Monday, December 1, 2008

Not Always a Mob

Several years ago, when I took a voluntary, sidetrip out of newspapering for a year, all sorts of opportunities arose to get involved in social causes which I'd not pursued previously. One was a day spent at an anti-Klan rally in Connecticut, where some ugly little dweebs had proclaimed the state open to their racist "thinking" but a whole bunch of Nutmeggers were not inclined to agree.

Quite a mix of people attending this rally, which was called to confront the dweebs who were promising to burn a cross or some other hateful act. Some members of the crowd were extreme activists against racism on a global level; others were liberals or just Connecticut residents who didn't want these characters around. A lot of people seemed to think that their presence would scare away the half dozen dweebs.

We were all trudging up the hill where people were supposed to make speeches, sign up for various projects, etc. Suddenly, mixed in the crowd were three guys who were dressed a little differently, in overalls, plaid shirts, etc. Someone decided these three were the Klan guys and, in a flash, many in the group went from crowd to mob, knocking the guys down and pounding on them until several others were able to rescue them and identify them as anti-Klan people. The rush of something--adrenaline, rage, animal behavior--was instantaneous, physical, which swept through the crowd. You could see it on people's faces even as we felt the sensations, though, luckily, not all of us participated in the violence. It was shocking, to say the least.

Why does this matter? Because too many in the media are proclaiming the crowds that overran the Wal-Mart worker and trampled him to death last week were animals, a mob that needs to be punished. No doubt, many people behaved badly. Maybe more security would have helped.

But there are a couple of bigger issues here.

One is that people often don't behave themselves in crowds. They act with and as others do, driven on by the prevailing emotions. I'm commuting now and have been regularly surprised at how often a minor fracas can break out and civility break down, even as the basic system works just fine.

The second is the underlying issue of whether this whole Shopping as Holiday Tradition idea is a good one and whether we, in the media, should continue to encourage it. And we do. On many news sites and TV reports were expressions of shock at what happened at the Long Island Wal-Mart, alternating with shots of happy, fired-up people rushing pell-mell into other stores. Our endless emphasis on the importance of Black Friday to the overall economy has, I suspect, ramped up the pressure on consumers who think they have to grab any and every bargain. It's taken years to get us to stop incorrectly saying that Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year. I wonder how long it will take us to stop sending photographers off to produce slideshows of enthralled and desperate shoppers looking for ridiculously discounted merchandise.

I confess to, for the first time ever, having succumbed and participated in our own little holiday shopping extravaganza this year. Teenager and I went late Thursday to stand, calmly, in lines outside the Juicy Couture store at a new outlet center near us. (OK, PacSun, Old Navy and a couple of others, too.) If it had been a mob scene, we would have departed. And I'm certainly not going to do it again because I'm basically opposed to the whole concept; we did it partly out of boredom, partly out of the idea of Event because that's what Teenager is into these days, and partly to find a decent, though not insane, bargain. All reasons that others cite, I realize, and which, deep down, I oppose, but found myself lured into this year because who knows what our own and the country's economic situation will be two months from now.

The word "mob" came up in a different context this weekend, when several news sites began reporting on a chaotic crowd swirled around a CNN reporter. A number of my favorite blogs posted this video but the comments quickly began criticizing the reporter. She may or may not have made a mistake in some of her reporting, as some blog commenters charged and blaming her for the crowd's behavior, but at any rate, I found myself frightened for her while watching the tape. A group, understandably emotionally charged up but that shifts so quickly is dangerous; if they were indeed drinking, so much the worse. The commenters who decided she'd made an error and that's what the crowd was reacting to weren't paying attention. But, decide for yourself.

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