The Big Box Store

Betty Dukes

When my partner and I were on our honeymoon, in upstate New York, we were craving a set of playing cards. We drove around this big “small town” and saw a familiar sign: “Wal-Mart.”  Unperturbed, my partner drove right into the parking lot.  I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going in and he wasn’t either.  He started laughing, but it died in his throat when he saw the scowl on my face.

In 2005, I assisted a law school professor on a paper she was writing on the issues of employment-based sex discrimination. My task was to read through hundreds of declarations by women who either worked or work at Wal-Mart as part of a class action suit against the world’s largest private sector employer and summarize each declaration.  These women not only had the courage and conviction to come forward, but many did at the expense of being chastised by their community.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes essentially destroys class actions against corporate America.  As a result, the most marginalized sector of the labor force – working-class to poor women-will suffer the most.

In rural and small town America, Wal-Mart is one of the biggest, if not only, sustainable employer. While reading the declarations, I learned of single moms who sustained a family of four.  Many of these women looked at Wal-Mart as a place to grow, to become educated, and create a better life for their family.  They thought the story of Sam Walton, an up-by-his-bootstraps narrative revered by Wal-Mart as the archetype of the American dream, would apply to them.  But theirs was a dream deferred, as they watched their male cohorts, who often worked the same amount of hours, obtain higher pay and quicker promotions.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the last vestiges of that dream may have vanished. True, the Court did not decide the substantive issue of whether Wal-Mart discriminated on the basis of gender. But by preventing women from forming a class, they eviscerated the only effective tool in confronting a corporation whose revenues dwarf the GDP of many small countries. Now, each individual class member will have to come forward and sue Wal-Mart (an unlikely scenario), or the 1.6 million women will need to create smaller classes based on commonality other than gender.  In the latter scenario, it is almost certain that this class too will be challenged, and challenged again, until the class is so small, making it not worth the money and effort.

Sadly, Monday’s decision follows a long history of rejecting gender as a potential class against corporations. Decisions like Wal-Mart urges us to think of how we cannot rely on the legal system to recognize bias in corporate structures. The power is up to the consumers, advocates, journalists, activists, artists to make Wal-Mart, and other corporations listen to their constituents.  So, we found playing cards in a locally run business a few blocks from the glowing Wal-Mart sign.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Reuters/ Larry Downing) (Photo Credit 2: BusinessWomen)

What will be our King trial?

As a teenager, I remember listening, watching, and wondering about the outcome of the Rodney King criminal trial. When the jury acquitted three of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers, and couldn’t determine guilt or innocence of the fourth officer, I felt anger, loss, and hopelessness. The riots that ensued in the greater Los Angeles area, although horrific, seemed justified in my teenage mind. A black man, savagely beaten by four white officers, all caught on candid camera.  An injustice unpunished.

Flash forward to 2009. Two then-New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers were called to assist a taxi cab driver with a drunk female passenger. The police officers assisted the female to her apartment, and then one of them allegedly raped her, while the other stood guard. Last week, a jury acquitted both police officers of sexual misconduct and falsifying business records. This verdict comes on the heels of the International Monetary Fund’s then-Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and arraignment of committing several sex crimes towards a hotel maid.

As a lawyer representing sexual assault survivors in civil legal court, I have profound respect for the theoretical implications bolstering the legal system. Yet, in practical terms, the justice system seems unfair in sexual assault cases where, unlike in other cases, victims are met with profound skepticism by the trier of fact. Indeed, as one juror mentioned after the NYPD trial, the need for physical evidence that a rape occurred – which isn’t necessary in all criminal cases to reach the government’s burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” – is often the linchpin.

What makes the Rodney King trial and the NYPD Rape trial interesting is a common thread: both victims were highly intoxicated. With the NYPD Rape trial, the questions were always “where is the DNA,” and “how can we believe a woman who doesn’t remember.” With King, the looming question was “is this a just way to act.”

To me, these are strikingly different questions to crimes where police abuse and power had similar lasting physical and emotional effects on the victims and the community at-large..

The acquittal of abusing a man, turned into race riots. It became a symbol of those in power versus those not in power, abuse of authority, police brutality, and historical implications of slavery.

The acquittal of raping a woman turned into social networking outrage, with petition, Twitter and Facebook posts, a protest in front of NYC’s courthouse, and an attitude that this is another trial added to the long master list where the victim’s credibility was questioned and then destroyed, with the perpetrator walking away with nothing but a bruised ego.

Although I condemn riots and strongly believe in non-violence, I ask, where is our, female, feminist King-like response to this trial? Where are the boycotts, the outward anger and rage? Where are the speeches, the opinion pieces, and the gobbling of media airtime?

More importantly, where are the leaders of this movement who are willing to step forward and say enough is enough already?

Like the King trial shaped my understanding of the world, I wonder if and how the NYPD Rape trial is shaping the views of our youth.

(Photo Credit: The Villager / Jefferson Siegel)