We live in a sea of seductive corporate messages. It is nearly impossible to do a 360 anywhere in the East Bay and not hear or see them. Yet one of the oddest aspects of our time is the willingness to blame those who respond to these messages.
On the Friday before Christmas, Nike released a new retro Air Jordan shoe. These shoes are considered by many to be the coolest piece of attire that a person can wear, bestowing instant credibility from one’s peers. Kind of like someone in the One Percent getting a new decked out Mercedes, I guess. In Richmond, more than 1,500 people waited in the cold outside the Hilltop Mall to get the shoes for themselves or their kids for Christmas. A gunshot went off — accidentally, according to police — and the mall was shut down. Large crowds, temporary mall closures, and scattered arrests were seen at other malls in the Bay Area and similar incidents happened throughout the country.
Nike has had a practice of releasing a new Air Jordan model before Christmas for many years and incidents similar to those in Richmond have often occurred. In response to the incidents of this year, and in spite of this history, Nike said: “Consumer safety and security is of paramount importance. We encourage anyone wishing to purchase our product to do so in a respectful and safe manner.”
Whatever one thinks about the lust for Air Jordans, or lust for the latest Apple product for that matter, the hypocrisy of the Nike stance should be called out. We have no choice but to swim in this sea of advertising images. Contained within the images is the message that without certain consumer products we are nothing. But those who follow these images and messages in any way other than through the “proper” channel are condemned. What can society expect when corporate logos are on everything and much of our culture revolves around the latest product or game? Our consumer desires are manufactured and none of us can completely resist. The corporate pushers have made us addicts.
There is an obvious subtext of race and class in the Air Jordan reports, and the condemnation directed at working-class Americans and people of color has been especially strong. Fitting the dominant narrative of an unruly black community in the East Bay, the headline in the Contra Costa Times read, “Air Jordan release sparks violence at Richmond, Fairfield malls.” When arrests come in the context of a product popular with African Americans, one is often derided as being stupidly “politically correct” when attributing the situation to anything other than moral failings of those involved. Of course, issues such as this are complicated, but there is a deeper meaning that should be recognized.
Everyone wants to exist and be treated with dignity and respect. Recently, a fashion house ran a print ad that read, “I shop, ergo I am.” In other words, if I don’t shop, I don’t really exist. Unfortunately, many of us get our sense of being from the products favored by our friends or our culture.
This is not just an issue in our community or country. Last year, riots targeting consumer outlets broke out in certain towns in England. Many young people were arrested and harshly condemned. The judiciary took the extraordinary step of mandating, even before trials, the harshest sentences possible for looters. Yet this same judiciary has ignored the significant financial crimes committed in that country. Sound familiar?
In covering the disturbances, the Guardian newspaper reported on an academic study that included interviews with participants in the consumer riots in England. The interviews were quite revealing. The paper reported that “interviewees — particularly younger looters — talked about the pressure and ‘hunger’ for the right brand names, the right goods: iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops, clothing made by Gucci and Ralph Lauren.” One fifteen-year-old girl said: “People with the Ralph, the Gucci, the Nike, the trainers, the Air Forces [Nike Air Force 1 trainers], it’s all the style, just everyone wants it. If you don’t have it you’re just going to look like an idiot.” There was a culture of “wanting stuff,” said an eighteen-year-old man. “It’s because … it’s like, seen as if you’re not wearing like, and you’re poor, no one don’t want to be your friend.” And when they got the stuff, they were successful and could be happy. A sixteen-year-old girl said that during the looting, “people were smiling. It was just everyone was smiling. It was literally a festival with no food, no dancing, no music, but a free shopping trip for everyone.” This joy is in contrast to the dreary feeling many get from walking by store windows knowing society offers no legal path for them to ever possess what is inside.
The occupiers have challenged all of us to put blame where it is due when we see problems. While we all want a society characterized by respect and safety — Nike claims to want that, too — if corporations such as Nike manufacture our desires, they cannot condemn us when we follow them. To change the actions of consumers who shop legally or illegally, this hypocrisy must be recognized and confronted.