How boycotts hurt the cities they are supposed to help

Who are you really punishing?
Who are you really punishing?
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

ST. LOUIS—On Feb. 27, the city of Cleveland proclaimed that Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot to death by a police officer at a park last November, had caused his own death by failing “to exercise due care to avoid injury.” For activists rallying against police brutality, Cleveland’s cold proclamation was the final straw. “We should SERIOUSLY consider a smart, but nuanced, full-fledged boycott of Cleveland Ohio & anything related to it,” tweeted Shaun King, a Daily Kos columnist based in California.

King, a longtime activist against police brutality, no doubt meant well, but his tweet set off a firestorm of angry responses from Cleveland residents asking how exactly economic divestment would help their struggling city. King’s suggestion echoed similar calls made in November that St. Louis should be boycotted due to the Darren Wilson grand jury decision—a call that left many St. Louisans wondering what, exactly, was left to boycott. When St. Louis activists boycotted malls on Black Friday following the decision, they did not boycott any near Ferguson—because all the malls nearby had already closed. The boycott served not as an effective political tactic but as a reminder of how little there was left to lose.

Boycotts have a storied tradition in Civil Rights history, with the Montgomery bus boycott frequently cited as evidence for their utility. But the vulnerable rust belt cities of 2015 are a far cry from Alabama of 1955. The Montgomery boycott was designed as a strike against segregation, but the stark division of a Montgomery bus—whites in the front, blacks in the back—was, paradoxically, easier to protest. Black and white was as clearly delineated as right and wrong. In contrast, to boycott an entire city—particularly a rust belt city like St. Louis or Cleveland with a majority black population—is to strike against an uncertain target. How do you punish those responsible for abuse without making their victims collateral damage?

Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis are often objects of national derision. This is “flyover country,” “the Mistake on the Lake”—places elites would never consider boycotting because they would never considering visiting in the first place. It is easy to call for a boycott of rust belt cities when you do not see their shuttered stores and abandoned malls and long-forgotten factories. It is easy to assume that boycotts carry weight, when the reality is that life here is tenuous, opportunities fleeting and stability low. A boycott means lost wages on your service job, the fastest growing sector in regions still hard-hit by the recession. A boycott means losing the tourism dollars from the few not driven away by your terrible reputation. A boycott means business will go on for local white elites as usual, because racial and class segregation is so deep that residents essentially function in two separate economies—a state of affairs quite different from that of the Montgomery bus system.

Some have suggested that a targeted boycott aimed at a powerful city industry—sports, for example—could sway the powers that be. But this assumes a scale of solidarity that does not exist. If it did, there would be no need for a boycott. The day white St. Louis decides to forgo the Cardinals to show their commitment to black rights is a day black rights have already been won.

Boycotts can still be an effective means of political protest, but they need to reflect the demography, economy, and culture of the regions they target. To boycott a city is not the same as boycotting a product or corporation, where the entity being boycotted has the power to make a change. A city is a far more amorphous entity. Boycotts should be led from within, not imported from outside—and they should reflect the present economic reality. No group has suffered more in the recession “recovery” than black Americans, who have lost jobs, homes, and wealth at a disproportionate rate. Boycotting a majority black city wholesale means eliminating more resources from people who have spent the past seven years losing them. It often means boycotting the powerless and leaving them even more so, even if that is not the intent. When Arizona became the object of a boycott following the passage of its immigration laws, it was Hispanic laborers who often paid the consequences in lost work.

“Boycott Cleveland” smacks of the same desultory logic as: “Let the south secede.” This phrase is uttered by northern liberals as a condemnation of southern racism, but its implementation would do nothing but solidify it. “Let the south secede” implies two things: that the most important people in the south are white, with the black population but an afterthought; and that the suffering of black people is best handled by looking away. “Let the south secede” is not an argument about the south, but about the centrality of the northern critic, who wants to live in an America free of discrimination while doing nothing to combat it. “Boycott Cleveland” carries a similar tenor: “This is not a place for enlightened people like me,” it says, while ignoring that people—real people—are working there for change.

Shunning regions of the US one finds contemptible does nothing to help those living there. Struggling cities need investment, not divestment—targeted support that helps black-owned businesses and other businesses that have shown commitment to justice. Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis have already been boycotted for years—boycotted for being crime-ridden, Midwestern, poor, and yes, black. Meanwhile, generations of black Americans living in those cities have sought not only justice and Civil Rights but also opportunities and economic security. This is not a time for boycott but for repercussions and reparations. Building economic power among the historically disenfranchised is the real pathway to progress.