THE BLOG
02/27/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Arizona and the Power of Boycotts

One of the most underrated tactics for social change was on vivid display in Arizona yesterday. And it appears to have played a significant role in Governor Jan Brewer's decision to veto SB 1062, the state law which would have legalized refusal by businesses to serve gay customers.

That tactic for change is the simple boycott -- a freely-made decision by consumers (or even whole corporations) to withhold their purchases as a form of political protest. It is a method that has been embraced by activists across the political spectrum, and it is a message that cannot be ignored by the business community, whose profits are placed in peril.

Boycotts thus have the potential for potent impact, as history has repeatedly shown.

The Arizona bill, which passed the legislature last week 17-13, was reminiscent of the state's initial refusal two decades ago to adopt Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday -- widely regarded as a shameful episode of unvarnished bigotry.

In protest against the King Day policy, the National Football League in 1993 moved the Super Bowl from Arizona to California, a form of boycott that had real financial consequences -- estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The King holiday was eventually adopted by voters in Arizona. In reaction to the current gay bill, the NFL reportedly was mulling a similar transfer of next year's Super Bowl, which is currently scheduled for Phoenix.

Yesterday, card-carrying conservatives like Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney weighed in on the Arizona gay bill -- supporting its veto by Gov. Brewer.

The political calculus likely included trying to head off another episode for which the GOP could be branded as narrow and prejudiced. Republicans have enough problems in that department with women and Latinos and young voters, according to many opinion polls.

But also looming over the sunny landscape of Arizona was the cloud of a newly-threatened boycott. A large legal convention had already been canceled in protest. The New York Times reported yesterday that several corporations, including Apple, were having doubts about locating facilities in Arizona, due to the gay legislation. The CEO of American Airlines also urged scuttling of the law.

Boycotts to catalyze social change are a long-standing activist tradition. Mohandas Gandhi, in his campaign to liberate India from British colonial rule, called on Indians to shun English textiles in favor of "homespun," a tactic which exerted noticeable economic pressure on London.

The modern U.S. civil rights movement was born as a consumer boycott against the privately-operated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, which enforced the noxious policy of requiring African American patrons to sit at the back of the bus and even give up their seats on crowded rides, to spare white patrons from standing while blacks sat.

Many consumers participated in the famous boycott of California grapes, starting in the 1960s, to support a living wage for powerless, low-income migrant farmworkers.

Religious conservatives have effectively waged boycott campaigns against films they regard as blasphemous, including Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

Largely omitted from the recent tributes to Nelson Mandela was the decisive role of a consumer boycott in bringing down the racist system of Apartheid in South Africa. When an activist there finally called on blacks to avoid patronizing white shops in 1985, business interests very rapidly brought heavy pressure to bear on the South African government, eventually leading to collapse of the entrenched Apartheid system.

Consumer boycotts are entirely non-violent and sometimes really work. And advocates of the free market system cannot logically object to a boycott, as it expresses an individual's right to make independent financial decisions.

At a time of broadly acknowledged government gridlock, simple boycotts by concerned individuals and companies have the ability to bring about significant and sometimes quick changes, as the citizens of Arizona have just witnessed.

Nothing gets the attention of the powers that be, whether political or economic, like the loud voice of money. Imagine the impact if citizens frustrated by government action -- or inaction -- on climate change or health care or gun violence voted not just with their ballots but also with their wallets.