DES ARC, AR - Every year a Massachusetts-based non-profit corporation called W.A.T.C.H. (World Against toys Causing Harm) publishes during the Christmas shopping season, its annual "10 Worst Toys" list. On the 2007 "10 Worst Toys" List is a product called "The Dora Explorer Lamp," made in China. It looks more like a plastic cartoon character than a lamp. It retails for just under $13 in the baby department at Wal-Mart, and comes with the following manufacturer's warning in small print: "This is an electric lamp, not a toy! To avoid risk of fire, burns, personal injury and electric shock, it should not be played with or placed where small children can reach it. HAZARD: Potential for Electric Shock and Burn Injuries!"
According to W.A.T.C.H., "This colorful lamp, based upon the popular Nickelodeon 'Nick Jr.' character, is in the form of a smiling plastic figurine. The packaging encourages children to 'light-up your room with Dora!' Incredibly, children are further instructed to 'unplug the product when leaving the house, when retiring for the night, or if left unattended.' The manufacturer's proclamation that the Dora cartoon character is not a toy has little meaning to small children, who may be attracted to the figurine and thus be exposed to the potential electric hazard."
The consumer group says it lists toys "with the potential to cause childhood injuries, or even death." According to W.A.T.C.H., their efforts "have fearlessly exposed potentially dangerous toys to the general public. As a result, children's lives have been saved."
Buddy Childress, a 72-year old termite control contractor, did not enter the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Searcy, Arkansas thinking about saving a child's life. Childress lives in the small community of Des Arc, Arkansas, with his wife, Ann. He has owned his small business there for more than four decades. On Thursday, November 30, Childress drove to Searcy, Arkansas to do some shopping at Wal-Mart. When he went into the store, he says he noticed the toy section and decided to have a look at it, "thinking I might see some things our young grandchildren would like. Our three-year-old granddaughter loves Dora the Explorer, a little Nickelodeon cartoon character, so I looked over a shelf full of Dora items."
Childress' visit to the Wal-Mart toy section went south from there. He narrates what happened next: "When I saw a little lamp made in the form of a seated figure of Dora, I remembered that about a week earlier, my wife and I had seen this item mentioned on CNN as being on the 10 Most Hazardous Toys for 2007 list, issued by the organization, W.A.T.C.H. I picked up the box and looked the lamp over. In very small print on the bottom of the packaging was a warning: 'This is an electric lamp, not a toy. To avoid risk of fires, burns, personal injury or electric shock, it should not be played with or placed where small children can reach it.' But it looked like a toy, and it was for sale in the toy department."
Childress called his wife and asked her to get on the internet to make sure that the item he was looking at was identical to the one he has seen listed on CNN. "Ann called me back in a few minutes," Childress recalls, "and told me that she had read several articles, some including photos of the lamp. She told me she'd learned that inside the packaging were instructions to 'unplug the product when leaving the house, when retiring for the night, or if left unattended.' There was no doubt that the item on the Most Dangerous Toys list was the same one for sale at Wal-Mart."
Childress watched as a woman with two small children picked up the lamp and started to put it in her shopping cart. "When I told her what I'd just learned she thanked me and put the item back on the shelf," Childress explains. "I then picked it up and went to show it to the store manager, thinking he would be glad to learn how dangerous it was and would remove it from the toy shelves." Instead, the manager told Childress, "Well, you can hear anything on CNN, and just because something's on the internet doesn't mean it's true." Childress asked the manager to check out the internet information for himself, but he refused. The manager said that it wouldn't make any difference -- he could only pull items off the shelves if they were on a list issued by Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters.
Childress then purchased one of the two Dora lamps on the toy shelf, left the store, and started home. "I thought maybe I could show it to some newspaper editors in nearby towns," Childress reasoned, "hoping they might write something to warn people away from buying it." But as he drove home, Childress kept thinking about the dangerous lamp that was still sitting on that Wal-Mart shelf in Searcy. "I was picturing the family who'd almost bought one when I was there," he confesses. "I also decided I should tell the manager that if Wal-Mart was going to keep selling this obviously hazardous toy -- which wasn't a toy, but was for sale in the toy department -- I felt I'd have to pursue other means of getting the word out about it. Maybe then he would do something."
Childress turned his car around, drove back to Wal-Mart, and approached the manager again. "He said he'd called Wal-Mart's headquarters after I'd left, and they'd told him there was nothing they would do. Then I told him I felt this was willful child endangerment, and I'd have to go to -- and write to -- area newspapers. He said, "Well, if you do that, you'd better be sure all your T's are crossed and your I's are dotted, because you will be facing legal action."
Buddy Childress then circled back to the toy department to see if the Dora Lamp had been sold. It had not. "But a little girl was reaching for it," Childress recalls, "and telling her mother she wanted it. I warned them also -- and they didn't buy the lamp." Having thwarted two sales, Childress considered buying the second lamp himself -- but he knew Wal-Mart would just bring out more from their stockroom. "I couldn't keep people from buying the lamp from the Searcy Wal-Mart -- let alone from all the other Wal-Marts in Arkansas and all across the country," Childress figured. "I felt I had to do something that would make a statement and focus attention on this extremely dangerous toy."
Childress dialed 911 on his cell phone, and was connected with the Searcy Police Department. He told the officer who answered the phone where he was, what had happened in the toy department, and that he intended to take the lamp outside the store and destroy it. "He tried to get me not to do it," Childress admits, "but I told him I was going to, and that I'd be waiting outside the store for the police to arrive. I expected to be arrested there, and taken to the police station."
Childress says he took The Dora Explorer Lamp outside the store to the sidewalk. "I destroyed it," he says, "I stomped on it, and then waited for the police to arrive." Before the cops arrived, five or six Wal-Mart employees came out of the store and surrounded Childress. They ordered him to accompany them back inside the store to an office in the back. "I told them I would go, but I would rather wait until the police got there. Their reply was, "You're coming with us now."
Back inside Wal-Mart, employees took Childress' cell phone away from him, and refused to let him make any calls. "They put some papers in front of me and instructed me to sign them," Childress says, "but I refused." A Searcy policeman came in, and the Wal-Mart people said they were charging Childress with shoplifting. "The officer was very courteous and professional, and told me procedure required him to put me in handcuffs." Childress says he then had to take one of the most humiliating walks of his life from the back of the store, out through the front door, handcuffed and escorted by the police. In retelling the moments of his arrest, Childress' voice is unsteady, and choked with emotion.
At the White County Detention Center, Childress was fingerprinted, and a 'mug shot' was taken ("A very unattractive one, but maybe that was unavoidable"). He was searched and questioned, and given a ticket with SHOPLIFTING written in large print. The policeman who had arrested him offered to take Childress back to his car, which was still parked at Wal-Mart, but by the time he was free to go, the cop had to leave.
"By the time I got home," Childress sighs, "I had begun to realize the possible repercussions of people who knew me reading in the newspaper that I'd been arrested for shoplifting. They wouldn't have any way of knowing that my motive in taking something out of the store had been to alert parents about a toy which could hurt their children or cause a house fire. Without an explanation, it would sound like I was stealing."
"I have lived in Des Arc most of my life," Childress explains, "as has my family for many generations. My children and grandchildren live nearby. I have friends and customers all over the state. I went to college in Searcy, and many of my old friends and former classmates live there. My wife and my sons understand what happened and have been totally supportive. So far, I haven't told anyone else. But I know that the story of my arrest for shoplifting from Wal-Mart will be in the Searcy, Des Arc, and other area newspapers within the next few days."
Childress says he took Dora Explorer out of Wal-Mart for two simple reasons: "First, and most importantly, I hope it will act as a deterrent to shoppers everywhere this story appears, to not buy this item from Wal-Mart, or any other retailer. Wal-Mart is continuing to sell this item despite the many warnings about it. You have to wonder how many other items on store shelves fall into this category? Secondly, I want to tell people who know me exactly what I did and why I did it. I hope I can do some damage-control regarding my business and my reputation. It isn't my nature to be a 'protestor.'"
The case of Wal-Mart Stores v Buddy Childress will be heard in an Arkansas court on December 13th. It is a special Wal-Mart Christmas "Toy Story" from the retailer's home state that you won't see on any of their holiday ads. "I have never before committed an act of civil disobedience," Buddy the Toy-Destroyer says. "But I have thought a lot about all this, and regardless of the consequences -- if I had it to do over -- I would still do what I did."
Al Norman is the author of Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart, and The Case Against Wal-Mart. He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters.