Throngs of people! Pepper spray! Violence! Death! Americans occupied shopping malls last Friday at their own peril, but they spent money in record numbers. In the depths of the Great Recession, how does this work?

In a tragicomic reenactment of so much recent police brutality against anti-corporate protesters in the occupy movements, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 fellow shoppers in Los Angeles last Friday at a Walmart Black Friday sale. Details are not clear yet, but it appears that she either felt threatened by the scrum developing around a pallet of Xboxes, or decided that she wanted the half-price game console enough to use a crowd control weapon on a couple dozen fellow Angelenos. Watch the video below:

Another story from West Virginia is perhaps more disheartening: an aging man died in a Target aisle while fellow shoppers stepped over him, presumably to continue bargain hunting.

And finally, in a town just south of East Oakland, a man was shot in a Walmart parking lot in an attempted robbery. The victim was shot for refusing to hand over his purchases, even though the request was made at gunpoint.

Violent in Places, But Successful Overall

But perhaps it’s appropriate given America’s national history, that at our most violent, we are also at our best: this fervor for cut-rate consumer goods led to record-breaking spending on this new quasi-holiday. The National Retail Federation reported that the number of Black Friday shoppers was a record high 226 million. Note here that one in three Americans did not necessarily hit the mall on Friday — the NRF counts shoppers not people.

But still, these shoppers spent an average of about $398 each, up from $365 last year. All this spending added up to an estimated $52.4 billion in sales.

This is surprising considering that this is the fourth winter of the Great Recession, and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t yet apparent to most. Indeed, just a couple months ago, leading analysts were predicting that we were on the precipice of a double-dip recession. And we still might be.

But people are spending. And they’re doing it when stuff is at it’s cheapest.

The Groupon Effect?

I hardly spent a dime this weekend, and maybe I’m a fool for it. My phone was buzzing every half hour, it seemed, with an email from someone trying to sell me something for a steep discount. Groupon must have emailed me seven times about something called Grouponicus, which I never researched enough to understand what it was, though the name bothered me, and stuck in my head.

One has to wonder whether Groupon, which went public just a few weeks back, has changed Americans’ approach towards bargain-hunting. Could it be that this service has made Americans realize the value of searching for deep discounts? Has it made Americans who would normally scoff at the idea of playing the physical equivalent of a rugby match with strangers over a discounted thing more willing to engage in this sort of competitive shopping?

On the other hand, isn’t Groupon the exact opposite of this phenomenon? Groupon forces shoppers to work together to get discounts, and they do so from the comfort of their own home. Black Friday shopping is the opposite in a way, because it pits shoppers against one another. Still, Groupon has introduced the savings of bargain shopping to millions this year.

The larger question here is this: is this making the economy any stronger? And if so, is it making us a better society?

Seeing the news from last Friday, both the sales figures and the bizarre instances of violence, it’s hard to come to any quick conclusions. But at the very least, the increased consumer spending was something we can easily say happened virtually nationwide, while the violence and callousness that sometimes characterize Black Friday were disparate and relatively few — one big story for every 70 million shoppers or so. But our eagerness to gawk at these instances of violence suggest that we all know them to be symbolic of a creeping unease about our relationship to consumer goods — and to one another.

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