There are 2 reasons why I got involved with the Walmart Action in Secaucus on Black Friday.
First is my Dad. He emigrated here from the Italian countryside in 1974, with a 6th grade education and not a lick of English. He got a job at a Palmolive plant, took English classes at night, married my mother a few months later and over the next 4 years was able to finance 2 kids, a 3 bedroom house with a big backyard and 2 cars to boot. This was at the tail end of the American Dream he always heard about back in the old country. Then the 80s and 90s came and did away with all that.
My father’s standard of living is unimaginable now for anyone who works jobs like he did.
The second reason I showed up was because of a stranger whose name I do not know. When I was 16, I worked in the Sight and Sound Department at Bradlees, a department store that is one of Walmart’s long list of casualties. I saw the stranger walking the aisles of the Hardware section in overalls and work boots. He was covered in a thick layer of paint and grime from head to toe. Even his entire face was obscured by paint.
In a neighboring aisle I got the attention of a friend and was joking and laughing at how “dirty” and “disgusting” he was. He heard me. He turned the corner of the aisle, looked me dead in the face and said: “There’s nothing funny about working hard.”
Shame and remorse froze me instantly and to the core like liquid nitrogen. Not only had I been caught, but I had ridiculed someone who was no different than my dad.
My father and the stranger covered in paint made me sign up for the Walmart action. Made me sign up for the civil disobedience and non-violence training offered by the Retail Action Project, UFCW and OUR Walmart. I promised my dad and the stranger and my ignorant and ashamed 16 year old self that no matter what I would show up.
After the training, the organizers asked me to be a CD Leader. I was nervous. Will people even come out to NJ? Will the cops get rough? Am I making this about me? Is any of this going to make a difference? You can never know anything. All you can do is prepare for the contingencies as best you can. Like the Russians say: Pray to God and row to shore.
On Black Friday, three busloads of us landed in Secaucus. All told there was probably close to 200 or more of us there. All kinds of us: men, women, black, white, latin, asian. Old folks, middle aged, young adults, and even a 16 month old baby. I was impressed with the creativity, mutual support and light heartedness with which people marched and sang and chanted. These three qualities are the absolute antithesis of the system that allows a corporation like Walmart to exist and thrive while its employees wait for food stamps and other government assistance because their bosses can’t be bothered to dip in to the 8.5 million dollars in profit they make every single day to pay them a livable wage that conveys dignity and respect.
When our marshalls signaled, thirteen of us sat down in the middle of the street. The sense of calm that came down on me as I felt the cold asphalt on my legs and butt surprised me. I felt powerful without having to scream, shout or bully. It felt immeasurably good to practice integrity.
Only a minute or two passed before the Secaucus PD towered over us and informed us that we were blocking traffic and would be charged with disorderly conduct and they gave us an opportunity to get up and clear the road. None of us did or said a word. An officer asked: “Does that mean you are ignoring my request?” Again – we did nothing. Then he ordered our arrests.
We were put in cuffs, and driven to the police station. The cops were actually very polite. One of the said: “We know what you’re trying to do, but you know, I had to do my job.” Another even admitted that officers were seeing cuts to their benefits.
We were released an hour later with court dates of 12/17. Me and another of my fellow jailbirds got a ride to Hoboken and took the Path back into the city. I was proud of all of us that day. We showed up, we said our piece, we took an action and we stayed on message. And its building towards something. It was more formal that what some of us probably would like, but its still early in the game.
I didn’t tell my dad what I did, being a traditional Italian man, I don’t see that going down so well. But wherever that strange man covered in paint is – I hope he knows that I am sorry and that I heard him when he spoke up that day.
One day, the Waltons will hear us too.
See you in Secaucus on 2014.