When events warrant, MTV staffers gather together in our virtual secure bunker to discuss the political news of the day. Monday’s topic: Boycotts as weapons; when they help, and when they don’t. How do you find that balance where you’re disrupting a community in the name of equality without abandoning the very members of that community you’re seeking to support? Here today: Ezekiel Kweku, Jane Coaston, Michael Catano, Julianne Ross, Jamil Smith, Kaleb Horton, and Marcus Patrick Ellsworth.
Kweku: The cleanest boycotts are those when you boycott businesses that are more than just incidental in the policy change, but complicit in a really concrete way. To me, this is what made the bus boycotts of the '60s so effective. Segregation was not just seen as moral, but profitable, because white people demanded segregated services. Boycotts changed the math.
But when the relationship between the policies and the boycotts is more tenuous, it’s a little less clear whether a boycott is helpful or effective. That’s why, say, a boycott of St. Louis’s struggling economy aimed at protesting police brutality wouldn’t have been such a good idea. It could have hurt businesses that some black communities rely upon, and without a clear list of demands, the boycott could have lasted a long time without effecting change. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a pointless boycott and one that would be useful, and that’s part of why it’s good to listen to the people you’re trying to help.
Coaston: But — and this is a big and controversial but — often, organizers on the ground will not want to go as far as might be necessary. They’ll want to maintain close ties with the business community and reject anything that might put too much attention on local businesses whose support — even middling or noncommittal — they want. Organizers on the ground often won’t want to draw attention to bad bills, or bad legislation, or bad legislators, because they don’t want to push away the very people who are supporting those bills or legislators. The people voting for the “let’s keep trans people out of the bathroom because we think they’re weird” bills are the same people who run local restaurants and bookstores and farm-to-table vegan ice cream shops, and are the organizer’s aunt or brother or next-door neighbor.
But those people are still fucking wrong, and sometimes, the best way to make them aware of it is through boycotts. I’m aware that this makes me come across like an asshole, but I’ve seen more action taken by legislators based on threats of boycotts or concerns regarding businesses moving elsewhere than I have by “let’s all just get along and it’ll get better eventually.”
Ross: Interesting point, Jane — so you’re saying sometimes an outside push can be effective specifically because those people aren’t as closely tied to what’s happening on the ground, and are willing to be more extreme?
Coaston: That’s what I’m saying.
Horton: I am hardly qualified to know what kind of activism is most effective, but I do know this: I would not have known about HB 2, would not have been shocked by its ramifications, if Bruce Springsteen hadn’t canceled that concert. I mean, I don’t really know anybody in North Carolina. If you asked me who their governor is, I’d stall and pretend to check a text message while I looked it up.
HB 2 wasn’t making any noise at all in my social and cultural orbit. So [Springsteen] canceling that show made me aware of this problem. It made my friends on the West Coast who follow heartland rock, but no social and political and human rights issues whatsoever, aware of this problem. It got people talking who probably wouldn’t be talking otherwise. That’s gotta count for something.
Catano: LGBTQ businesses leaving North Carolina seems like a far more effective boycott than non-NCers boycotting NC businesses. So what do you do as someone who doesn’t live there? Is Springsteen going to take that potential revenue for North Carolina and put it toward a relocation fund for people who are directly affected by oppressive legislation?
Smith: Systematic discrimination also makes this a more iffy question. If it was a series of business discriminating and calling for the North Carolina legislation, cool. But how do you boycott the police, for example? You can’t. Plus, I recall when, shortly after the shooting of Tamir Rice, there was a call by some outside activists, folks who may not have ever been to Cleveland, to boycott the city. As if they had their airline tickets and hotel reservations and passes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all paid for, and they’d just rip them up. Please. They were never coming there anyway.
Cleveland is actually my hometown, and when I spoke to folks back home, they saw people avoiding Cleveland, a flyover city in a flyover state, as the exact thing that enables problems like this: out of sight, out of mind. People have every right to avoid visiting a discriminatory state for concerts, trips, anything, because of HB 2. But when you stop thinking about even going to a place like North Carolina, you stop thinking about North Carolina, period. There’s a good argument for going there and engaging those local residents and activists to further galvanize the movement you’ll need against such a law.
Catano: I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. On one hand, you have Springsteen pulling his concert — a gesture that state legislators are definitely going to feel — and on the other, you have Laura Jane Grace coming in at ground level and playing for the community directly affected by HB 2. I think it’s more about targeted action and effectively using the resources that are available to you. Springsteen is too huge to just show up and play for 1,000 people at a queer-positive space, while Laura Jane canceling a show only hurts the people she’s ostensibly most committed to supporting.
Ellsworth: Boycotting is about investment versus divestment. People want to take money away from a horrible thing that they're against, sometimes spending it somewhere else that reflects their values.
But when a company pulls out from creating jobs in a state like North Carolina, it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it puts serious pressure on politicians, but on the other hand, you have people living in that state who are left without work. The people who created the hateful law still have their jobs, for the time being, but there are folks looking for work or who may lose their jobs if companies leave. A statewide boycott means leaving people, some of whom are LGBT, or had nothing to do with HB 2, suffering for a well-meaning but perhaps misguided principle.
Ideally, calls for boycotts would be balanced with calls for investing in LGBT communities, workers' rights, and organizations that are trying to fight for the dignity and basic rights of the people most affected by this kind of legislation. And we've seen that to a degree. Some entertainers are donating the profits from their shows to LGBT equality groups, many have joined in vocal opposition to HB 2, and folks living in North Carolina are pulling together to get it repealed. Much of this is because of the boycotts and the attention that's garnered.
I think whether to boycott is a complicated question people need to really examine before they decide if it's the right course of action. Sometimes it is. Other times, it's more useful and prudent to invest time, money, and talent to lift up the oppressed rather than make a sweeping gesture of outrage that sounds good but may have unforeseen consequences.
Ross: Marcus makes a great point that regardless of a decision to pull away or stay put, it doesn’t have to be the only step — you can specifically not do something, i.e., boycott, and also refocus that money/energy/time that would’ve been spent toward a perhaps more concrete action.
This all makes me think of Jane’s recent piece about how people often tell LGBT individuals just to “move” if they don’t like the policies where they live, basically asking those who’ve already been marginalized to continuously uproot their lives in search of more just pastures. So with the caveat that boycotts are generally well-intentioned and can be effective, it’s important to make sure you’re boycotting a policy — not the people it affects.
I’m not entirely sure how to walk that line all the time. Listening to the people who are most affected, and what local organizers believe to be most helpful, is a start.