Panic in a Crowd

Chattanooga, my home town, has a festival every summer called the Riverbend Festival. A portion of downtown – the portion along a bend in the Tennessee River – is closed off, stages are constructed, vendors set up and a week of music and fun begins. Monday night of the Riverbend Festival is called the Bessie Smith Strut and the party is in a different part of town – one that isn’t exactly sparkly clean and ready for the tourists.

The Strut, as it’s called, takes place down a stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr, Blvd. One end of the street has a park and a fountain and is lovely, but the further you go, the more likely it is you will see beat-up cars, run-down buildings, and lots of bars. There is always a bit of tension when the party-goers and the folks who live and work on MLK everyday come together.

The Strut is the only part of the Riverbend Festival that is completely open to the public. You don’t have to have any kind of ticket and it is free. For all the other activities during the festival week, you have to have a pin, which costs about $40, or a day pass, which usually costs about $20. It’s good fun for poor people. It’s also very crowded in spots.

There’s never been any kind of unusual violence at the Strut that I am aware of, but there is always an undercurrent of anxiety. And a heavy police presence. I know (but am not friends with) some people who laugh at the idea of going to the Strut because it seems so ridiculously unsafe to them. Those people are snobs, and I think they don’t really care about the community or their fellow citizens. It’s easier to watch the poor people in bad neighborhoods on the news and shake your head righteously than to go out and meet them, dance with them or have a beer on their street. Out of sight, out of mind.

Years ago, my husband and I went to the Strut with our two kids and my dad. Our girls were really small – one of them was in a backpack kid-carrying thingy, and the other was a toddler who alternated between hold someone’s hand and being carried on our shoulders. We were standing in the street, people-watching and trying to decide what to go to next when we noticed people running towards us. Lots of people running.

My dad snatched up the toddler to keep her from getting trampled, and we tried to move to the side of the street out of the path of the oncoming herd. I’ll tell you the urge to turn and run along with everyone else was overwhelming. Every instinct screamed, “GO! Can’t you see the pack is going?! Run!!!”

But my dad and husband (smart guys, those two) both said, “Wait. Why are they running?” We just stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes and never saw the reason for the panic. No maniac with a gun appeared, no SWAT team swooped in. Everyone just stopped running.

We had to go home and watch the news to learn – in a less than 30-second report – that a vendor was switching out the propane tank that ran his grill and it made a sound some people mistook for a gunshot. The news report definitely did not convey the feeling of pure panic that the running crowd was feeling.

The herd instinct is evident in the business world, too. When you see your colleagues and competitors suffering, when you see whole blocks of closed stores, when home foreclosure rates are headline news week after week, it can be easy to give in to the instinct that is telling you to run! Run now!

Sometimes cold, hard facts are inescapable. If there is no money to pay the rent, there is no money to pay the rent. This can be problematic, however, there are always ways to find money to pay the rent. No matter what situation you’re in, you can normally rely on your family and friends to help you out. By starting an online fundraiser, some renters have been lucky enough to gain rent assistance from those closest to them and other people online who want to donate. Many people have been in a similar position before, so they will be willing to give you some financial help. Rent needs to be paid, so hopefully, there will be people to help you out. Hopefully, this will only happen once or twice, so you don’t need to worry too much. But if you find yourself lamenting your situation day after day or if the majority of your business conversations involve worrying about what the future holds, you may need to stop and ask yourself, “Why?”

Why are your clients leaving? Where are they going? Why don’t you have as much money as you did last week or last year or two years ago? What has changed?

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