Duped by Wal-Mart

When the Rev. Carol Scott received a colorful mailer from Wal-Mart last month encouraging Inglewood voters to approve an April 6 ballot initiative that would allow the company to build a Supercenter without local oversight, she was surprised. Not by the mailer or by the initiative -- Wal-Mart had been touting it for months -- but by the photo on the oversize post card. It was of Annie Lee Martin, an elderly Inglewood resident whom Scott, an associate pastor, knew well as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on Crenshaw. The post card also featured a glowing letter of recommendation by Martin for the Wal-Mart project that stressed the boon of jobs for youth the initiative would bring -- another attempt by the retail giant to paint the measure as a local economic windfall as well as put a folksy, African-American face on an increasingly heated battle over the fate of development in Inglewood.

Scott was concerned to see Martin because Holy Lutheran had recently joined the fight against the Wal-Mart initiative, and the congregation had been discussing the downsides of Measure 4A, as it's officially known. Congregants were entitled to their opinions, but Scott was not quite convinced that the mailer reflected the opinion of the Martin that she knew.

So she called her parishioner up, and had her worst suspicions confirmed: Wal-Mart, said Martin, had tricked her into being their poster girl on the piece of mail most critical to their campaign so far. "All of the words on that letter that went out, none of them are true," says the 82-year-old Martin, a retired nurse who lives in a senior complex near Manchester Boulevard. "I didn't write them. For one thing, the letter says I've lived in Inglewood for 50 years. I've only lived here 13."

What happened, says Martin, is this: One day earlier this year, returning home from a trip to the grocery store, she entered the front gate and was stopped by the sight of a group of unidentified people busily snapping photos of her fellow residents. Martin headed for a side gate, but not before her own photo was taken. "I didn't like that," recalls Martin. "I said to them, 'Why are you taking my picture?'" The photographer explained that he was with Wal-Mart and that the photo session was part of the effort to bring the store to Inglewood and jobs to the community. Though Martin at that point was unfamiliar with the damning particulars of Measure 4A, she didn't disagree with the idea of Wal-Mart opening nearby -- she was a longtime Wal-Mart shopper -- and she especially liked the idea of employment for people who had none. "When I walk in the neighborhood, I'm always being accosted by young people who say they need quarters," says Martin, fighting back tears. "Quarters. I thought Wal-Mart was okay."

A few days later, Martin says, a Wal-Mart representative contacted her and said he wanted her to sign a paper that would make her support of the project official. Though Martin was uncertain as to what that meant, she figured she was signing a petition of some sort, much like the one that got the initiative on the ballot in the first place. What she assumed she wasn't signing was a photo release, a letter, or any agreement to use her image and words for Wal-Mart literature. The fact that her signature later appeared on the post card's appeal to the community to support Measure 4A amazes her most of all (fake quotes include "I know people could sure use the new jobs" and "I hope you will join me in voting Yes on Measure 4A")."The paper I signed was blank," says Martin. "In retrospect, I shouldn't have signed anything I didn't understand. I blame myself for being too eager. But I really didn't know what the measure was about."

Martin put the whole thing out of her mind -- until last month, when hundreds of post cards arrived in the mail at households all over Inglewood, including her own. Friends and neighbors inundated Martin with phone calls; she began being recognized by strangers on the street who called her a celebrity. Martin was dismayed not only by what she considered an invasion of privacy orchestrated by Wal-Mart, but by the assumption by the public that she was a Wal-Mart spokesperson. Fearing harassment by opponents of Measure 4A, Martin began staying home more; flooded with calls from both proponents and detractors of Wal-Mart, which often begin early in the morning and continue until 11 at night, she frequently doesn't answer her phone. Martin says she feels duped and angry, but mostly she's bewildered. She called up Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn to complain about Wal-Mart's tactics; Dorn empathized with his constituent but did not revoke his support of the measure. "What I want to know is, what have I done wrong?" says Martin, sounding close to tears for the second time.

A Wal-Mart representative had no immediate comment, but promised to look into the matter.

Egregious as it is, it's unlikely that Martin's story would have surfaced at all were it not for the fact she belongs to Holy Lutheran. The church is one of the newest members of L.A. Metro, essentially a local chapter of the national community-organizing outfit Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). L.A. Metro backs a variety of progressive, grassroots campaigns, many of them pro-worker. Last week, Scott, other L.A. Metro members, and several Inglewood officials and activists held a town-hall meeting at Holy Trinity about the Wal-Mart initiative; partly because news of the Martin experience had spread, the room was packed and indignation ran high. Scott says the silver lining in Martin's nightmare is that it has galvanized an opposition that up until recently lacked visibility. "Here's one of my seniors being used, and I'm angry," says Scott, who has lived in Inglewood since 1968. "I see this as a church issue, and I'm going to take the gospel out to the people. We're not going to wait for it to happen."

Whatever happens with the initiative next week, the most distressing outcome may be that Martin, a stalwart voter, will make good on a consideration not to support any causes in the future and withdraw from the democratic process altogether. Though in constant need of low-priced goods for her children and grandchildren -- the perfect Wal-Mart customer profile -- she has already decided to stop shopping there and is contemplating closing the account she set up there for her granddaughter, herself a mother. "These are not the kind of people you want to be associated with," says Martin. Ironically, the election next week is a moot point for her; like so many other seniors, she voted absentee before she had all the facts and, of course, before she experienced Wal-Mart's exploitative tendencies firsthand. "I tell you," she says wistfully, "I wish I could get my vote back."

Erin Aubry Kaplan writes for LA Weekly.

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