How to Make a Boycott Matter

The outrage over Arizona has provoked a growing number of efforts to make the state pay. But will it? We consider the landscape of boycotts past and present.

By Julianne Hing May 20, 2010

It has been four weeks since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state’s controversial SB 1070, and efforts to boycott the state have been mounting ever since. Calls for a boycott actually began days before SB 1070 even became law, when Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva warned the business community to prepare for backlash.   

"We’re asking organizations, civic, religious, labor, Latino, organizations of color to refrain from using Arizona as a convention site, to refrain from spending their dollars in the state of Arizona," he said on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC show that week, "until Arizona turns the clock forward instead of backwards and joins the rest of the union."  

SB 1070 requires that people show proof of their immigration status if they’re questioned by police, and empowers police to ask for such proof when they’re enforcing local and state laws, and even civil code. Civil rights groups have called SB 1070 unconstitutional; five separate lawsuits are now challenging it.   

But while lawyers head to court, immigrant rights organizers are funneling the national outrage into a widespread, multi-pronged boycott against Arizona. Calls to move next year’s baseball All-Star Game out of Phoenix have drawn the most attention. But the boycott effort is gaining ground among convention planners and in local governments, too, particularly in cities with significant immigrant communities.  

On Tuesday, Seattle passed the latest city resolution declaring a boycott of Arizona–and became the eleventh locality in the United States to do so. Seattle joined the ranks of cities like Austin, Texas; Boston; Los Angeles; Oakland; St. Paul, Minn. and Washington, D.C., who’ve all vowed some form of economic response, ranging from clear travel bans for employees to more vague contracting commitments. (See graphic at end of article for details.)  

City officials in Dallas are mulling their own resolution, as are New Yorkers. Cook County, which encompasses Chicago, is considering its own boycott. Cities are folding their arms, turning up their noses and giving nasty looks at the Grand Canyon State. They don’t want to be part of a club that proudly relies on racial profiling to crack down on immigrants.   

But all of this begs an important question about boycotting as a tool for reform: Does it work? And if so, under what conditions? 

"Boycotts are tricky business," warns Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  

Precedent shows that if they’re carried out in a strategic way, boycotts can be effective–the famous thirteen-month Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 is a favorite example among historians of a smartly executed campaign. But efforts that do not have clearly outlined objectives and pathways of transmitting pressure often collapse. "Boycotts historically are most effective when they have a very specific target, or when they are part of a multi-pronged approach," says Frank.  

Boycotts are also notoriously easy to start and hard to finish. Lawrence Glickman, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, cites the NAACP’s 1990s boycott of South Carolina as an example of what can happen when targets and objectives aren’t clearly outlined. The NAACP announced a boycott of South Carolina in 1992 because the state refused to stop flying the Confederate flag at the capitol building. But when the state moved the flag from the top of the dome to the capitol grounds in 1999, there was confusion about whether they’d found an acceptable compromise.   

As recently as March of this year, people have debated whether the South Carolina boycott’s still going on, and disagreements have led to public tussling between the NAACP and other Black community leaders. "There was a lot of ambiguity, and that led to a loss of momentum," says Glickman.  

Frank adds that many boycotts also run the risk of hurting the very people they purport to be in solidarity with. She points to a popular call to boycott Chinese-made goods in order to help support exploited Chinese workers. "But that’s not particularly what Chinese workers want for themselves. [That’s not] their own strategy for improving their conditions."   

"The complicated question in any boycott is: what happens to the people involved who work for or within the boycotted entity? What are the tradeoffs and what do they think about it?" asks Frank. She adds that there are clear signals from activist communities in Arizona that these questions have been considered.   

"The people who will feel it the quickest are in the hospitality industry," says Alfredo Gutierrez, the editor of and a former state senator who is head of local boycott efforts. "And in the state of Arizona, let’s be real, the busboys, waitresses–those are Hispanics." But Gutierrez insists that many in Arizona are willing to bear the burden. "In South Africa, in Birmingham, it was the poor and the people of color who paid the price and were prepared to make that sacrifice for themselves and for their children." 

Kristen Jarnagin, a spokesperson for the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, has said the boycotts are in fact already hurting the state’s tourism industry. Twenty-three groups have canceled conventions, meetings or events in Arizona since Brewer signed the bill, a loss estimated to be between $6 million and $10 million.  

"Those are the groups we know about," she told Phoenix’s "We have no idea the true economic impact." Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon–an outspoken opponent of SB 1070–has estimated that, at the current rate of hotel and convention cancellations in his city, the Phoenix area alone would lose $90 million in the next five years. 

Major labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, have joined the Asian American Justice Center, the Center for Community Change and the National Council of La Raza in an official boycott. But it’s not just lefty groups who are standing up. International pop star icons like Shakira jumped into the fray early, descending on Phoenix days after the bill became law to join Phoenix Mayor Gordon in calls to condemn it.   

Sports celebrities like Charles Barkley and San Diego Padres star Adrian Gonzales have piled on as well. Even Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, wore a rhinestone-emblazoned shirt asking "Do I Look Illegal?" to a game between the Phoenix Suns and the L.A. Lakers this week. The Major League Baseball Players’ Association issued a statement criticizing the law as a violation of civil liberties, and protests have followed the Arizona Diamondbacks to their road games. The Phoenix Suns leadership, perhaps sensing similar outrage, came out publicly against SB 1070.  

"It’s taken off with such momentum. A lot of Americans who might not be aware of this issue are now taking notice," says Glickman of the campaign, praising its focused efforts. "Part of the boycott is symbolic politics," he says. "But symbolism can be important." He points to the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott as one successful example of a boycott with the main goal of raising political consciousness.  

Still, Gutierrez says local organizers are singularly focused on changing SB 1070. "The entire concert of our actions are focused on one end: to repeal the law." The boycott coalition, called Somos America, is set to announce a list of Arizona-based companies for people to boycott today, and plans to follow it up with monthly announcements of other businesses to add to the list. The group’s strategy includes following Brewer to every public appearance she makes to build momentum for a six-mile march in Phoenix set for May 29.  

But the growing number of city-level boycotts have taken less clear shape. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was the first to issue a mandate banning travel by his city’s employees through Arizona. Since then, most city councils that have passed resolutions condemning SB 1070 have worked in a travel ban of some sort, but it’s unclear how much economic activity the move impacts. 

Most of the cities with boycott resolutions have also urged municipal agencies not to enter into or renew any contracts with Arizona-based businesses. Only Boston and Los Angeles, however, have identified open contracts that could be canceled–a step neither has said it will actually take. Boston pays a Scottsdale company $1.1 million a year for software, while the Los Angeles city attorney reported it has $58 million worth of contracts in Arizona and about $8 million that it could feasibly cancel right now.   

And then there are cities like San Francisco, which has taken a hard and vocal stance against SB 1070 while also quietly adopting its own questionable immigration enforcement policies. A week after San Francisco passed its boycott resolution, it announced that it will join the federal Secure Communities program next month, a controversial initiative that allows state and local police to check the immigration status of people who are arrested or even detained for minor infractions like traffic violations. It’s fashionable to criticize Arizona, but it’s not yet so trendy to resist national immigration policies that enable similar outcomes through less overt profiling language.  

Similarly, many of the boycotting cities are in conflict with their state legislatures. Lawmakers in Texas, Minnesota and Colorado have all discussed the allure of bills that mirror SB 1070. Minnesota lawmakers formally introduced a piece of copycat legislation two weeks ago, just days after St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced a travel ban. 

Nonetheless, Frank stresses these details shouldn’t overshadow the bigger picture of what a successful boycott looks like. "What’s exciting is this boycott shows mass moral outrage–and that’s exactly what boycotts are about," Frank argues. "Boycotts are about bringing morality to the economy." 

Updated June 24, 2010

Visual design: Hatty Lee