Notes from a bitch…on boycotts…

Shall we?
My favorite documentary series is Eyes on the Prize and I particularly enjoy the segment titled Awakenings. If you don’t know…and you should know, ’cause the series is fantabulous…Eyes on the Prize covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America through first person accounts and interviews with the regular folks who were foot soldiers in the struggle. In Awakenings the film picks up at the end of WWII…when folks like my Grandfather returned home after fighting to liberate Europe only to find Jim Crow still calling the shots in America.
I watch a segment from Eyes on the Prize at least once a month – it is essential food for my activist soul and helps to remind me how far we’ve come, what it took to get here and what it will take moving forward.
I watched Awakenings the other night because I needed to witness some history that is going to apply to the present – specifically, the current call by organizations like National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to boycott the state of Arizona in response to passage of the heinous SB 1070 law. Just as I was reading the news about NCLR’s press conference, I received an email from a friend who was undecided about the boycott because 1) boycotts hurt everyone, not just the rancid fools supporting this law and 2) she isn’t convinced that boycotts work.
Here’s the thing…
Boycotts hurt.
Boycotts are hard to maintain.
Eyes on the Prize documents some of that when it covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
I also know people who were there and who tell stories of just how challenging that boycott was.
According to a family friend Ms. B., the Montgomery bus boycott hurt like hell and mostly at her feet, legs and pocketbook.
Ms. B. was working as a day maid when the Montgomery bus boycott was organized.
She took the bus to and from work the day before the boycott began…
…and she didn’t take the bus again for 381 days.
381 days.
Let me write it out…three hundred and eighty one days.
That’s how long the Montgomery Bus Boycott went on…because that’s how long it took for the bus system to be racially integrated.
For 381 days, folks who supported the boycott didn’t ride buses in the city of Montgomery.
And for 381 days, businesses suffered…people lost their jobs…regular folks were intimidated and threatened…and a lot of people doubted that the boycott would work.
There had been boycotts before that failed to do anything other than cause economic and physical pain.
But Montgomery worked because people like Ms. B walked their 6 miles every day just to stay employed and were prepared to endure the impact because their eyes were on the prize.
So, now we’ve got a call for a boycott of Arizona.
People…good people who hate this new law too…will suffer.
Boycotts hurt and they are hard to maintain.
Rather than focus on that fact, we should instead focus on the goal of the boycott…what’s on the table and what do we want…and then decide to commit or not commit.
Because boycotts aren’t going to get easy or become painless…but boycotts can work.
Just ask Ms. B., who has been riding the bus in Montgomery as an equal passenger ever since her 381 days of non-violent protest ended in progressive change on December 20, 1956.
They call the social justice movement a struggle for a reason.
It often hurts…and it is almost always hard…but the one thing we did right was the day we started to fight.
Who knows, another Awakening may be unfolding before us…

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7 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I hope it does, but the difference between the Montgomery boycott and the Arizona one is that the former was very concentrated. It focused on one very specific group of people (African-Americans) in one specific city (Montgomery, Alabama). Those who participated kept complete solidarity with the cause for over a year, and among an identity group with a shared cause, this is more feasible.
    Though the bus boycott was a smaller part of a much larger movement, its success kept the momentum going. As I study that period in our history, it is often full of small victories that, combined together, produced a much greater desired result.
    Boycotting Arizona itself takes into account a wide swath of people from all kinds of backgrounds. And it would also need to include people who are citizens of other countries who go to the state to see the Grand Canyon and other tourist attractions. This would be a fairly massive undertaking. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t work, but there would have to be some incredible message discipline and a compelling narrative to get everyone on board.

  2. marle
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    The law itself actually encourages a tourism boycott. Do I want to carry my birth certificate/other proof of citizenship (not all states verify citizenship for driver’s licenses, so that won’t be enough) around on vacation in case I get caught speeding by an asshole cop when I can go anywhere else and not worry about it? Those who are whiter and richer might not even consider that a possibility (because it isn’t, for them) but there’s still a lot of people who might have to think twice about going to Arizona because of this anyways. The Arizona government made this boycott, and if anyone in Arizona bitches about the economic damages they need to go bitch at their government.

  3. Opheelia
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I live in AZ, and I agree with a boycott in general. However, I’d like to plead a case: don’t boycott social justice efforts in our state. There are conferences, meetings, and events held by organizations and coalitions who are attempting to work in this hostile environment, and cutting us off from national resources will not help. We need assistance. If that means supporting the AZ economy by coming here and helping us work through this, helping us work within this, and helping us do our jobs, so be it. You can use the opportunity to demonstrate, to speak out, and to join the people here who are swimming upstream against one of the most aggressive legislative currents we’ve seen in decades.

  4. mareco
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    So as a Mexican woman, who has spent a lifetime living in the U.S., it has been difficult not to scream every single time somebody feels compelled to point out that by boycotting Arizona (tourism specifically) I am actually hurting “the little guy,” and that countless good, honest, hardworking Americans have livelihoods at stake. To this I say: So because somebody might lose their job when my (huge) entire family and I stop visiting AZ we should feel guilty and responsible for them and go there anyway? Heck no. I will absolutely not spend a single hard earned cent of mine in a place where I may be pulled over or detained at any time because of my pretty brown skin. My family will not either. For my next vacation I will be sure to spend my hard earned (first generation immigrant and tax paying) dollars in a state that welcomes me and be sure to contribute to the livelihoods of good, honest, hardworking people elsewhere in this country. If the little guy in AZ is going to be hurting because of racist legislation perhaps they should band together in their home state and make more of an effort to force the political hand, if in fact it is their livelihood that now seems to be in our hands.

  5. Dena
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    Sharkfu, I always love your posts. So insightful.
    And I’m with ComradeKevin, a boycott in Arizona would be an extremely massive undertaking, but I think it could prove to be incredibly effective as well.

  6. allegra
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the historical perspective. I think knowing social history is essential, too, to staying motivated and having hope, and keeping one’s “eyes on the prize.”
    This country probably wouldn’t be so screwed, and we probably wouldn’t have so many dumbass Arizona laws, if more people learned about this country’s social history and how to apply it critically to our current problems. :/

  7. raptorpants
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I’m “bitching” at my government. I’m protesting, writing letters, talking to people on the street. I’m a nursing student and a waitress. I support boycotting AZ in spirit, I guess. Kind of. I’m heartbroken about the new law, and scared for some friends (the restaurant industry is probably only second to agriculture in terms of employing undocumented people). Work is scarce here even for educated, pretty, middle class background white girls like me. We all need to make money this summer, especially the undocumented guys in the kitchen who are trying to get out of this state before they get randomly arrested and deported. I understand a boycott. I think it might hit the working poor harder than anyone else though, at least in Northern AZ. I want tWork is scarce here even for educated, pretty, middle class background white girls like me.is law overturned yesterday, and I want anyone who wants to get out of here, to California or wherever, to have the means to relocate themselves and their families right f-ing now. I want my friends safe. Less money coming into Arizona might be effective in the long term, but it’s worse in the short term, I think, at least in my area. Maybe people could donate what they might’ve spent on a canyon trip to a legal defense or other emergency assistance fund?

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