The Limitations of Boycotting as a Protest Tactic


The decision by a Missouri grand jury not to indict police officer Darren Wilson  for the murder of black teen Michael Brown, has caused national outrage among black people. It also inspired activists and others to do something about this injustice.

One of the most prominent ideas that emerged from the tragedy in Ferguson was the national call for black people to boycott white retail establishments on “Black Friday,” “Cyber Monday,” and in some cases, indefinitely.

We heard a similar call when George Zimmerman was cleared of criminal charges for murdering innocent teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. The strategy in that case was for black people to launch a national boycott against the state of Florida, with a focus on its tourism and retail industries.The battle cry was, “Don’t shop in Florida, don’t buy products from Florida, and don’t vacation in Florida!”

As a general rule, organizing strategies and tactics should be relevant to the issue we’re addressing and strategically designed to produce desired outcomes. The tragic incident that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri is about police brutality and how the state murders Black people without remorse or consequence.

The simple question for us then,  is “How does boycotting retail businesses  eliminate or reduce the assault or murder of black people by hyperviolent and over-militarized police?

I’m all for boycotting malicious and greedy corporations in an effort  to use our $1.1 trillion purchasing power with people and in ways that empower us. But this tactic doesn’t adequately address and resolve the issue of police brutality.

Effective boycotts target institutions or businesses directly responsible for the oppression we’re challenging, or closely involved/invested in entities that are directly responsible.

For example the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott that catapulted Martin Luther King to national recognition, made sense.Black people in Montgomery were tired of paying the same bus fare as whites, but having no power to choose  where they sat on the bus. Furthermore,  we paid our fare on the front of the bus, then had to get off and board via the back doors. White bus drivers often took off without allowing black people who already paid to board the bus!

The injustice didn’t stop there. Once on the bus, we had to sit in the “colored section.” And if the white seating section became overcrowded, we had to relinquish our seats to white passengers! Rosa Parks was arrested if you recall, for refusing to relinquish her seat.

Activists in Montgomery, primarily Black women, made a good call by asking Black folk not to ride public buses. Why should we support a company or service that cheats and mistreats us? The rest, as you know, was history.

In this case white retail stores –  while guilty of harassing Black shoppers, charging exorbitant prices, and underpaying Black workers – do not murder us and are not directly tied to the police  that do.

If we choose to boycott, it should target either the police or court institutions or institutions directly involved with or supportive of them. Courts and law enforcement agencies don’t sell retail items to the public. Therefore we can’t boycott them, and we have yet to identify outside institutions that directly support their ability to attack and kill us. A boycott simply isn’t relevant or effective given these considerations.

There is another major point for us to consider. By targeting establishments not responsible for police brutality, we potentially punish “innocent” people or institutions (innocent of committing police brutality, at least).

Since many black people work as cashiers, sales clerks, and low-level managers  in U.S. retail establishments, the boycott being called for will likely cause many black folk to lose much needed jobs in a very tough economy. How do we justify a tactic that punishes innocent people and negatively affects US, more than it does our opposition?

For these reasons, I do not believe a nationwide boycott of U.S. retail stores will effectively address or resolve the issue of anti-Black police brutality,

There are, to be fair, some advantages to boycotting: doing so will keep the issue current, create and promote Black solidarity, and raise consciousness among our people while mobilizing us to resist our oppression.

However, as already mentioned, the targets of the boycott are too broad and vaguely defined, they are not responsible for the issue we raise, nor do these businesses wield the power or responsibility to resolve the problem. Also, the boycott can result in massive layoffs that may harm us more than it punishes our opponents.

Nevertheless, the boycott has many supporters, is gaining ground, and has a few advantages like those I’ve identified above.
To be clear, I support Black resistance to oppression, and I applaud and generally support attempts to make us wake up and stand up against the racist devaluation of Black life.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon the boycott. I’m suggesting we tweak it to make it more relevant and effective.

In conclusion and going forward, perhaps we can target a specific retail chain or other institution that is highly supportive of police, donates money to murderous police officers or “Police Benevolent Associations,”  or that has publicly defended his/their their acts of aggression against us. Even this wouldn’t end or reduce police brutality, but it would at least punish those who collaborate with or defend belligerent police.

Lastly, It might also be a good idea to couple a “Buy Black” movement with this boycott. We can develop a list of Black-owned businesses throughout the U.S. that provide important goods/services we desire, and help Black businesses and Black consumers simultaneously. Of course these businesses would show their appreciation by lowering prices in return for their increased sales volume.

But even these boycott tweaks will prove to be of minimal influence if we fail to openly and persistently confront, embarrass, disrupt and neutralize police precincts, prosecutors’ offices,courthouses, and propagandist news networks (like Fox) that defend police, devalue Black life, and mischaracterize activists fighting for justice and safety in this nation. Black Consciousness, Black Power!


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