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An event consists of a group of supposed shoppers who congregate at a large superstore (usually a Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us, Asda, or Sainsbury's) and slowly push empty shopping carts silently through store aisles. Participants will not purchase anything and seek to form a lengthy chain of non-shoppers, continually weaving and "whirling" through a maze of store aisles for up to an hour at a time. Participants describe their actions as "a collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for buying and selling". Whirl-Marters seek to mimic and mock what they perceive as the absurdity of the shopping process.
The activity was founded by the group "Breathing Planet Troupe" at a Wal-Mart store in Troy, New York, USA on April 1, 2001. The group was seeking to respond to an article from AdBusters magazine that called for foolish activities in conjunction with April Fool's Day. Since that time, Whirl-Mart activities have spread to many other communities around the world, including Texas, Iowa, Arizona, and Pennsylvania in the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is often "celebrated" at noon on the first Saturday or Sunday of the month. Whirl-Marters are often very loosely organized, describing themselves as open to anyone wishing to show up and participate.
In addition to being "just darned fun," the activity provides a legal outlet for would-be protesters to address "cathedral(s) of consumption" like Wal-Mart. Consequently, experienced Whirl-Marters (when confronted by security or store management) do not admit to being protestors and instead maintain that they are engaged in a peaceful "consumption awareness ritual." Whirl-Marters do not aim to block store aisles or interfere with legitimate shoppers, and typically will not speak unless addressed. Their aim is to create a non-disruptive, peaceful demonstration of how ridiculous they see Western consumerism to be. Participants are non-confrontational in seeking to make themselves silent examples rather than active propagandists. Some variations of the Whirl-Mart protest involve filling carts but then simply abandoning them or, when checking out, claiming to have forgotten the money to purchase the items in the overflowing cart, leaving said cart for the employees to clean up.
Participants claim they can generally talk their way out of being evicted from the store's corporate property (though the involvement of law enforcement officials in forcibly removing Whirl-Marters is not unheard of). When employees approach, Whirl-Mart participants generally scatter to various store aisles, forcing management or security to confront them individually. Participants will very rarely admit to or even address the topic of non-violent protest of commercialism or materialism, preferring to present themselves as would-be shoppers who are "still looking for something to buy" after spending up to an hour wandering aimlessly through a warehouse-sized superstore. Whirl-Marters often wear a shirt or smock, identifying themselves and their message. In most jurisdictions it is not legally considered soliciting to wear a garment advertising a product, service, or cause.
Some participants have attempted to document their activities with cameras or video recorders. The film or tape from these are often seized by store authorities. A few websites have video documenting Whirl-Mart events; however, in general, superstores do not permit cameras or video recorders on their premises — excluding security cameras used by the corporation itself.