Grieving at the merch table
We can't buy our way out of this American horror story
It’s the rare mass shooting that has a beer angle, but “rare mass shooting” is an oxymoron in this godforsaken country, so it was only a matter of time I guess. This week, time was up.
Shortly after a body-armor clad shooter with an AR-15 killed five people and injured 18 others at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs earlier this week, word got out that it was bar patrons, not police, who eventually brought the gunman down. This of course is not shocking because as we know cops are mostly useless and often quite dangerous to others and themselves, but I digress. One of the heroes who stopped the attack (which, it must be said, transpired in a fever pitch of right-wing moral panic over the mere existence of trans people) was a craft brewery co-owner named Richard Fierro. “[T]hat whole group in that building was my family,” he told NPR in the aftermath of the deadly shooting, which claimed the life of his daughter’s boyfriend. “I had to do something.”
In addition to being a combat veteran, Fierro runs a small brewery in the city called Atrevida Beer Co. with his wife, Jess, who is the head brewer. They are by all accounts kind people, and they’ve made their worldview integral to their business, proudly advertising the brewery’s status as Colorado’s first Latin-owned and female-led brewery next to statewide awards for its customer service. Atrevida’s slogan, “Diversity, It’s on Tap!” emblazons the back window of Richard’s Chevy El Camino, and also t-shirts and other merchandise for sale on its website. A cynical Hollywood producer reading this script might send it back to the writer’s room at this point, complaining that the tagline was too on-the-nose. But truth is stranger than fiction, and every once in awhile it’s more inspiring, too. And so, within a couple days, there were several massively popular posts circulating on social media urging people to buy merch and gift cards from Atrevida’s website to show support for the Fierros in their time of tragedy.
This is a perfectly nice idea. I’ve bought stuff to support breweries before; it’s how I spent a lot of my discretionary income during the first year of the pandemic, in fact. Lord knows the Fierros and all the other victims of this hateful massacre deserve to be able to mourn their dead and try to heal without worrying about how they’ll pay funeral costs, medical bills, and rent in the coming weeks and months. So not only do I not begrudge people who heeded posts about, say, “crash[ing Atrevida’s] website by buying out all their gift certificates and other merch in support”—I commend them for their small, mostly selfless acts of reparative e-commerce. There are far worse ways to spend your money, like online gambling or crypto, which are more or less the same thing.
I’ve come to think of this practice as “reparative commerce,” a deeply if not exclusively American custom of ritualized transaction both shaped by and responding to the bloody wreckage of neoliberal capitalism. Our shared impulse to buy stuff in the face of tragedy is an unsettling inversion of the concept of “consumer citizenship”: rather than expecting to be treated like customers by a government deliberately paralyzed by bloodless capitalists and bloodthirsty Christofascists, we behave like customers to endure the agony produced by its failures. We buy stuff, in other words. Most of us know it won’t fix the problem, or even really make much of a difference, but we buy stuff anyway. (Or we destroy stuff we’ve paid for, such as the case may be.)
Many people view this behavior as a triumph of the human spirit, proof that there is more goodness than badness in the world, a harmless way to grieve the harms that have befallen others. It’s a fair perspective, and on my better days, I may even agree with it. But as I said on Twitter, I mostly find reparative commerce grim—not because of its inadequacy, but because it reveals our almost-foundational reliance on market logic to address the most hideous evils of our world. That Fierro is a hero is indisputable. The fact that we honor his heroism with ceremonial ecommerce purchases from his business, though, is an indictment of our own narrow-minded understanding for what’s politically possible. I say “our” here, because I don’t mean to be a scold. I’m guilty of forgetting that there’s a world where “gratitude for stopping a mass shooting” is not a regular line item on your credit card bill; that grief and anger can only be forged in the fires of solidarity into ironclad political will if they’re not released as steam from the valve of individual consumerism. More and more, I believe voting with your dollars and voting generally are affirmations of the status quo, and the American status quo is slaughter.
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That’s not even taking into account the (hopefully small?) percentage of people engaging in reparative commerce for clout, rather than sincere altruism. In purely transactional terms, buying an Atrevida Beer Co. shirt is an opportunity to exchange money for social and political capital. It’s a signal about the side you’re on, a showcase of your moral compass, an opportunity to reap sociopolitical capital. Which means that, like charity proper, it is an opportunity for performance. That these performers are often the ones with the most social and political capital to begin with is not a coincidence. “Charity is a relationship of power,” argued Sarah Jaffee in her excellent 2020 book, Work Won’t Love You Back. Having discretionary income is a form of power; spending it to demonstrate your goodness is a form of power; being convinced you’ve done enough is a form of power. Again, so as not to throw stones here: I’ve exercised all of these in the past, and probably will again, which is probably why watching it unfold makes me so uncomfortable.
Speaking of power: building it is the only way to stop lurching from horror to horror and grief-buying our collective way through fresh sorrows at a million merch tables. As I’ve argued before, I believe getting organized—with your neighbors, with your coworkers, with your church, with your local trans rights group, all of the above—can do what individual transactions simply can’t. Corporate boycotts rarely work, GoFundMe cash dries up (or never materializes), and reparative commerce only really functions if there’s a consumer-facing business at the center of a tragedy. Worst of all, these are reactions to horrors past, rather than preventative measures for horrors yet to come. We need people power to confront the forces of capital that keeps firearms businesses profitable, mental-health services underfunded and inaccessible, and trans people a sociopolitical football, and we need yesterday.
They say “don’t mourn, organize;” I say mourn all you need, then organize. If a new t-shirt—or a beer, for that matter—helps prepare you for the fight ahead, then have at it. But know that the fight remains. There will be more mass shootings; there was another one in Virginia that claimed six lives just a few days after the massacre in Colorado Springs. The police can’t stop them. Most of our leaders barely even pretend to try to stop them. Brave people like Atrevida Beer Co.’s Fierro shouldn’t be counted on to stop them.
I don’t even know if we can stop them, but building power outside the electoral and commercial systems is our best shot.
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