Photo by Ted Soqui

Since the onset of the supermarket strike/Lockout involving Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons, there has been very little in the way of good news for members of the United Food & Commercial Workers union, and almost nothing in the way of a good time. But at least one group has been taking the crisis and turning it into lively demonstrations that are part citizen action, part protest and part street theater.

Dubbed “Shop and Awe,” the action works like this: Participants (who for strategic and legal reasons wish to remain anonymous) go into a targeted supermarket and blend in with the customers. They fan out and fill their carts with pricey items that can total upward of $1,000 — deli meats cut to order, gourmet coffee beans ground on the spot. Often they improvise scenes, perhaps playing a bickering couple, bewildered tourists or disgruntled customers wandering the aisles while complaining aloud about the empty shelves and bad service. When the participants finally get up to the cash register, they refuse to pay, informing the clerk: “Congratulations! You’ve just been Shop and Awed!” Some of the more imaginative — participants range from teachers to actors, ’60s-bred activists to young progressives — have been known to leap onto the checkout counter when making their dramatic declarations of support.

Organizers say the actions, which started last Thanksgiving, are effective as well as entertaining: Some stores have been forced to close early to put all the stuff back on the shelves, and one manager got so irate after a “Shop and Awe” hit that she ordered everybody in the building to go home. “I’ve thought about the possibility of getting arrested and having to do community service,” mused one participant. “But as far as I’m concerned, this is community service.”

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