From Rosa Parks to the ‘Walmart Four’
by Will Wilkinson
It was a real Rosa Parks moment on January 13 in Layton, Utah, when Walmart staff caught a convicted felon shoplifting a Netbook. They escorted him into an office where he pulled a gun, cocked it, and charged towards them. The four longtime Layton branch employees (Lori Poulsen, Justin Richins, Shawn Ray, and Gabriel Stewart), acting instinctively, disarmed him before he could barge back into the customer area. The investigating police officer reported that they acted in the “best interest and safety” of everyone around them.
A week later, Walmart dispatched a representative trained to handle situations like this with their well-known sensitivity. “You’re fired,” she told them.
Walmart fired them for violating rule AP-09 that prescribes company policy for what to do if someone brandishes a weapon in their store, namely that “all associates must disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement.” Interesting to imagine how one could “disengage” from a cocked pistol pressed into your ribs.
I wonder what the headlines might have been if the “Walmart Four” had obeyed AP-09? I can just hear a mother thanking them. “You did the right thing. My daughter is dead, shot by that man you released, but it’s far more important that you obeyed the rules.”
Fifty-five years ago, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks broke the rules. She refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. We all know that she became an icon of resistance to racial discrimination. But we may not also know that she too was fired, from her job as a seamstress.
Clearly, we slaves get punished for disobeying the rules. Some rules are insane, like in Idaho where it’s illegal to give a box of candy as a romantic gift unless it weighs more than 50 pounds. Some are perverse, like in Afghanistan, where Article 132 reads: “As long as the husband is not traveling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night.” Others, like AP-09, have obvious value – but only if they are interpreted and applied appropriately in the heat of the moment.
These four heroes did just that, and may have saved lives. They deserved a parade. Instead, they got fired by a corporation worried about lawsuits. Instead of enjoying the well-earned appreciation of their employer and neighbors, these four are now struggling to pay bills. Meanwhile – just as one “for instance” of the financial inequity in our country – Tracy McGrady, an NBA basketball player, was apparently paid 35 million dollars last year for playing 23 games. That’s one and a half million dollars per game. “Hey Tracy, how about donating a game to the Walmart Four?” That could cover their lost salaries – all four of them – for 10 to 12 years, depending on how much over minimum wage Walmart used to pay them. I chose an athlete as an example because I believe they have more of a conscience than many Wall Street bankers and CEOs who “earn” even more.
Heroes help people, like the Walmart Four did. Rosa Parks helped millions through her similarly simple, heroic action. It sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended after eleven months with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation on buses. I wonder, what might this Walmart incident lead to?
“Walmart – where heroes go to get fired.” Now, there’s a t-shirt. Can anyone who knows this story ever feel safe in a Walmart again? “Attention Walmart shoppers. If you have a gun, we will not stop you from robbing us. Everyone else? Rule AP-09 forbids our staff from protecting you. Have a nice day.”
Walmart is currently fighting a gender discrimination class action suit in the Supreme Court that could include as many as 1.5 million current and former female employees. Walmart has complained that this potential plaintiff base “is larger than the active-duty personnel in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard combined.” What they are saying is that they are too big to be held accountable. Well, are they?
“Walmart: heroes need not apply.” There’s another t-shirt. Heroes don’t need no stinking applications. Heroes do what needs to be done and that may include breaking the rules, or even challenging personal beliefs, fears, or cowardice. Each of us is given a certain number of Walmart moments, bus moments, those “seize the day” opportunities, during our lifetimes. And heroes are self-made by their choices, like the Walmart Four just were.
So, the next time one of those moments shows up, here’s a heroic mantra: “Screw AP-09. Someone needs my help.” Yet another t-shirt. Wear it as you walk past Walmart, the place you used to shop but never will again. Say, if a few hundred thousand of us did that… In other words, pass it on.
Imagine a day when that same mother – whose daughter wasn’t shot on January 13 because of these currently-unemployed heroes – drives by the store, now shuttered, and tells her kid, “That’s where they fired those heroes. It’s not in business any more. None of them are.” What if we decided that there just isn’t room in our communities for businesses that value rules and profits over lives?
Speaking of simple heroic acts, why not help these folks feed their kids? It would take all of five minutes to mail them a few bucks. Send it to The Walmart Four, c/o General Delivery, 1123 N Fairfield Rd, Layton, UT, 84041. Make your check out to one of them or each of them. Maybe even put “thank you” on the subject line. I think they’ve earned someone’s gratitude and respect.
I wonder what Rosa Parks would do today? More important, what will I do, and what will you do, today?
Will Wilkinson has just completed collaborating on Forgiving The Unforgivable, a book that recounts how survivors of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack forgave their attackers. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, and can be reached at: [email protected].