Eye-witnesses recall near-riot at Wal-Mart
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 1:00 AM
Fear that electronic food stamp cards would be rejected after midnight on Oct. 12, along with rumors of free food, fueled the near-riot at the Philadelphia Wal-Mart that evening, additional eye-witness accounts have since confirmed.
"I'm in tears right now," Samantha Tolbert texted her mother at 7:24 p.m. that night. "Wal-Mart will really make you wonder what the world is coming to."
Tolbert confirmed what others have, shoppers were becoming increasingly angry and panicked as EBT cards were rejected and the store filled with more and more customers.
Shelves were emptied, people were picking through full shopping carts abandoned when cards were declined and there was shouting. One abandoned buggy contained six gallons of milk.
Hundreds descended on the store, eventually forcing police to be summoned to clear the premises.
Philadelphia Police Capt. Dan Refre said Tuesday Wal-Mart management called police because of the growing crowd, but he had no new information.
"Management saw that it could possibly get out of hand, so they made the decision to close the store," he said.
No arrests were made and police still say no food or merchandise were reported stolen.
A Wal-Mart spokesperson was unavailable Tuesday.
Tolbert said the episode was like a scene out of a movie about the end of the world.
Word was going around that food would be free from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., several people have said.
"It was like the movie about the world coming to an end," Tolbert said.
"You go in grocery stores and see people fighting over the food, people trying to stock up. That's the best way I can describe what it was like that night."
Aisles were packed and people were running down them trying to get buggies through, she said. One lady had three kids and two buggies with food filled to the top almost overflowing.
Tolbert said she witnessed people screaming, shouting and almost fighting over food.
"People were thinking after midnight that they were not going to be able to use their EBT [food stamp] cards anymore because of the government shutdown," she said.
Tolbert said a woman at the register thought she had $2,300 on her card, but it only showed $2.30. The woman had rung up a $1,700 bill.
The woman blurted that if the government didn't fix the shutdown, "she wasn't getting a job, the government was going to take care of her," Tolbert said.
A Philadelphia businessman who'd made a quick trip to Wal-Mart that night described a third-world scene as well.
"There were over 100 people in checkout lines all the way back to electronics. They thought they were getting free food."
He described customers having "two and three buggies each full of steak, meats and just junk food. It was a near riot."
The man said it reminded him of being on the Coast after Katrina.
"It's a sad state of affairs," he said.
The store was cleared about 8:30 p.m. and re-opened at 11 p.m.
Wal-Mart employees reported customers were hostile.
"They shut down because it was a safety hazard to the employees who work there," one posted on Facebook.
"I work there and got off at 8 and was scared to death because people were acting so hostile."
Employees had to put the items in the abandoned shopping buggies back in the shelves after the store closed.
"It's closed because we employees had to put all that stuff back on the shelves. It was sad we had to close but if you would've saw the mess then you would understand," another employee wrote.
Nikki Savage stopped at Wal-Mart Saturday night to pick up a few items after spending the day at homecoming at East Central Community College.
"I saw people with these buggies of food so I stopped and talked to the people to see what was going on," Savage said.
"While I was in there talking, they locked the doors. You could go out but they wouldn't let anyone else come in."
The issue started nationally when computer problems caused electronic payments for EBT cards to fail.
Seventeen states, including Mississippi, were impacted.
Photos sent to The Neshoba Democrat show more than a dozen fully-loaded carts left at the entrance.
Another photo showed a line of customers waiting to check out, each with one or more fully-loaded carts.
A constable and Sheriff's deputy could be seen in the background observing the line.
One shopper in the store at the time said, "It was packed."
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, provides aid for low-income people. Recipients use electronic-benefit transfer cards similar to debit cards.
Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the nation, and DHS says about 600,000 residents receive food stamps. That's in a population of nearly 3 million.