Black Friday used to be an extraordinary occasion because it unleashed some of the most intense excesses of American consumerism, and it awed us in its unabashed celebration of capitalism, unifying working people in a way that few social events could. So it’s also the perfect day to turn upside down to make an equally strong statement of resistance. And this year, there was more to resist than usual.
In cities across the country, Black Friday has become the day when workers of the country’s biggest retail chain walk out together and withhold their labor temporarily, just to show that while their job may have left them tired, their bodies battered, and their family lives in a constant state of strain, Walmart hasn’t won.
Today they took back their dignity by taking themselves to the streets and denying Walmart what it has unjustly exploited for years. A day’s work represents the one thing that they could, with the help of coworkers and fellow labor activists, truly reclaim in defiance of their boss: their economic sovereignty.
Many of them were immigrants, people of color, struggling working moms, and poor folks of all backgrounds tired of a life of desperation. On the day of the year when the whole world seems to have been whipped up into a frenzy, either to shop, or to work overtime to serve the shoppers, they decided the most powerful thing they could do was engage in a work stoppage.
No single individual striker can stop the machine, but together, they can certainly disrupt the gears. And when you’re up against a global commercial hegemony like Walmart, putting a dent in the engine of capital is no mean feat.
For the protesters who came out in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, to demand justice for Mike Brown, their boycott was also a protest of non-participation, as they actively rejected the consumer side of Black Friday. Their collective withholding of their money — under the banner of #BlackoutBlackFriday, #NotOneDime, or #BlackLivesMatter – was more than just rejecton of a holiday shopping tradition.
The symbolism of the boycott evoked the ethos of the Civil Rights-era boycotts, which, along with labor strikes, sit-ins and other organized acts of civil disobedience, projected a singular idea: on this day, we engage in a quiet remembrance, in the solemnity of mourning, and a communal focus on a social crisis that demands our undivided attention and unified dignity.
The people united will never be defeated! #BlackoutBlackFriday pic.twitter.com/U6ROVCHUmb
— Million Hoodies (@MillionHoodies) November 28, 2014
In the wake of the non-indictment for the killing of Brown, and the outrage that exploded afterward, the Ferguson protests nationwide took many forms, some quiet, some loud, some in words and others in direct action. But however communities made their voices heard, the important thing was that they have occupied the streets, and retaken the day, for themselves and for the honoring of black lives that the system–the capitalist social structure, the criminal justice system, and our political establishment–seems so eager to neglect, day after day.
This is what #NYC looks like. #BlackFridayBlackOut #NotOneDime via @dantebarry #JusticeForMikeBrown pic.twitter.com/xT5JZAXWFA
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) November 28, 2014
About half a century ago, Mario Savio made his famous “bodies upon the gears speech” on the University of California-Berkeley campus. Like many great activists, he didn’t know quite what he was starting up that day, but his words still endure:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
4.5 minutes of silence. Bodies on the floor to represent #MikeBrown‘s blood on the ground. #BlackoutBlackFriday pic.twitter.com/5CCH5htZ4o — handsupunited (@handsupunited_) November 28, 2014
Today was not a general strike or a global mass upheaval. It involved in some places just a handful of protesters, in other places a single blocked thoroughfare. Yet small revolutions transpired: everywhere, someone was able to force someone to stop and listen–and that’s something we seldom get to do these days in any meaningful way.
Black Friday is supposed to be a day that we abandon to the material. To resist on this day is to rediscover our own power.
#walmartstrikers Solidarity from Richmond, CA pic.twitter.com/Vp1FLPI0qo
— eddie iny (@eddieiny) November 28, 2014
For more on the Black Friday protests, see CultureStrike’s storify.