Playing hardball: Odds are favorable that 'Boycott Arizona' is a winning message

Arizona's tough immigration law led to a protest on the Nationals baseball field last Sunday and a larger public boycott against the state. The effect of the boycott remains to be seen.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010

The bottom of the fifth inning was just getting started Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park when a young man and woman jumped out of the stands and led huffing-and-puffing security guards on a merry chase across the outfield.

Two more interlopers darted onto the green. Before they could unfurl a banner in right field, it was snatched by a guard who tumbled to the turf with one of them.

"We were kind of hoping it was a sign saying, 'Sign Adam Dunn,' " said David Bookbinder, a lawyer at the game. "None of us, and none of the guys behind or in front of us, had any idea there was a political message of any sort. . . . The take-away was: The Nats need some security guards in somewhat better shape."

The rowdy national roadshow of protest against Arizona's tough new immigration law had just barged into Washington. Amid the dueling jeers and cheers of fans who did get the message -- the Nats were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks, weren't they? -- there was also the puzzlement of Bookbinder and many others in the stands.

What does immigration have to do with baseball? Is this any way to win supporters and influence policy?

Similar questions linger over the broader crusade to ostracize Arizona, a campaign now about to enter its fifth month. Latino civil rights organizations and labor unions are boycotting the state, which has already cost Arizona thousands of hotel bookings and millions of dollars. A coalition of musicians including Rage Against the Machine, Juanes, Shakira, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Lobos, Kanye West, Cypress Hill and Ozomatli are refusing to play there. Activists are trying to pressure Major League Baseball into moving the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix.

But there is no unanimity even among those who detest the nation's toughest crackdown on illegal immigration, known as SB 1070, signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in April. Last month, a federal judge blocked the strictest provisions; the state is appealing.

Lady Gaga, who refused to cancel her July 31 concert in Phoenix but had "Stop SB 1070" printed on her arm, heaped scorn during the show on both the immigration law and the boycott: "I got a phone call from a couple really big rock-and-rollers, big pop stars, big rappers, and they said, 'We'd like you to boycott Arizona.' . . . And I said, 'You really think that us dumb [expletive] pop stars are gonna collapse the economy of Arizona?' "

Who wins, who loses and what's the point in a boycott is a debate as old as the Boston Tea Party. But to advocates of the current boycott, it's a measure of success if people are talking.

"Baseball is supposed to be the great national unifier. Why should the midsummer classic be in a state that's come to represent such horrific division?" said Dave Zirin, author of books on activist athletes who helped organize the demonstration at Nationals Park. "It's about making the state pay an economic price for passing an unconstitutional law that codifies racial profiling."

Defining success

Boycotts come in all sizes and varieties. The common denominator is attaching moral or political meaning to that existential question, To buy or not to buy? To participate or not to participate? Judging success is tricky and subject to spin.

"How are you defining success?" asks Lawrence Glickman, history professor at the University of South Carolina and author of last year's "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America." "Most boycotts in American history have not succeeded in their putative goals, but many have had an afterlife that often is surprisingly effective."

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