Mall Riots: Why Are Some Americans Becoming Violent Shoppers?

On Dec. 23 of last year, police narrowly averted a consumer uprising in suburban Sacramento, California, where over 1,000 people had gathered at a shopping mall and nearly sparked a riot. The cause of all this unrest was a pair of shoes. Every member of the angry horde was after the latest line of Nike Air Jordans, complete with a $175 price tag.

What is turning Americans into such violent consumers?

Al Sandine's new book, The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, unpacks some of the history and sociology embedded in these bizarre modern consumer gatherings. Sandine focuses on three factors that spawned the U.S. shopping craze: Cars, freeways and suburbs. None of these economic touchstones rose to prominence without the others, and together, they laid the foundation for the wild U.S. culture of consumption we know today. And what a unique way of living it is: "Americans spend more time shopping than anyone else, three or four times as much as Europeans," Sandine writes. 


Shopping is an activity we undertake alone amid throngs of strangers, an experience very similar to freeway driving, where we motor alongside hundreds of other unknown drivers. Both driving and shopping tend to be anti-cooperative. Each can foster aggression. Mall shopping induces behavior that Sandine dubs "competitive consumption," in which a "hard-won purchase becomes a trophy for valor in combat." It's easy to imagine the exultation of those rebuffed Sacramento shoppers returning a few days later to buy a pair of new Air Jordans. Sweet victory!


As with road rage, competitive shopping can be lethal. During the Black Friday shopping rush in 2008, a horde of Long Island, N.Y. Wal-Mart shoppers trampled security guard Jdimytai Damour to death in their rush to spend, spend, spend.

Throughout U.S. history, citizens used the street as a public space for ordinary people to express their grievances to the powers-that-be. But where is that public street as a site of class struggle now? The street has become a private thoroughfare, linking people to cars and roads. This nexus isolates citizens as atomized shoppers making their way to and from sprawling malls. The public space has become a realm of private aggression.

Wal-Mart and other major corporate importers of foreign-made goods reflect a trend in the U.S. workforce that contributes to our bizarre consumer culture. Over the past few decades, American employers have shifted much manufacturing work overseas. The reasons are simple: the "strong dollar" makes it cheaper for companies to pay workers in other countries, and weaker environmental and labor rules abroad help cut corporate expenses. Nike, which makes the Air Jordans that caused the Sacramento hubbub, was formerly a poster child for exploiting workers in nations like Indonesia. In the meantime, in the minds of Americans, the human labor that actually makes the products that stock the shelves of Wal-Mart and other U.S. retailers become faceless and nameless workers in far-off nations. What were once products that Americans associated with work and creativity have become mere units of consumption.

But trade policy is not the only factor that has changed U.S. consumption culture in the last 50 years. Today's crowds of consumers stand in stark contrast to mass gatherings from previous eras, when citizens gathered as agents of social change to protest injustice. Sandine mines this relevant past of often riotous behavior, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Vietnam-era antiwar movement.

In the first decade of the 21st century, only a trickle of that activist crowd history remains. The nonviolent "Day Without Immigrants" saw migrant and native workers boycott and march on May Day 2006, taking to the streets to demand fair treatment of immigrants. More recently, the Tea Party movement has held rallies in opposition to political threats both real and imagined. But the race-baiting and conspiracy theorizing that dominate Tea Party gatherings underscore the fringe nature of today's political crowds. Mobilized political activism is not mainstream behavior. 

With the decline of protesting crowds, public space for Americans to gather and voice their collective aspirations has narrowed. In its place we see incidents like the thwarted rush to be the first to buy the newest new Air Jordans in Sacramento. That scene reveals a radical break with America's past, away from a cultural heritage spanning all the way from the raucous crowds of the colonial era through the turbulent 1960s.      


Amid widespread job-destruction, the question of what it will take to make consuming crowds give way to protesting crowds looms large. This is more than an academic query. In 2010, market failure is our economy's new normal. Unemployment has doubled since the Great Recession began, but even as the labor market fails to provide employment opportunities to workers, Americans are not collectively demanding jobs as they did during the 1930s. Instead, today's labor force is fighting amongst itself to be the first in line to purchase overpriced athletic shoes with an NBA superstar’s brand.

For Sandine, intensifying economic inequality is putting U.S. democracy under serious pressure. Workers' real wages (what they can buy with their pay) have been stagnant for more than 30 years. At the same time, their economic productivity (output per-person for each labor hour) has boomed. But they have not reaped the benefits of their productivity gains. The problem has a solution, and it begins with individuals—but it doesn't end there.


"For the long and necessary struggle ahead to succeed, we will have to overcome the dispersive impulses of consumerism," Sandine writes. "Among other things, we will need to rehabilitate a tradition in which the physical assembly—again, the crowd—is not just an obstacle to the pursuit of private objectives but an agency of protest and much-needed change." 


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