Thanksgiving as we know it is gone. The only national holiday that actually includes humility and gratitude as subtext is no more. Yes, individual families can refuse to be co-opted by Madison Avenue, but the poor bastards who have no choice—those employed in low-paying retail jobs—will be out of luck from now on. Target decided to seize Thanksgiving from its employees this year by opening at midnight on Black Friday, despite 200,000 online-petition signatures asking the company to reverse its decision.
Our Ugly American embrace of unadulterated, mindless consumerism has consequences—not just for our souls but also for the lives of those who are exploited in order for us to live so extravagantly.
My friend Laura Biesack, a UNC-Chapel Hill undergrad, had to be at her job at the Old Navy store in Cary at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Her family had an early dinner so she could be included. Her plight was shared by many, but if you think worker rights are ignored in right-to-work North Carolina, try to imagine a job in a Chinese, Latin American or Indonesian sweatshop, places of despair where most of the stuff Americans purchased on Black Friday was manufactured.
Duke Divinity School professor of Christian ethics Stanley Hauerwas told me, for a story I wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, that Americans are, for the most part, good, decent and hardworking people, but "so were the people that supported the Nazis."
"Goodness can become deeply corrupted by its innocence," he went on. "Most of the time innocence is deeply immoral because it is such a lie not to acknowledge that we live in a very complex world that we benefit from, and we don't have to acknowledge the havoc our benefits depend upon."
But there's hope. While millions of Americans pitched tents and pulled all-nighters to participate in the Black Friday consumer cult-a-thon, many instead recognized Black Friday as Buy-Nothing Day. In Garner, my friend Mike Munster and I brought our kids to the entrance of a Walmart Supercenter for 90 minutes of picketing, an annual Buy-Nothing Day ritual of the Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House.
My sign asked, "Do You Really Need All That Junk?" while my daughter Bernadette held one that read, "Celebrate Families Not Shopping." Mike brought a new sign that we plan to use again next year: "Give Time Not Stuff." Other friends—Joette Steger, Marsh Hardy, Pat Mosca and Ivonne Vera—joined us, so we had the entrance well covered.
Even though I regularly demonstrate in support of labor unions and against war, the death penalty and discrimination against immigrants, nothing is as un-American as to protest shopping. Most folks who drove by looked incredulous or perplexed, although it was nice to see an occasional smile from someone who "got it," and a few people rolled down their car window to apologize for their errant ways, giving us a laugh.
Marsh mentioned that some of the Occupy Raleigh group planned to go to Crabtree Valley Mall that afternoon for a flash mob action. I ran the idea by my kids, who were game, so we headed to the Occupy encampment. That's when the "Crabtree Special Police" and other law enforcement appeared and warned us that mall protests would not be tolerated.
The question became, "What constitutes an illegal protest at the mall?" (A question now before the Wake County district attorney.) The cops told us that no signs would be allowed in the mall, so we left them behind and carpooled to Crabtree. At the food court, several of us sat down for a few minutes of planning. There was a stage nearby, and the situation looked promising.
With my redheaded 6-year-old, Mary Evelyn, on my shoulders, I climbed the stairs to the stage to announce we were here to "Occupy Crabtree Valley Mall." The curiosity of seeing a gray-haired, middle-aged man with a kid on his shoulders yelling from a stage at the food court did the trick. The crowd of hundreds fell silent, while some cheered as I gave a short spiel about love being more important than shopping. I rambled a bit, but the rest of the group came to my assistance. Soon the food court was echoing with the cry: "Human need, not corporate greed."
While I'm sure many people did not agree with us, few could argue that our performance was not, for the most part, amusing and fun. I saw plenty of smiling faces, and lots of folks took out their cell- phones to record the protest or take pictures.
Soon, a very angry mob of police arrived to break up the show. The crowd cheered loudly, some for us and some for the police who had come to restore good order to shopping.
Those with me, including my children, walked to the nearest door to leave. Once outside, police corralled us into a corner and announced we were under arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct. The only problem: Two people who had accompanied us, Derek Cronmiller and Charles Hancock, while both a part of Occupy Raleigh, had not participated in the protest. A third, Jen Schradie, a UC Berkeley sociology doctoral student studying social movements, had spent the entire time filming the event, not joining it.
No matter, the cops slapped uncomfortable plastic handcuffs on the six of us and brought us downtown to be booked. The magistrate gave Occupy Raleigh activist Emily Galvin, who had been arrested recently at the Capitol during a police sweep, a $500 bond; the other four, including Roger Ehrlich, a father of four from Cary, were released on a promise to return for trial.
I was given a $1,500 bond despite my promise to honorably return for trial. My wife, Mary Rider, bailed me out of jail a few hours later, thanks to loans from four of our friends. We look forward to our court date, Jan. 12, 2012.
While we had an exciting, and even scary, experience at Crabtree, I think the folks from the Silk Hope Catholic Worker House had more fun at The Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham. Catholic Workers Steve Woolford and Annie SewDev joined others and entered the mall as "Zombie Shoppers." Dressed in ripped clothing with makeup and fake blood, the five zombies hit two levels of the mall walking stiff-legged and reciting mantras like "Zombie must shop. Zombie love sales," SewDev said.
After being confronted by police and mall security, the zombies decided to stay in character. "I stayed in character until they asked if I'd been drinking," SewDev said.
Woolford said he stayed in character the longest. "Zombie have no credit. You buy things for zombie?" Woolford said he told shoppers.
When security told Woolford he was being disruptive, he said: "Kids see zombie, kids smile. You show me where zombie disrupt? You lie; zombie no disrupt."
When he was asked for his identification, Woolford said, "Zombie no have ID. Zombie dead."
At Best Buy, one employee called a co-worker and said, "There's some zombies here making fun of Black Friday. Come down, you've got to see this." Another person said the zombies could shop, "they just couldn't grunt."
(Woolford has an idea for next year. He might go to the mall dressed as Santa Claus and just start giving stuff away: "Ho, ho, ho. Take this. This is for you.")
After being told she was banned from Southpoint for a year, SewDev whined, "Not a whole year. Where will zombie shop?"
Sadly, even the zombie shoppers couldn't save Thanksgiving.