That Could’ve Been Me. Mass Shootings at Big Box Stores

by Tabala Jali Thomas

(parts of this post are composites)

After every Mass Shooting in America, I’m sure someone uses a version of that phrase, ‘that could have been me’ or ‘that could have been my child, my mother, my sister, my brother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my cousin, my friend, my coworker. It is a common response for human beings to think about themselves and their loved ones when tragedy strikes. Most of us, I would like to think are not the Alex Jones’ of the world. I would like to think that most of us when we see a tragedy or experience one we have some sort of empathetic reaction to it, be it physical, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral. I would like to think that the majority of us have some form of empathy, and that as a whole we have not become desensitized to the tragedies and suffering of others.

What I’m afraid of as these mass shootings become more and more prevalent is that a minority of us will start to identify not with the victims but the perpetrators and no matter how small that minority may be, it is a dangerous minority especially when guns in America are so easily accessible.

I never thought that I myself would come close to identifying with any mass shooter, not because they were often white males, young, and often seemingly obsessed with their “lack” of place in America, no it wasn’t for those reasons at all. The reason why I didn’t identify with them was because I never thought that the most creative way for me to express myself was to shoot a bunch of people down with an AR-15. However after working six years in a “Big Box Store” I could see how it could happen, and I am now surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

After the mass shooting at a Walmart in West Virginia for a brief second I identified not with the victims but with the shooter. Not because he was Black, but because of his mug shot, I saw it in his eyes. He had the look of “you don’t know what I’m capable of.” I’ve seen that look in myself. Allow me to provide some context.

As I write this I am a year removed from my “Big Box Store” experience and it is one I hope to never have to experience again. The closest thing that I can compare it to, is time I spent in the County Jail. My first day at the “Big Box” store was much like my first day in County Jail. The races were segregated, no one made eye contact, and they assigned me to an “OG,” that happened to be Black to show me the ropes. Now most Americans have not been to County Jail, however many an African-American male has, so if you are one then you know what I’m talking about. I was arrested for a violent act, and because of the gun laws where I live, in California, I’m not 100% sure that if I had a gun or lived in an open carry state at the time of my arrest that my violent act would not have been deadly. Many a young traumatized African-American male expresses themselves through violence especially if their trauma is tied to the violence by a parent of caregiver. I spent part of my life in a very violent home and for years my trauma wasn’t addressed and my frustrations and self-judgement festered, until the culmination of an act violent enough to land me in jail. Jail is not a good place for the traumatized, though many of us are there, and I would argue in extreme cases a “Big Box” store isn’t one either.

Now does everyone that was beaten like I was commit a violent act, I’m not sure but I do believe that the likelihood is high. I don’t know the familial background of the shooter at the Walmart in West Virginia, but like I said I know that look, I’ve not only seen it in coworkers but like I’ve said I’ve see it in myself. Now of course everyone has challenges, difficulties, and yes some form of trauma. And does that mean we should go get a gun or an AR-15 to express ourselves, of course not. However when it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to vote, we’ll be seeing many more “Big Box Store” shootings. For the simple fact that so many of us are experiencing trauma, so many of us have easy access to guns, yet so few have access to mental health.

Back to my “Big Box Store” experience, now there are a myriad of reasons why someone ends up working at a “Big Box Store,” in my unscientific analysis more often than not it is because your vocational choices are very, very, few. And the ones that love working at a “Big Box Store,” I believe don’t so much fall for the store but for their coworkers. Relationships are formed, due to the simple fact that you have to work together and if you do the math you realize you spend more time with your coworkers than you do with loved ones and friends. “Big Box Stores,” exploit this camaraderie chanting the mantra of “we’re all a family.” My first meeting in the store there were at least 200 people, the second meeting in the store one-third of my family members were gone, including the manager running the meeting. The manager that said, “We were all a family,” I came to find out later he had to spend more time with his family, because his daughter was suffering from neglect and drug addiction, she was only 15.

Now in my opinion, of those of you who haven’t worked at a “Big Box Store,” there is a collection of you who believe that the workers are supposed to dance and smile and just be tickled pink to see you, whenever you walk into said, “Big Box Store”. Some of us are, most of us fake it, some of us can’t. Especially when you’re standing under a sign that says PAINT in huge letters with an arrow pointing to where said paint department is, which is less than two feet away, and you’re too lazy to look up and read. Now every “Big Box Store,” employee has a story of a customer being an asshole, I don’t care what you disposition is. And during the pandemic it seems like there were more of you than ever. The worst of you were the ones that pulled down your mask to speak, or cough, or sneeze on us while we were in the middle of a pandemic. They called us “essential workers” at the time, but let’s be honest most of you could give a fuck about the salesperson in front of you, we are just a means to an end. It is the nature of our American capitalism as it currently exists.

Now for me I have never done well with those too lazy to read a sign, or do some research, especially in the advent of the “smartphone”. Of course it had crossed my mind that I wasn’t cutout for “Big Box Retail,” and that I’m fixating on slights like being whistled at like I was a dog, or summoned like I was a slave. I don’t know why I couldn’t compartmentalize those so called slights, but I wasn’t, as evident by this post. Now did I personally sit at home and thinking about taking a gun to work and shooting up the place, no. However the job did effect how I treated myself, and my wife? Before I started working there my alcohol consumption was minimal, during my tenure it had increased two fold. My point being working at a place where you are exploited, expendable, and exchangeable isn’t easy if you have an ounce of pride, integrity, or dignity.

So am I saying that there are ticking time bombs in every “Big Box Store,” in America of course not. However I am saying that every “Big Box Store,” in America truly doesn’t care about their workers, they just want bodies in the department. Also if you work in a “Big Box Store,” and you think that you are not replaceable, you are utterly and completely delusional. Honestly I believe that most don’t think about it they just do the job, but look carefully into the eyes of “Big Box Store” employee that’s been there for a while, look at their eyes when they are not engaged with a customer or coworker, there is no light there. Just the task at hand, that they will be doing today, the next day, and the day after that. They have resigned themselves to their station in life. Too afraid to unionize and too wore down to complain. They just go about their days, weeks, and years. And after let’s say 25 years they give you an “In and Out” gift card for the same amount as your number of years. True story, and one of the reasons why I quit.

Now your knee jerk reaction maybe to say, “See you didn’t have to work there.” However as of this writing I’m considering going back. It’s close to my house, I will be losing my transportation, and it’s one of the only games in town. But just the thought of it causes this profound depression and anxiety. And upon returning if I worked there again, I would not make enough to address those mental health issues through therapy, so like many a coworker, I would over eat, self medicate, or snap at a coworker or a customer just to cope with the absurdity of it all. This happens more than you think. My point being is, that if people who work at “Big Box Stores,” are essential then pay them like they are, allow them to unionize, and let them have better access to healthcare. Will this end mass shootings in “Big Box Stores?” No, but it will decrease turnover and improve customer service, and reduce waste and inefficiencies. You’d be shocked at what a “Big Box Store,” throws away in a day, let alone a year. And at the “Big Box Store,” that I worked at they would rather throw it away then let the employees buy it at a discount. In fact there was no discount whatsoever. Again is this any reason to walk in and start shooting up the joint, no. However if the goals is to just start throwing bodies into departments, then your standards are low, and sometimes someone slips through those quasi psychological questions, when you apply online and that person could be a simmering soup of frustration. This hiring process only seems logical if the unwritten business plan makes people feel exploited, and if you know as a company that all of your employees are expendable, and exchangeable.

Back in the day I was a huge Pearl Jam fan and one of my favorite songs was “Jeremy” it was about a kid that ,”spoke” in class. Basically the kid had had enough with the bullying, the frustration and the marginalization and he expressed himself violently in class one day. That song came out 31 years ago and was eight years before the Columbine shooting, the first mass shooting I really paid attention to. I remember talking to an old friend of mine about Columbine at the time, we were High School Buddies, and I remember him saying. ‘I wouldn’t have shot any of the kids, just the teachers and the principals.’ I was like WTF, then he said.’You make a bigger statement when you are selective, and you only chose figures of authority.’ That always stuck with me. Fast-forward years later and I recently went back to my “Big Box Store,” to talk to a coworker about coming back, he and I used to make jokes about who in the store was most likely to have active shooter tendencies. We talked about the mass shooting in West Virginia, and a customer that neither of us knew overheard us and he came over and said. ‘See if that were me, I wouldn’t have shot any of the coworkers, just the customers.’ Our jaws dropped as he walked away.

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