I grew up in a house where boycotts were as much a part of my life as after-school snacks. Not the boycotts organized by local and national civil rights activists, but the boycotts initiated and supported by my mother and announced in our own home. She found her activist voice only after escaping the wrenching poverty and brutal racism of her rural Louisiana hometown. There, custom and law silenced her. But, once freed from that environment, she brought all her righteous anger to bear on those whose products were harmful to her family and whose racist commentary demeaned her humanity.
She instituted a long-term boycott against a local chain store after one of the sales clerks insisted on calling her Mattie, her first name. Despite my mother’s gentle correction that it’s “Mrs.,” the clerk hissed, “you’ll never be 'Mrs.' to me.” My mother regularly used small claims court to get restitution for fraudulent sales tactics. Her biggest boycott victory came two years after her initial complaint, ending in a winning judgment from the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General. At home, we were always in the midst of several ongoing boycotts. Before he left the house to make a purchase, my father had to check in with my mother, asking, “What can I buy now?"
I’ve been remembering those times in light of what seems to be a renewed interest in boycotts. In October of last year, #GrabYourWallet began targeting companies that offer Trump-related products. The effort successfully pressured eight companies, including Nordstrom, to remove the products from their inventory. Conservative boycotters in turn have orchestrated a protest of businesses perceived to be anti-Trump. 84 Lumber, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola are under fire after featuring Super Bowl ads with themes of immigration and inclusiveness. Starbucks, too, suffered the wrath of angry consumers after the company announced a campaign to hire 10,000 immigrants. Meanwhile, the nationwide Injustice Boycott is calling for police reform and protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The boycott currently targets banks in New York and San Francisco, which are financing institutions and corporations in opposition to their demands.
Some may question the effectiveness of these battles — they are, after all, dwarfed by their big targets — but, then so were the men and women of the iconic Montgomery bus boycott. At great personal risk and sacrifice, they stayed off the segregated buses for more than a year, with no guarantee that it would ever pay off.
I'm not sure if these boycotts will bring measurable change, but I am sure that it can only be good to see the increase in civic engagement, and I’m even more pleased that citizens are being moved to act beyond the here- today, gone tomorrow hashtag activism, which often doesn’t require much skin in the game. We’ll see if these campaigns can sustain the energy and commitment to make a real difference. I’m sorry my mother isn’t around to show them how it’s done.