Wal-Mart was put on notice by more than 100 Washington, D.C. residents, business owners and clergy at a spirited rally on the steps of City Hall on Feb. 7. “Respect D.C.,” they demanded of the retail giant who has announced plans to build four new stores in the District by the end of 2012.

Wal-Mart, the coalition said, is notorious for running roughshod over the communities it expands into – driving down wages, destroying local businesses and the jobs they provide and turning a deaf ear to neighborhood needs.

The RESPECT DC rally, organized by the Living Wages, Healthy Communities Coalition, was part of the group’s Advocacy Day, a day spent meeting with DC Council members in the morning and demonstrating on the steps of the John Wilson Building in the afternoon. The Wal-Mart protesters were soliciting support from council members to hold the company accountable to District residents by signing an enforceable agreement to ensure community benefits.

“We’d welcome Wal-Mart into our community, if we could trust that the company will respect D.C.,” said the Rev. Howard Finley, pastor of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church. “We want to go to work every day and be dignified. What sense does it make to go to work and still have to rely on public assistance, as many low-wage Wal-Mart employees must do to survive?”

In a Nov. 18, 2010 press release announcing the expansion plans, Wal-Mart said the four new stores—slated for Wards 4, 5, 6 and 7—will generate 400 construction jobs and 1,200 new jobs and increase residents’ access to higher quality, less expensive food. And, from all accounts, company representatives said, a majority of District residents welcome Wal-Mart’s coming.

“Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the discussion surrounding Wal-Mart do not represent the opinion of the majority of D.C. residents,” said Steven V. Restivo, Wal-Mart’s director of Community Affairs, in a statement e-mailed to the AFRO. “Local residents want quality job opportunities and more convenient access to fresh groceries and they know Wal-Mart can deliver.”

But some residents like Franklin Carter, who lives in Ward 4 and works at a Giant grocery store in the District, fear that “ low prices come at a high cost.”

“If I’m put out of work and other young D.C. residents like me don’t have the chance to aspire to management or anything, what will that mean for our future?” he told the audience. “Tell Wal-Mart, ‘Our nation’s capital does not need any more part-time, poverty jobs.’”

The group held its rally outside the DC Council building because its members said they feared the impact of the company’s lobbying efforts on lawmakers. “We want our elected leaders to listen to their constituents, not just Wal-Mart lobbyists,” said Rev. Finley. “We want them to tell Wal-Mart to ‘Respect D.C.’”

In the Nov. 18 press release Councilmember Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. said he has met with Wal-Mart representatives to discuss the plan and to ensure it’s a good deal for the city.

“I have met with Wal-Mart to discuss ways to create jobs and bring our residents more retail and fresh food, especially in Ward 5,” he said. “I asked them to survey the people who live here and based on the strong support that already exists I am working closely with them to ensure that D.C. benefits and our communities prosper.”

The RESPECT DC Campaign is growing citywide and in the four wards where the Wal-Mart expansion is planned. Campaign volunteers and staffers will step up their visits to ANC and civic association meetings as well as their canvassing households that could be negatively affected by Wal-Mart’s presence in their neighborhoods.
Restivo and Jordan, the Wal-Mart spokesmen, said the company will continue to be transparent and to keep an open ear to D.C. residents, lawmakers and the business community.

“We continue to meet with members of the community to answer questions and share information about the changes we have made as a company,” Restivo stated. “What we’re finding is that the more people get to know us, the more they see the value in bringing a Wal-Mart store to their neighborhood.”

Dwight Kirk is the media manager for the Respect DC Campaign. AFRO Staff contributed to this report.