charlie Todd again, on Improv Everywhere: "I've seen some criticism that some of our retail pranks were rude towards the minimum-wage workers in the stores, but those workers usually react very positively to something fun happening during their work day. The managers and security guards at Best Buy called 911 and threw us out, but the average employees were laughing and taking photos when their bosses weren't looking. I worked retail for years, and I know I always appreciated breaks in the normal routine of working the floor. I do think it's important for protesters staging stunts in retail stores to consider everyone involved."

When I asked him about the Twitter criticisms I heard, Shon was incredulous—were these people from Occupy Oakland? I said I didn't think they were.

"It is very easy for disengaged people to rest their heads on the pillow of criticism."

The Internet is certainly full of armchair revolutionaries, but lately Oakland's occupation is full of cardboard-on-cold-concrete revolutionaries—although over the last week, not quite enough of them to meet quorum at the general assemblies. Occupy Oakland needs to convince warm bodies to come out into the cold. Shon is confident that more creative actions are the future of the movement, at least here, and an effective form of outreach to the greater public. He said this was "an experiment, a template, a model." "I see every new action that is done in this movement as one."

For next time, I might suggest: try making them laugh.

Susie Cagle is a journalist and editorial cartoonist with pending misdemeanor charges from the county of Alameda. She is livetweeting this revolution from Oakland, CA.

48 Comments / Post A Comment

riggssm (#760)

"It is very easy for disengaged people to rest their heads on the pillow of criticism."

Seriously, fuck that guy.

I like Improv Everwhere when the antics don't make more work for the sad, minimum wage lackeys working retail (scheduled just under the hours required to have benefits, but locked in the store "until all the work's done"!)

As if retail isn't bad enough of a job without this asshat coming along with his clusterfuck of carts.

backstagebethy (#186,183)

@riggssm Absolutely this. I am infuriated just reading the story–after working retail last holiday season, I can't imagine people coming into the store and purposely making my job more difficult. That's enough to make me side against the Occupiers.

dreamonster (#126,866)

@riggssm Agreed. Fuck these assholes.This post is some classist bullshit. "Oh, don't worry about the retail peons who have to clean up after our righteous prank, they LIKE it–or else they are 'disengaged,' in which case we are entitled to insult them!"

Honestly, I'm 100% about most of Occupy, but this kind of trite progressive white dude rail against "consumerism," particularly when focused around the most bargain-oriented shopping day of the year, already smacks of classism and sexism. I really like what Amanda Marcotte wrote on this subject yesterday (and the Ellen Willis essay she cites): http://pandagon.net/index.php/site/pepper_spray_for_your_convenience

davetar (#1,114)

I'll give you classism, but sexism? Really?

And let's face it, retail workers are already busting hump non-stop on black friday. I don't think this gave them more work as much as it just redistributed the work they were doing from more to less profitable activities. It was more of an inconvenience to management, and also the shoppers, and I DO think people who shop on black friday deserve a little (more) inconvenience for acting as enablers to this disgusting day of material excess that perfectly symbolizes the decay of this country.

deepomega (#1,720)

@davetar I think you're missing the part where picking the most bargain-y shopping day makes it classist against people who, you know, need to bargain shop.

davetar (#1,114)

@deepomega Sorry but nobody needs to buy the shit that was on sale on Friday. NOBODY.

deepomega (#1,720)

@davetar Oh. OK.

davetar (#1,114)

@deepomega To clarify, since you don't seem very convinced, Target and Best Buy and Ikea weren't selling food and health insurance and a month's rent on Friday. If you can't afford to pay $200 for a Nintendo Wii instead of $130, you have the option of not buying one.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@davetar "At the Times Square Toys “R” Us just after 10 p.m. on Thursday, Yasmin Santiago and Dexter Valles were trying to fit several boxes of diapers into a small hand cart. The couple, parents of twins, said the special on diapers was worth the late-night trip, since Ms. Santiago was on leave from her job as an assistant teacher.

“We have twice the children, and half the income,” Mr. Valles said."


deepomega (#1,720)

@davetar: Glad you know what poor people should be spending money on, I guess.

@Astigmatism: You can't eat diapers, so they shouldn't be buying them.

skyslang (#11,283)

@davatar Sorry, but no. Have you ever worked retail? This kind of stunt most definitely makes more work for the sales people. Carts full of products don't put themselves back on the shelves. They get pushed aside and then, after the store is closed, the workers stay until it is all re-shelved. That will take hours and hours. Management is not impacted. Customers are not really inconvenienced. It's the workers, the exact people that Occupy is supposed to be supporting, that will have to clean up that mess.

davetar (#1,114)

@skyslang Management IS impacted by that, because as horribly mistreated as retail employees are (and yes, I have worked retail, at this time of year no less), they still get paid to put that stuff back.

Is this a perfect action? No. But I think the horrible, unforgivable inconvenience has some nobility to it because it's aimed at eliminating the very causes of needing to deal with ridiculous crowds at 4 in the morning to be able to afford a luxury, or being forced to work on a holiday so that management can make big bucks off those customers.

And @deepomega, I don't really give a shit what people spend their money on. I just really, really, really fucking hate Black Friday, nearly as much as I hate the GOP. It's a disgusting display of a society deeply perverted. I don't care what people spend their money on but I do care HOW they spend it, and I'd rather they didn't spend it in ugly displays like this one.

Is it exactly what I would have done? Probably not. Is it an inconvenience to employees? Sure, you bet. But if you avoid doing anything that will inconvenience anybody who makes less than $500k a year you're not going to be doing a damn thing. In the end, I simply DO agree with the sentiment that hey, at least they're trying something.

deepomega (#1,720)

@davetar When you say that you don't care what people spend their money on, but you don't think they should shop for things on sale, you are actually saying you care what they spend their money on. I know you think it's a distasteful, declasse sale! But you're still dictating how people spend shit, and I guess even the diaper example given above is going to keep you from expressing empathy towards them.

riggssm (#760)

@davetar Bottom line: IE's retail antics placed a burden on those working the roughest day of the retail year.

Your theory that they got "paid to put that stuff back" has been disproved by any number of articles in the national media on how big box retailers coerce (or outright lock in!) employees into working without compensation or accountability for conditions.

As to management being inconvenienced, um. Wow. Management could quite frankly give a flying fuck as long as they beat their sales from last quarter and last year. And who's gonna make that happen when the IE idiots muck up the store?

That's right. Those same employees …

There's nothing noble about this sort of nonsense or your weak defense of it. Hush, now.

TheDisengaged (#186,256)

@davetar You have a right to fucking hate Black Friday all you want, but that doesn't give you the right to care how I spend my money, okay Dad? Now I wish I'd actually gone Black Friday shopping. Just for spite.

Overall I've felt that the Occupy movement has been a great start for a new direction. When people peacefully gather around large banks and other areas of power, the general message makes sense: 'We, the 99%, are real individuals who won't be so easily dismissed by those who abide within an elite bubble. We are not an abstraction or numbers on a spreadsheet.' Something like that.

This is a message I support. However, now we're seeing instances where the protest is becoming more of a nuisance for everyone, 99%ers most of all. Do you think "the 1%" gives a flying fuck about some weak propaganda at Ikea or shopping improv at Target?

@davetar The management in retail stores often make out the worst on days like this. My Toys R Us manager worked a 22 hour shift on black friday, and essentially made no more money for it because he makes salary, not an hourly rate. That means no overtime, no holiday pay. If you're wondering what that salary is, it is quite modest especially taking into account what a retail employee has to put up with. I worked 12 hours on black friday and was not allowed overtime or holiday pay. Many people at the store worked much more. These guys are dickheads, period.

Furthermore, shopping carts in the way are not going to deter shoppers from getting what they want. We literally had somebody rip down an entire shelving unit trying to get to something, and nobody stopped long enough for an employee to clear the area. They don't care what is in their way.

areaderwrites (#592)

@dreamonster Great essay at that link. Bookmarked!

1. No major extra work for retail employees was caused.
2. The information put out will explode in the next few months.
3. I bet you're one of those people putting up petitions on Obama's page.
4. Good luck with that.

pemulis (#903)

@davetar "A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?" — Elenor Mills, "Women and the Myth of Consumerism," 1969 (1969!)


hanolulu (#186,196)

"It is very easy for disengaged people to rest their heads on the pillow of criticism."

It is also very easy for disengaged people to take your smug comments and inconsiderate actions and dismiss your movement entirely.

skyslang (#11,283)

@hanolulu Exactly! The sales people who had to clean up that shit are most definitely not going to join the Occupy movement any time soon.

JoshUng (#11,371)

I've worked retail, and no, no I did not like when people did "fun" stuff that basically made my day harder.

If the Occupiers had a victory, is that I didn't hear too many stories about them being too big a pain in the ass over the weekend. Personally, I felt the risk for them losing any good will they've gotten over the last few weeks far outweighed any chance of them making much progress.

La Cieca (#1,110)

This litany of fuck this and fuck that would make perfect sense if the retail workers were a collective making their own decisions, setting their own hours, and rewarding their own work with a fair wage. But that's not the sort of system this kind of action targets. The "people coming into the store and purposely making my job more difficult" are the Occupy movement for a fraction of one day a year, but for the other 364, it's the top management of Target and Ikea and all the other big box stores who pay you crap wages and treat you like shit so that their CEO can get an extra $10 million in his compensation package that year.

It was an experiment. If it didn't work, then it doesn't have to be repeated. But this constant refrain of "don't be impolite, don't risk upsetting anyone, don't inconvenience a soul, don't embarrass the movement, for heaven's sake don't wear that shirt to the march" amounts to so much concern trolling.

deepomega (#1,720)

@La Cieca "Concern trolling"? Do you really think this ISN'T a pain in the ass? Or that saying "It is very easy for disengaged people to rest their heads on the pillow of criticism" ISN'T the most blowhard asshole thing to say to workers affected by it?

deepomega (#1,720)

@deepomega I guess I should elaborate. This is transparently, on the face of it, a shitty thing to do where the cost of the "experiment" falls entirely (ENTIRELY) on the people working at the stores. It's like slapping a cashier in the face and telling them it's a metaphor for WalMart's union busting.

davetar (#1,114)

@La Cieca – It's true. What exactly do the 1% do that DOESN'T have them shielded behind an army of innocent wage slaves? None of this shit is going to get fixed by asking nicely, for fuck's sake.

davetar (#1,114)

@deepomega – I absolutely refuse to believe that this burden rested entirely (ENTIRELY) on the workers. I guarantee that some shoppers were turned away by the mayhem. Maybe not a lot, but it would only take one to lay lie to your parenthetically-emphasized claim.

skyslang (#11,283)

@davetar It's also not going to be fixed by stunts like this that alienate the exact people that should be supporting the movement.

La Cieca (#1,110)

@La Cieca It might be a pain in the ass,and it might be a fairly minor inconvenience. But you could argue the same "maybe" about any sort of protest action. Oh, the poor interns who actually have to read all those angry letters to the editor! Oh the poor dog owner who couldn't let his pet poop in Zuccotti Park!

There is no such thing as a perfectly nondisruptive protest, though it's a convenient excuse for doing nothing.

Show me where people were alienated, and then we'll have somethinog to talk about. All the author could come up with was a few emails before the fact. A disaster for reform!

deepomega (#1,720)

@La Cieca Honestly what bothers me most is that Shon could not fathom that anyone might think this protest would be invasive and a pain in the ass, and then dismissed the people who thought so as not activisty enough to be allowed to make comments. That's not how you engage people.

riggssm (#760)

@La Cieca Seriously? None of the 1% are working at walmart or Target or KMart or Sears. And if they are, they for damn sure are not on the floor.

None of the 1% are shopping at walmart or Target or KMart or Sears.

So what, exactly, did the IE "demonstration" prove, other than that they're giant twats? I mean seriously here, I'm with deepomega on the cashier-slapping metaphor. What's the point?

TheDisengaged (#186,256)

@riggssm It pretty much demonstrated that the 99% should actually be subdivided into additional percentiles. Namely, "giant twats" and "the disengaged".

If anything I learned from '24' is true, then there's a secret Illuminati boardroom somewhere where The One Percent sits watching a wall of monitors as this whole Occupy movement collapses on itself. All according to the plan, of course.

La Cieca (#1,110)

@La Cieca I would prefer to hear from Shon himself (not selectively quoted by a writer with an agenda) before I venture to guess what Shon is thinking.

Everyone keeps talking about what a disaster this was, but you've heard one side of the story and you have virtually nothing factual to go on. Did anybody punch a protester? Did anybody shove a protester? Did anybody even raise his voice to a protester? None of that is reported. There is no evidence presented of negative outcomes, only a vague sense of worry, and all you've got to argue from is your own preconceived notions of what you think must have happened or should happen in such a circumstance, and, worse, you're all falling all over yourselves to scream at a guy to fuck himself who hasn't even had a chance to tell his side of the story. Remember that the next time you're puffing yourselves up feeling superior to the audience of Fox News.

Bethany (#186,585)

@La Cieca I'm guessing you've never worked retail? What the protesters did on black Friday was the same thing that bored teenagers used to do when I worked retail in college. Did the upper echelon of the company care then? Nope. Did management care? Nope, not really. Did those of us who were in charge of throw backs (or, returning stuff to shelves) care? Yep. Usually they took stuff from all of the different departments, threw it in the cart and then ran out in a cloud of giggles. Leaving us to stay after closing and put it all back. When stupid customer stuff like that would happen I would get home later – meaning I would be eating dinner later, would be studying later and would be seeing friends and family later. I was not happy with those teenagers.

This was the weakest thing that the protesters could do, IMHO. It's not going to impact the heads of the companies in question – in fact it got them more media attention. It's not going to rile the workers to their side as it most likely turned them off to the group. As a former retail wage slave I'm turned off by this action. To me it shows that they're far from having their finger on the pulse of the situation. They made the worst working day of the year in retail even crappier for those on the front line for the sake of making a point. How is that helping? This group, if they really want to make a difference, needs to pull their collective heads out of their collective arses and focus a bit more. Anyone with half a brain would have seen that this little cart stunt wouldn't do anything.

La Cieca (#1,110)

@La Cieca You act as if Shon decreed all this was to happen unilaterally, which not even the slanted account in the article suggests is true. The author didn't like the plan which was (so far as we know) agreed upon by consensus, and now she is trying to make the action sound like a disaster, despite the lack of any evidence of a negative response. Everyone here is arguing from nothing, no proof, no evidence, no documentation, nothing except "fuck that stupid hippie guy." All this screaming and gnashing of teeth is just pure idiot mob emotion, based on an account that doesn't even rise to the level of hearsay. The only point here seems to be to reinforce your prejudices, which Christ knows are already irrational and ugly enough without further inflaming.

Now, I'll leave you all to continue screaming "fuck that stupid fucking hippie fucker." Maybe I can to to Gawker for some nuanced conversation.

NinetyNine (#98)

People still think saying 'concern-trolling' has argumentative and rhetorical merit? Good for them!

La Cieca (#1,110)

@NinetyNine Some of us hope to earn the right to be smug all day long; then we won't need to worry about the merits of our arguments or our rhetoric.

TheDisengaged (#186,256)

@La Cieca I hope that was a joke….

twinklefingers (#186,243)

I decided not to participate in the Black Friday action for the same reason I'm reading in these comments. Handing out flyers that might encourage shoppers to change their buying habits is a good idea, but filling up carts and leaving them in line for the underpaid, overworked "team members" to deal with is a bad idea. Not only does it make a really crappy day even crappier for the people we are supposed to represent, but it does absolutely nothing to achieve our goals.

Target, IKEA, ToysRUs, Walmart are the ones forcing workers to be there in the first place early on Thursday night.

If anyone is Making More Work it's idiot consumers with a need to compensate for their lack of political participation with bigger TVs and the store that put workers to work there.

There's the cause of the extra work. Stop looking at the short term.

twinklefingers (#186,243)

Juan, I know that Target, IKEA, ToysRUs, Walmart are forcing the workers to be there. If I thought that the kind of actions that took place would have ANY effect on the people at the top, I'd be all for it. But the CEOs don't care if some store employees have to spend extra time stocking and cleaning up. It would be more effective to hack into their files, or to prevent merchandise from being shipped to their warehouses, or to unionize their workers. Filling up carts and leaving them for busy floor staff to deal with does nothing. It's just an ego trip for the protestors.

daemonsquire (#9,523)

I like to think of the occasional minor inconveniences imposed on my Xmas shopping, or my workday, or my commute, by confused, desperate, idealistic youngsters, as a kind of inoculation for all the major inconveniences to come, when this system gets tore the fuck down. I don't 'spect they'll be especially idealistic, by and large, from that point on…

ShonKay (#186,760)

I love all the comments.. Great discourse here. For the record, I did not "organize" this but i did help coordinate it. With so much to try to defend to profiles i cant even prove are real, i think i will skip that whole thing and just say- does anyone want to ask any specific questions about this? Ill try to answer honestly. I would also like to hear about stuff people out there in comment culture land have organized to take a stand for things they believe in, and why theirs ruled and ours sucked. go for it.

DMcK (#5,027)

@ShonKay OK, I'll bite. Was any effort made to reach out to the people actually doing the work in these big box stores (rather than alienate them with annoying pranks at their expense)? The employees at Target, for example, had organized a movement to protest the inhuman hours they were being forced to work on Black Friday, so it seems like there's fertile ground to build on (perhaps in coordination with union organizers).

deepomega (#1,720)

@ShonKay Sure. I'll ask one. Was anything done to mitigate the effects of the action on the people working the stores, or was the intent to cause disruption to those workers? (Not a loaded question, a sincere one!)

ShonKay (#186,760)

@Daemonsquire one step at a time.

EmmsGrey (#241,911)

Your holiday shopping plan sounds really great and in my opinion it is one of the best that I read or heard until now. I remember that one month before Black Friday I had an idea about starting a frozen yogurt business and frankly it did quite well. I managed in one month to borrow money and open 3 stands at 3 local stores that had plans for Black Friday. I still can't believe that I made so much money in 24hours.

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