Head-Roc Protests Walmart Coming To D.C., But Not Costco. Why?

WASHINGTON -- A few months ago, D.C.-based hip-hop artist Head-Roc put out a video called "Keep DC Walmart Free!" Where's the video protesting Costco?

Six Walmarts are coming to D.C. -- two each in Ward 4 and Ward 7, one each in Ward 5 and Ward 6. That's six too many, according to lots of people in the D.C. area.

But Costco, another big box retailer, is also coming to the District of Columbia. After years of delay, Costco is due to open in Ward 5 in the new Dakota Crossing development off New York Avenue. Besides urban planners who dislike its suburban footprint, there hasn't really been any vocal protest of Costco.

Why the different treatment of these two big-box stores? Is it because of Walmart's bad reputation for labor practices? Because of Costco's more celebrated labor practices? (Most recently, Costco made it onto Ethisphere's 2012 list of the world's most ethical companies.) Or is it because only one Costco is coming while Walmart is flooding the city with new stores?

The Huffington Post set out to get answers from three people who have taken sides on the Walmart v. Costco divide: Head-Roc, D.C.'s musician and activist who put out the "Keep DC Walmart Free!" video, Rooj Alwazir, an Occupy DC demonstrator who has been protesting Walmart's expansion into D.C., and Anne Robinson, a law student and new mother who keeps the new Costco Diaries blog.


Head-Roc: I don't think that I will make a video about Costco.

The Huffington Post: Why not?

Head-Roc: Costco seems to be a company that is very good to its workers. To the point where Wall Street has a problem with how Costco runs its business.

HuffPost: I got the impression from your video that it's not just Walmart's treatment of its workers that concerns you, but that it's also the effect that a big-box store is going to have on a neighborhood more generally.

Head-Roc: It is also the way that the organization operates politically in this black town. I've been very clear about that. Walmart, the Walmart family -- they are right-wing supporting organizations. This is a black Democratic liberal town.

HuffPost: So it's not just the store itself. You look at everything.

Head-Roc: You have to look at everything. This is the capital of the United States of America, it's a majority black town. It's not a state. And that is significant. We're really not little more than a plantation, where a majority of black people live and a minority white group of people, a/k/a the Congress, run the town. That's not democracy.

HuffPost: What does Walmart have to do to get you on their side?

Head-Roc: The side that I'm on is the side of the citizens of Washington, D.C., and the citizens who have aspirations to reach their American dream. And they are people who are content with being workers and people who are content with having businesses. The side that I'm for is supporting small businesses in Washington, D.C.

HuffPost: And how does that jibe with not being opposed to Costco?

Head-Roc: I found articles specifically from The New York Times about how Costco pays their workers' salaries something like 40 percent higher than Sam's Club, which is owned by Walmart. They're not a union-busting corporation. It just appears to be a great place to work.

HuffPost: If Walmart does come to D.C., and if Costco does, will you shop at either of them?

Head-Roc: I don't shop at Walmarts. Occasionally I might step into a Target. I am OK with people doing business. What I am not in favor of is any organization or group of people who are menacing the public. In the case of Washington, D.C., Walmart has put money behind politicians who don't see straight with D.C. being a state. Should I find out that any other big company is doing the same thing, I'll have a problem with them as well.


HuffPost: What are your reasons for not wanting Walmart here?

Rooj Alwazir: Walmart originally tried to open four stores in the District. Then it increased to six stores. Which really bothers me because in a city like D.C. where we're closing 30 schools and then we're opening six corporations in a small little city that's facing a lot of foreclosures, in a city where we're trying to get affordable housing, schools.

It's troubling to see where our priorities are. That, along with, obviously there's going to small businesses that have been there for many years that are going to close. The traffic that it's going to be causing for a lot of folks that have been living there for years. It's just going to change and shift the community a lot and I think that's another way of gentrifying the neighborhood and displacing thousands of people.

HuffPost: Do you think those same objections hold when it comes to Costco?

Alwazir: I think it's similar. With Walmart we knew it was coming, and a lot of folks went to Walmart and provided a community-benefits agreement. In hopes that, you're coming into our city, at least respect the community, respect the people who have been living here, here are the agreements that the community would like you to abide by. They denied that.

You're forcing yourself upon our neighborhood -- can you at least provide some jobs, open up the roads, provide some infrastructure? None of that. They don't care. And our council members just want the money.

It's the same thing with Costco. They do pay their employees a lot better than Walmart. They do have a lot better benefits. But, it's the same thing -- why aren't you coming to the community first, talking to the community, finding out what the community wants?

[In November, Walmart did sign a community benefits agreement but, said Alwazir by email, "it's much more like a press release the document has no enforceability and has no guarantees. It is definitely not a community benefits agreement and the community is not accepting it."]

HuffPost: It sounds like you're saying that you do have the same objections to Costco as you do to Walmart.

Alwazir: I do have the same concerns. How about alternatives instead? How about some co-ops? Family-owned places. Why are we investing in these big corporations instead of empowering our community to step up and help its own community out.

HuffPost: But I don't see people protesting Costco the way they're protesting Walmart. I don't see an Occupy Costco group. Why is that?

Alwazir: Because Walmart is in the public eye. Everybody knows about Walmart. There hasn't been many personal stories of Costco. I think that has a lot to do with it.

HuffPost: So you think that's why people aren't protesting Costco -- because it's not already out there as an evil entity?

Alwazir: Yeah.

HuffPost: Within your group, have you considered protesting Costco?

Alwazir: We have been going to the community and trying to understand what their thoughts are. I can have my own opinion. But if the community's cool with it that's fine. It's in their neighborhood.

But they're not cool with it. Especially with Walmart, there's a lot of frustration with that. So they're really going to be out in the streets.

I think it's the same with Costco. It's less evil than Walmart but that doesn't mean it isn't evil. I've tried to learn more about where the community has interest. And try to educate some of the community members in trying to start their own coops or collectives. And knowing that can succeed. It doesn't have to be all about corporations providing us all our quote-unquote needs and wants.


HuffPost: You love Costco so much that you're keeping a blog about it?

Anne Robinson: Yes, that is true.

HuffPost: What do you love so much about it?

Robinson: They don't have unlimited options on different brands and different products. We really like that. We really like buying in bulk. The quality of product they offer we really like. Part of why I'm writing the blog is we're a one-income family in D.C. And so we try to make it primarily that Costco is the only store we shop in for all of our home goods.

HuffPost: Do you feel the same way about Walmart?

Robinson: I don't. I don't think they offer as high-quality of a product. Also, I am one of those people that chooses not to shop at Walmart because of the labor relations practices.

HuffPost: And you think those are different at Costco?

Robinson: Every three years they meet with their employees and they renegotiate their employees' contracts. So they do allow for some collective bargaining. And they also pay their employees a higher wage. And they offer better health care options for their employees. And that's something I feel better about supporting.

HuffPost: Do you look at most places where you shop at how employees are treated? Do you mostly avoid places where you believe that they treat their employees badly.

Robinson: I think it's the latter.

HuffPost: It sounds like for one reason you won't shop at Walmart. And that reason is its bad reputation because of its labor practices. But for a number of reasons you will shop at Costco, in that it's got a comparatively better labor track record and you like its products.

Robinson: Right. And they're the number one retailer in wine. All apologies aside, we really like to drink.