Disrupting Consumption: Why Are Protesters at the Mall?

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Last Saturday, December 6, hundreds of protesters gathered outside of Houston’s largest mall, the Galleria. Standing on all four corners of the busy intersection of Westheimer and Post Oak, the protesters held signs decrying the systemic devaluation of black lives and the lack of accountability when police kill unarmed black men. While the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Houston’s own Jordan Baker may have served as the most recent catalysts, their cases are not isolated incidents and protesters demanded (and continue to demand) long-overdue attention to widespread patterns of state violence against people of color.

Amid a tidal wave of demonstrations across the country, the decision of Houston organizers to locate their demonstration at a shopping mall was not unique. All around the U.S., protesters responding to the events in Ferguson and beyond have located their demonstrations, rallies, and die-ins in commercial space. With the November 24th Grand Jury decision in the Michal Brown case happening just days before Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, activists rallied around the hashtags #NotOneDime, #HandsUpDontSpend and #BlackoutBlackFriday, which encouraged people to boycott the shopping day. In St. Louis, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, Black Friday demonstrators marched through malls, in front of Target stores, and outside department stores. Alongside the chants that “Black Lives Matter” were calls to move “Out of the store, into the streets.” As the activist group Blackout for Human Rights describes, the Black Friday shopping boycott aimed to raise awareness about the issue, demand an end to the violence, and maintain pressure on those in power. The trend didn’t wane after Black Friday, however, as rallies around the country continued in malls and other spaces of consumption. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters held a march in a shopping center that culminated in a “die-in” in remembrance of Michael Brown at a Nordstrom. In Seattle, demonstrators entered a pair of shopping malls during a tree-lighting ceremony. Similar events took place in Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia, Quaker Bridge (New Jersey), Winston-Salem, and even London.

Like the protests elsewhere, last week Houston demonstrators also ventured into the mall, where they peacefully chanted as they walked through the Galleria, periodically laying down in remembrance of those who have died at the hands of police. Some shoppers even joined the demonstrators. While the protesters did not (and never had any intention to) damage property or loot, several stores closed their doors while they were inside. Meanwhile, outside the mall, protesters walked along the sidewalks outside of nearby stores, including The Container Store, Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack, Old Navy and others. They chanted for “No Justice, No Peace.” And they also chanted “No Justice, No profit.”

In Houston, the responses to the demonstration in and around the Galleria were mixed. During the protest, some honked and waved in support, many took video or photos of the demonstration on their phones, and still others shouted angrily and flipped off demonstrators. As the newspapers (e.g. Houston Chronicle) posted their reports about the demonstration that evening, the news articles prompted a disheartening number of deeply racist comments. Others comments, however, revealed a frustration, confusion and profound lack of understanding about why a demonstration on this particular issue would be held at a mall. It is this latter set of responses that I want to try to address in this article. Let’s start by taking a look at some of their comments:

“Why don’t they go protest out in front of the Police Academy?”

“Protesting at the Galleria in Houston will really show those cops in Ferguson what is up.”

“I’m so mad at the airline industry. I think I’ll go protest in front of a train station.”

“Don’t these people care about those who work at these stores to provide for their families?”

“And the shop owners and businesses have what to do with this issue?…Protest in front of police stations, courts, your congressperson’s office, but geeze, be smart about it.”

[In a reply to another post about the protest being at the mall] “They’ve been accused of many things including lazy and unemployable, but never smart.”

There is spatial question evident in all of these comments: Why are protesters at the mall? Or more specifically, why would a protest about state violence be held in commercial space? Do these protesters know what they’re doing? What does a shopping mall in Houston have to do with any of these issues? These questions merit a deeper exploration and explanation, and I want to propose some answers (although there are surely many more). While I cannot and do not speak for the organizers of the protest, the choice to hold the protest at the mall is certainly not an indication of unintelligent protesters who have confused their message by gathering in the wrong space. There are incredibly significant reasons why commercial space is an important, and strategic, site for protests about injustice. Although the reasons I will offer arguably overlap, let’s tackle them separately. Folks these days do love lists, right?

1. When the injury, disappearance, and death of people of color is made invisible, a busy shopping mall is a good place to make them visible. Media bias in both the amount and quality of coverage offered to violence against people of color has been well-documented. Most people are familiar with the “Missing White Girl Syndrome”, a term applied to “a tendency by the news media to cover the murders and abductions of affluent or middle class white girls far more than those of boys, poor kids and kids of color, especially African-Americans.” This pattern, however, can be extended much further. According one investigation of extrajudicial killings, a black man is killed every 28 hours in this country. Most of these deaths get little coverage. In part, this is because only 4% of American law enforcement agencies even report police-involved shootings, leaving not only the nature of these shootings opaque, but their very occurrence largely erased. Further, in addition to being largely invisible in public records, these deaths are often relegated to the back pages of the newspaper, if they are covered at all. When they are covered, the media treats white suspects and killers better than black victims. Media coverage is more likely to suggest that black victims are criminal, dangerous, or otherwise to blame for their own deaths, thus their death is seen as normal, expected, deserved, and unworthy of attention and outrage. Given that so many disappearances, kidnappings, injuries, and deaths of black and brown bodies are made invisible (or treated as normal), an obvious and inevitable strategy is to bring the message to a space where it will be seen. With 35 million annual visitors, particularly in the month leading up to Christmas, the Galleria exemplifies such a space. It is one of the most visited attractions in Houston and has the highest sales of any mall in the Houston area. As a protester at a New Jersey mall highlighted, these types of commercial spaces allow demonstrators to get their message to a wider and more diverse audience: “It doesn’t do us any good to preach to the choir.” Those who have not already seen (or are unwilling to see) the fear and the loss experienced by people of color need to see this.

2. When the state privileges business interests over the interests of citizens, disrupting consumption is a strategic way get the state to care. I know it’s old news to say that business interests have a tremendous influence in politics. But it merits saying again. This is particularly true in light of the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated the ban on corporate and union funding of elections, and gave corporations “the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools.” As the New York Times writes, “Citizens United unleashed a torrent of money from businesses and the multimillionaires who run them, and as a result we are now seeing the corporate takeover of American politics.” The patterns in big money spending have also been shown to exacerbate racial inequalities as elections are funded primarily by wealthy, white donors. Further, the centrality of business interests in the daily operation of our city, state, and federal government goes much deeper than just campaign finance. The aftermath of the economic crises of the 1970s ushered in the start of a new era of economic and political policy, which is generally referred to as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be simplified as “the desirability of the market as the central plank for the organization of social, economic and political life” (this definition comes from the 2010 Dictionary of Human Geography). Neoliberalism has contributed to a number of erosive policies, including but not limited to: 1) the privatization of public space (parks, sidewalks, etc.) and of public services (e.g. city utilities run as businesses, social services run by NGOs, prisons run for profit) to place them under corporate control, 2) the deregulation of various industries (e.g. less regulation on pollution, industry oversight, labor practices, or Wall Street), 3) the implementation of business models in public education exemplified by high stakes testing, and 4) the increase in social/economic inequality due to both the retreat of the welfare state and the systemic benefits given to corporate interests.

Needless to say, none of these foster a state that will be responsive to citizens, particularly when citizen demands are emerging from more economically and socially marginalized populations. With this in mind, disrupting business and consumption are one way to gain political leverage. As one protester on Black Friday told Forbes, “What we’re saying is that economic boycotts have not only worked in the past but they’re often the only thing that a hyper-capitalist economy like ours responds to.” While certainly there are many among the protesters who are deeply critical of the ways our capitalist system produces inequality, it’s important to note that this method of disrupting consumption is not a tactic reserved for those on the left or far-left who critique captialism. In fact, leveraging consumer power is one of the most tried and true methods of political persuasion, and is practiced by groups across the full spectrum of political leanings. Those protesting Israeli state practices in Palestine boycott Israeli products. Many protested the South African policy of apartheid by boycotting all South African products. Even U.S. Republicans–the vanguard of protecting business interests–have led boycotts, including boycotts of Target, Starbucks, and General Mills over their support of marriage equality, and more recently the boycott of the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchange. The disruption of consumption in the protests at the Galleria are just another in a long line of movements leveraging consumer power to influence the state.

3. Protesters do not need to protest at the police station in order to get their message to cops, because the police show up in force to guard sites of consumption.

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For those concerned that the message of protesters would not reach the most pertinent audience, the police, they can rest assured that the police were certainly present in large numbers (including many on horseback) during the protests at the Galleria. The Houston Police Department’s (one could argue, excessive) response to the peaceful protesters at the Galleria is indicative of a further aspect of the government’s protection of corporate interests: spaces of consumption are physically guarded and protected with great effort to keep out those who might threaten consumption. An article by a couple geography colleagues/friends helps to illustrate this practice. In their research, Massaro and Mullaney (2011) trace “a recent, aggressive state crackdown on public gatherings of African American youth in the streets of Philadelphia’s commercial districts.”  The mere presence of groups of black teens (which were dubbed “flash mobs” despite there being no choreographed dance or organized action) in shopping areas was characterized as “terrorizing.” But Massaro and Mullaney argue that it was not a result of any aggressive actions on the part of the youth that prompted the crack-down; rather “it [was] seemingly their non-consumerist behavior that mark[ed] these gatherings as out-of-place in a city structured and protected as a node of capitalist development.” The city’s narrative of dangerous black teens was nonetheless used to justify the aggressive policing of these young people, forcing their removal from commercial spaces. Mapping this example onto Houston, we might ask whether the demonstration of police force that was seen at last week’s protest would have taken place if the protest had been held elsewhere or if it had not disrupted consumption.

4. Protesting in commercial space exposes just how destructive contemporary ideals of citizenship are. We should all be disturbed by the vitriolic reactions to protesters at the Galleria, particularly when they are juxtaposed against the celebration of the consumer-citizen. Here are just three examples of responses to the Galleria demonstration: 1) “Just a bunch of numb nuts who can’t afford to shop at the Galleria.” 2) “All this does is cause a disruption and inconvenience for [the people inside the stores]…Every one of them should be arrested for causing a public disruption.” 3) “I wish I had nothing better to do than go to the mall and lay down…good grief you idiots! Add some value to society versus leaching off the gubment.” In a sense, these commenters are chastising the demonstrators, not for the content of the protest itself, by rather because they were presumed to be bad consumers. Take another very different example: in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called for citizens to go shopping–to be good consumers. “Get down to Disney World,” he said. This typifies contemporary consumer nationalism (or, in social theorist Jaspir Puar’s words “market citizenship”), in which consumption is characterized as a more patriotic and meaningful act of citizenship than the public exercise of free speech against pervasive patterns of state violence. This is a corrosive model of citizenship, which diminishes the value of public speech and amounts to money serving as the signifier for membership in the nation-state. It has been made visible through these protests and it needs to be called out directly.

5. Inconveniencing and annoying some people is virtually unavoidable. This isn’t really an issue confined to protests at malls, but I just wanted to raise this point since it has been a complaint of many in response to protests not only in Houston, but all over. Disrupting the status quo and jolting people out of their normal routines is a normal aspect of protest. Think of basically any social movement (the U.S. women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements,  the U.S. Civil Rights movement, anti-colonial movements around the word, labor protests), and the demonstrators likely caused discomfort and inconvenience for those who wanted to maintain the status quo. If protesters waited for everyone to be comfortable, the issued would never be addressed. The slight inconvenience you face at a stop light near the mall may briefly disrupt your routine, but imagine the inconvenience you’d feel if the color of your skin meant you were 31% more likely to be pulled over by a cop on your way to work. Then add onto that, the potential fear or insecurity you might feel knowing that you have to be particularly careful of your movements because your actions are more likely to be interpreted at threatening. Then consider the loss of loved ones that many have experienced, and reconsider your irritation.

6. State violence against certain populations (people of color, poor people and the homeless, transgender people, immigrants/migrants) is deeply connected to our economic system. Finally, as protesters have continued to eloquently argue across the country, this isn’t about one or two individuals, it’s about a system that treats some lives as less valuable. This inequity is reflected in much more than just police brutality. It’s evident in the number of people who don’t have access to health care. It’s evident in the inequity of school systems, where uneven access to pre-k, insufficient school resources, and patterns of educational tracking (and policing) make it possible to predict how many small children will need prison beds when they reach adulthood. It’s evident in the number of people who are homeless or living in poverty and don’t know where their next meal will come from or who have to physically withstand all the pains of changing seasons. The examples go on and on. The point is that these too are violent. They also produce injury and premature death. In geography, some theorists talk about these in terms of they way they treat people as disposable, or as human waste. These issues are reflections the structural violences that link together racial injustice with gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and ability in people’s lives. Calling out the role of the economic system–embodied and symbolized by economic centers like the Galleria–is part of a larger project for justice that asserts that “all lives should matter” and that exposes the ways they currently are treated as if they do not. Alright, that’s all for now. There will be another protest at the Galleria TODAY (Saturday, December 13 at noon).

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About Jenna Christian

Jenna Christian is a National Science Foundation fellow and a doctoral candidate in the departments of Geography and Women’s Studies at Penn State University. Her research engages feminist theory, critical geography, and critical race theory in the study of the US military, citizenship, education, social movements, and peacemaking.

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