Discount shoppers are not the 1% - and activists must remind them that another world is possible.
It's 1am on a Friday morning, and all over America, as the country jerks and plunges towards economic calamity, people are fighting each other over cheap chocolates and discount shoes. This is Black Friday, an annual festival of cultish consumerism with some shops marking down their wares to 50 per cent, and it is as much a part of the Thanksgiving holiday as cranberry sauce and football.
This year Black Friday has started earlier than ever -- just after midnight in some cities. People pitch tents and queue outside their shopping temple of choice for hours. This is one unauthorised public camping party that city officials like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are happy to indulge, despite the fact that in previous years people have died in stampedes to get into major stores. So much for health and safety concerns.
Outside Macy's, the New York department store, a handful of protesters from Occupy Wall Street have attempted to "Occupy Black Friday": standing in front of the main doors to block the queue before being moved along by security, chanting "shame!" and "stop shopping!" at the throngs of people rushing into the store. "We stopped Black Friday!", one of them tells me. "We won!"
It is unlikely, however, that the people queuing outside Macy's all night in the hopes of getting their hands on a half-price handbag are members of the "one per cent". The one per cent don't have to wait in the cold or shop in sales to get pointless bits of flashy kit. The thousands of people who surge into Macy's after the doors open, flocking excitedly around racks of belts and bags festooned with teasing red stickers that suggest people on an average wage might just about be able to afford them -- those people are not Senators, bank directors or hedge fund managers. They are office workers and small business owners and tourists and temps and teachers. They are the American middle class, and countless thousands of them are prepared to stay up all night during their precious holidays and enter the special circle of hell that is sales shopping. Yes, it is somewhat galling to those who have begun to invest time and energy in building a ground-up anti-corporate counter-culture that so many human beings can be roused from their beds for shopping, when they might be striking or occupying a major urban thoroughfare. One suspects, however, that the required level of socio-economic consciousness-raising will not be achieved by twenty activists with the look of people who have been sleeping outdoors for most of the past two months, shouting at them in the street.
There are a lot of lazy metaphors I could use to describe the organised chaos inside Macy's. I could talk about the shoppers, bundled in their winter coats and milling mindlessly around piles of sweaters and jeans, some of them already loaded with swag-bags from Gap and Forever 21, as sheep, or cattle, or zombies. But that's too easy, both as a conceit and as a reading of consumerism. Yes, there is a certain glazed abstraction to the eyes of those cheerlessly turning over labels to look at prices, jostling and shoving past fellow shoppers without really seeing them -- but it is not inhuman.
It is, in fact, painfully human. It's about craving, and the chase. It is about wanting to seize small pieces of luck and luxury for yourself and your loved ones in a world in which real wealth -- secure, comfortable places to live, safe and supportive communities, decent healthcare and education -- is almost universally the territory of the rich. It's the short-term sugar-rush of twenty-five per cent off a Michael Kors tote that feels like just enough to keep you from crashing. This is why we go shopping for things that we don't need and can't afford, even when quite a lot of us know better.
One of the remarkable things about the Occupy movement is how it has evolved into an alternative economy of care as well as a static series of protests. Earlier in the day, I spent time at the Thanksgiving celebrations in Liberty Square, where thousands of meals were distributed for free to the homeless and needy. Music played; people danced and smoked and chatted and made human connections whilst sticking it moderately to the man. If the movement wishes to continue to win hearts and minds, it is this generosity of spirit that its members must nurture. Outrage and indignation are not enough, and nor is yelling at shoppers in the street; activists must also persuade everyone else that another, better way of life is really possible. From my experience, free food is never a bad place to start.
In Macy's, thousands of stony-faced late-night bargain hunters scramble for the escalators under huge, sparkling holiday store signs, convinced that they are enjoying themselves. The store signs are round and red and animated by one enormous word, writing and rewriting itself in illuminated script. The word is "believe". Just that -- "believe" -- something between an exhortation and a plea for meaning. If activists can offer an answer to the implicit question "-- in what?", they will come closer to winning hearts and minds than any amount of street-corner shouting will achieve.