Why Is Black Friday Such a Lawless Shitshow?

As stampeding crowds rush the nation's retailers little is being done to keep the peace.

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Nov 28 2014, 5:23am

Like grain elevators bloated with the year's harvest, stores across the United States have loaded up on goodies to entice gift-seekers on Black Friday. And those shoppers—salivating at the thought of deals to be had—are presumably jonesing for the rush, many of them getting their fix on Thanksgiving Day. But lost among the preparations that spell the most lucrative time of year for retailers is any significant nod toward safety, whether it be for shoppers, employees, or the authorities and medical workers who are often called to intervene during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Best Buy's press team did not respond to requests from VICE for their Black Friday security plans, and Walmart did "not wish to participate in this opportunity," their PR team wrote in an email. Target, sterilized though it was, at least provided one.

"To keep our stores safe and secure on Black Friday, we work with our individual store teams to implement a robust crowd management plan that includes additional crowd management training, security coverage in parking lots and store-specific maps," Laurel Herold, a communications representative for the company, said via email.

As robust as these plans might seem, they may be no match for the unruly crowds that congregate at these events. If you're willing to wait in the early-morning cold to get a deal that isn't even really a deal, you're probably willing to do quite a few other things, too.

"Buyers don't seem to mind" that the sales they're attending are really just "retail theater," the Wall Street Journal reported last year. "What they are after, especially in such a lackluster economy, is the feeling they got a deal."

Other feelings associated with Black Friday include breathlessness—as in the kind you experience when you're being stepped on by other humans who are running toward whatever they've been told is on sale. Then there are the sharp, shooting pains, the kind you get when you've actually been shot, as in one 2012 case when two parties had a disagreement over a parking spot. Don't forget extreme cuts, like the ones that come when someone slices your arm down to the bone because, once again, two parties had a disagreement over a parking spot. Finally, we're left with abandonment, loneliness, and utter despair of the sort that accompanies a fatal heart attack and your fellow man stepping over you to reap their retail reward.

Because of all the awful incidents associated with Black Friday, it's only natural that the companies catering to the crowds don't really like to talk about it. So I called up Paul Wertheimer, a self-proclaimed crowd-control expert who has had roles in everything from The Who's 1979 concert in Cincinnati—where 11 people died—to the tragic death of Walmart employee Jdimytai Damour in 2008. Damour was trampled by an unruly horde of 2,000 shoppers who forced their way through the doors and past his fellow employees. He was 34.

"It's irrational, it's exploitative," Wertheimer told me. "You don't need to be a crowd safety expert to understand what will happen when you make people compete against each other."

Lots of nasty things, apparently. It doesn't appear that anyone other than the feds tracks Black Friday-related carnage. And besides Black Friday Death Count, which tallied ten incidents last year and three in 2012, there is no legitimate database of these fiascos. It's up to individual news outlets to document instances of violence in their area, and up to the public to seek out the stories. So naturally the majority of news surrounding Black Friday has to do with how much shit we bought. The impact of our collective wallet is seen as the most important thing about the holiday shopping season, and for a very specific reason, according to Wertheimer.

"The media generally hides these events and trivializes the injuries people suffer because it means so much in advertising and revenue dollars," he told me.

Corporal Cameron Nelson of the Rialto Police Department in southern California was on patrol with his partner last year when they were called to a Walmart to break up a fight. Nelson came away with a broken hand, and a newfound sense of urgency for planning. But despite being injured thanks to a couple buffoons fighting over something stupid, the cop praised the level of cooperation between the retailer and his department.

"We've been meeting with security from Walmart for months to plan for events [like Black Friday]," he said. "Walmart is a business I'm in constant communication with."

That will be essential going forward. Better cooperation between the authorities and retailers could help prevent incidents that see workers trampled and shoppers worked up into a violent frenzy over our beloved deals, according to Wertheimer, the crowd-control expert. But it comes at a cost.

"That kind of proactive activity—which I'm sure there are fire departments and police departments around the country that would like to do—gets axed when the mayor steps in and says, 'It's bad for business for you to do this,'" Wertheimer told me. "They could stop all this, they could bring some order, but for their failure to do it, these people will continue to get injured."

The injuries that claimed the life of Damour, the Walmart employee, caused the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to step in and fine the retail giant. (OSHA also put out its own tips for how retailers can keep things from getting completely out of control.) The company hasn't paid yet, instead choosing to fight the decision in court.

Walmart likely doesn't want to pay the $7,000 fine because it would set a precedent that companies are liable for these disasters. Wertheimer believes much of the mayhem that occurs each year on Black Friday is the result of the same cold calculation.

"You want to know why this continues? Public officials would rather have the money and they'd rather look the other way," he said. "This is profit over public safety."

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