When push came to shove, Inglewood voters rejected an Astrodome-size Supercenter where they could have picked up bargain-rate frozen chicken wings and a pair of really cheap underpants and instead chose self-determination. Wal-Mart’s Measure 04-A would have circumvented volumes of environmental and land-use laws to allow the Arkansas-based retail giant to plant a huge big-box megastore between the Forum and Hollywood Park, but it was simply crushed on Tuesday, defeated by more than 60 percent of Inglewood voters. No one was more surprised than the faithful band of activists who have campaigned for more than a year to block the development.
“I didn’t think we had a chance in hell,” one leader of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy confided at the raucous victory party, held in the backroom of an Inglewood Mexican seafood restaurant. “I thought we were going to get our asses handed to us.”
It was, in fact, hard to discuss the dramatic turnaround without mentioning rear ends. “Remember the day the bully got his butt kicked?” Councilman Eloy Morales asked cheering anti–Wal-Mart activists. “That’s how we feel today. You guys kicked their butts.”
“All that walking that you did today is what’s kicking butt,” the Rev. Altagracia Perez chimed in.
Wal-Mart reported spending $1.6 million on its effort to pass the initiative. Opponents, headed by the Coalition for a Better Inglewood, could muster only about $100,000. A representative of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — another key member of the anti–Wal-Mart coalition — said polling as recently as two weeks ago showed the world’s largest corporation sweeping through this city of mostly African American and Latino residents by more than 20 percentage points.
Had those numbers held, every developer and corporate interest in the state that gets irritated by traffic studies or zoning commissions would line up to follow Wal-Mart’s lead and mount an initiative campaign to steamroll their projects through, or around, city hall. But in the final two weeks the coalition of labor and community activists opposed to the measure turned the numbers around with a relentless ground assault of phone-banking and door-to-door visits. Public meetings in the campaign’s final days featured civil rights icons such as Jesse Jackson and James Lawson.
Precinct walker Henry Brown said he spoke to about 1,000 people in the last 10 days, trying to explain the hidden dangers of a 71-page initiative that even a judge said was too complicated to understand fully. “We spent most of the time educating the voters on what the initiative was really about,” Brown said.
Among the measure’s unprecedented features was a provision that would essentially bar Inglewood voters from ever changing their minds and repealing the initiative. One door tag passed out by the anti–Wal-Mart groups depicted an assault rifle and warned voters that “buried in 71 pages of gobbledygook in Measure 04-A are provisions that make it impossible for Inglewood to regulate, ban or limit gun and ammunition sales at Wal-Mart in any way.”
Wal-Mart expanded out of Arkansas and across the South and Midwest through the 1960s and 1970s, earning the ire of union workers, who have never been able to organize the chain’s low-paid employees. Critics blast the discount chain for its buying practices, which squeeze cheaper and cheaper goods out of poorly paid foreign workers.
The chain moved into Los Angeles in the last several years by filling shopping-mall vacancies left by dying department-store chains.
Wal-Mart opened its first California Supercenter last month in La Quinta. Supercenters combine traditional discount big-box stores with full-size grocery sections. The looming presence of Supercenters contributed to the recent grocery strike as supermarket chains tried to cut labor costs to compete with Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart may still come to Inglewood and may construct a Supercenter at the same “Homestretch at Hollywood Park” site where Rothbart Development planned to build. But now it will have to go through the same planning processes as any other development.
Nearby, Los Angeles has been tinkering for more than a year with an ordinance to bar Supercenters. Its chief proponent, Councilman Eric Garcetti, said that in Inglewood “Wal-Mart tried to bypass not just the conversation about the standard of living but the democratic process as well.” He said he hoped the experience would lead the company to work with Los Angeles to “figure out a collaborative approach.”
Lizette Hernandez, the young ponytailed activist from LAANE who pulled together the coalition and kept it going when the polling showed the cause was hopeless, smiled and cried simultaneously late Tuesday as the unexpectedly high numbers of “no” votes came in from the Inglewood City Clerk’s Office.
“So many people thought we couldn’t do this, and we did it,” a teary Hernandez said. “We kicked their butts out of here.”