I’m working another season in retail, selling games to people looking for ways to make their children smarter.
That’s the way the bitterest way to describe my job responsibilities. The more charitable and more common feeling is that people come in looking for ways to make happy the people in their lives, and it’s my job to understand the sort of thing they already enjoy in order to find them a new thing they’ll also be pleased with.
Doing my job right means I listen to or tease information out of people, have a good understanding of the products we have to offer, and demonstrate what I like about it well enough they can easily imagine the gift-receiver enjoying, too.
It’s fun. It feels like a net-positive to the universe. But it’s also a far cry from being a journalist.
When the Black Lives Matter protest/march/demonstration came to my part of downtown Seattle the other day, I wasn’t called upon to listen to it, understand it, interview people involved or get the reactions of spectators.
When one finger of the movement’s body tried to get past police and into the mall, I didn’t have to take pictures or video, although some of those inside did. Even when police officers were physically rebuffing protesters, punching one in the head, there were enough other people there that documenting it would have been redundant. Plus unlike them, I had a job to do.
So I did my job. I continued to tell people about items we had to offer, what made them fun. To distract little children, so their eyes might not be so wide and worried. What other sort of uses this game or that toy might have in improving such-and-such part of the brain.
A small girl in the store asked what all of the people outside were so angry about; one of my co-workers explained, “They’re upset about the way society treats black people in this country.”
But I didn’t even do that. When the situation became tense enough that people could no longer even pretend to do shopping, I went to get another swig of an energy drink, rang up the last person looking to get out of our doors, and made some smart ass remark like, “Just another day in paradise.”
Really I was frightened. Not of the protesters, exactly. I did imagine a situation where they broke through the police blocking them, and the first people through the doors were more radical anti-capitalists and started smashing a few things. Then the crush of people to follow in would take after their lead, and there’d be a lot of property damage, and we might lose the store, and I might lose the ability to go to a job and pay rent.
The more realistic terror was that I would watch the people outside die when someone moved toward an officer and caused them to fear for their life, and then many people would get shot. Or probably less fatally, the officers would start to bring their big wooden clubs to bear on the heads of protesters nearby. And I’d just stand there, watching.
Earlier, before the protesters got to my area of the mall, police officers had made rounds through our store and enjoyed seeing some of the games we showed them. Later, I saw some of the same officers slamming a door shut as protesters tried to pull it open to get inside. Even later, I saw there was a “war room” in the mall for all the police officers to go to regroup, strategize, and recover from the stress of a crowd full of unpredictable people. But there were a lot of police officers, not all of them predictable, and they were much better armed than the crowd, except in terms of picket signs.
So I could grapple with the fear I had of Black Lives Matter protest possibly spilling over to something more than peaceful disruption of the consumerist holiday I relied on for my livelihood, while not feeling necessarily safer in the temporary martial law zone of heavily armed strongmen protecting my livelihood, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t find out anything, any deeper truth, or communicate to an audience not present.
My place now is to be part of inertia, part of the great sloshing weight of society. The pain comes from no longer being a force to nudge the fulcrum one way or the other.