Perhaps there is no death more terrible, more ignominious, than having the life stomped out of you by frenzied holiday shoppers at the entrance to Wal-Mart at 5 in the morning. It may sound crazy, but that is exactly what happened to Jdimytai Damour on the day after Thanksgiving in Long Island.
In 2008, a crowd had started gathering outside the retail store the night before at around 9. It was a cold November night in New York, so by the time the doors were ready to open early the next morning, the crowd had swelled to around 2,000 and become unruly. When the doors started to open, shoppers started pushing their way in. The doors buckled and broke. Glass shattered and a stampede into the mega-store began.
Damour was thrown to the ground and trampled by the stampede. Pleas to stay calm and give the employees room to care for him went unheeded. Attempts to revive him failed and he died one hour later at a nearby hospital.
And that was how Black Friday began in 2008.
Don't think the madness over material goods was limited to Nassau County. Later that same day in Southern California, two people were shot in a gunfight that erupted inside a toy store. Since that year, stories of violence arising out of holiday deals have flooded in from all over the country. Shots are fired in Florida over a parking space. A woman unleashes pepper spray upon a line of her fellow shoppers waiting to see the latest Xbox because she did not appreciate all the pushing and shoving. Shoppers in the Midwest were discovered carrying knives, more pepper spray and handguns.
The big spending day has been escalating for most of the 20th century. The Macy's Day Parade is as essential to Thanksgiving as turkey and that green bean casserole with crispy onions on top. New floats are introduced every year, but since the 1920s the finale never changes: Santa Claus. He's there to mark the official start of the holiday season. And what better way to get on with the holidays than with a big post-Thanksgiving sale?
The shopping has now become what one of my friends has deemed "the cataclysmic mall event." Almost half of the states have declared the Friday after the holiday a day off for government workers (Hawaii is not one of them.). The post-Thanksgiving automobile and foot traffic around the shopping and commercial areas of Philadelphia got so bad that by the early 1960s, the police started calling that day black Friday. The term stuck and retailers have given up trying to shake it.
Nowadays, they use the day to advertise big sales and keep their doors open from the early-morning hours to late in the evening. Queen Ka'ahumanu Center announced earlier this month that it's going to be open as early as 6 a.m. today. It's not closing till 9.
Why do stores one-up each other on the deals and hours year after year? Because it works. Retailers snare huge profits on Black Friday. The National Retail Federation - a retail trade association - conducted a nationwide survey of shoppers in 2012 and reported that 247 million people went shopping over Thanksgiving weekend last year. The average shopper spent $423 per person; 89 million ventured out on Black Friday itself.
Stores want the weekend to last even longer and have started crossing over into Thanksgiving night. This year, Wal-Mart announced that the deals will start as early as 6 on Thanksgiving night. Shoppers can digest their meal as they push carts down aisles, I guess. The day after Thanksgiving is swallowing up Thanksgiving itself.
Nobody seems to mind all that much. People like the deals and revel in the madness. The parking lots around the malls here are surely going to be jampacked. The stores will be full of shoppers and the food courts will be buzzing. The shopping is now part of the holiday tradition itself.
It's a bit disturbing. I can't help but go back to Long Island and think of Damour. He was a 34-year-old immigrant from Haiti. He lived in Queens. His friends called him Jimbo. He wasn't even a Wal-Mart employee. He got the job through a labor agency that sent workers out to retail stores to help handle the holiday bulge. That was how he ended up on the front line of Black Friday before he died.
None of the violence streaming across national news feeds has ever come out of Hawaii. Let's be thankful for that.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."