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

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; C01

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."

The anti-segregation streetcar boycotts of the early 1900s did not end segregation, but they were a foundation for later work, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, which met its goals in spectacular fashion, Glickman says.

The grape boycott that César Chávez launched in the mid-1960s succeeded on multiple levels. After five years, the growers agreed to an unprecedented union contract for farmworkers. The boycott was so widely familiar that it became a Woody Allen punch line: In "Sleeper" (1973), Allen's character is asked if he has ever taken a serious political stand: "Yeah, sure," he answers. "For 24 hours once, I refused to eat grapes."

Some boycotts seem to lose their resonance as time passes. A year after the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets were still in Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter was out of office and some American athletes expressed regret about lost competitive opportunity.

Some boycotts are faddish and lose energy. Is anyone still boycotting Whole Foods because last year the chief executive was publicly skeptical of health-care reform?

This year's BP boycott was short, sweet and wildly popular. Public Citizen called for a three-month boycott that is drawing to a close. A separate BP-boycott page on Facebook attracted more than 849,000 fans, many of whom are still boycotting. "It enables people to act directly on their anger," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who declared the boycott a success partly due to the high participation.

The latest boycott call, from liberal activists, landed this week: Stop shopping Target in response to its corporate political donations.

Painful choices

Against this history, Glickman said, the Arizona boycott "has a lot of the hallmarks of a successful campaign" -- including emotionally charged supporters and opponents who keep it in the news, and celebrity endorsers.

He's using the broader definition of boycott success. There's no evidence yet that the Arizona boycott is close to achieving its ostensible goal of forcing a repeal of the state law.

But a boycott has succeeded in Arizona before. The state lost an estimated $190 million revenue from 1987 to 1992, when it held out against honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday. Voters approved the King holiday in November 1992, too late to save the 1993 Super Bowl, which the National Football League had decided to move from Tempe to Pasadena, Calif.

Every boycott has unintended victims -- opponents of South African apartheid anguished over the economic pain divestiture could inflict on poor black Africans -- and Arizona boycott supporters are wrestling with that reality now.

Victims of the Arizona boycott include hourly hotel and restaurant workers -- many of them Latino -- owners of small businesses, concert promoters and the operators of independent clubs who rely on the politically minded alternative bands that are staying away.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of the first to endorse the boycott, wants the boycott to end, now that the judge has blocked major parts of the law. He met with hospitality workers and "they explained they were getting laid off one place after another."

The boycott "is an inordinate burden being borne by our community," said Alfredo Gutierrez, chairman of the economic sanctions committee of Somos America, a coalition of about 40 advocacy groups in the state. "That's a sacrifice our community is prepared to pay to undo the injustice and the wave of hate."

In theory, Gutierrez said, the pain of the boycott will trickle up from the hourly workers to the business leaders, who will pressure the politicians, and other states will hesitate to follow Arizona's example. "It's unfortunate we have to use such a blunt instrument," he said.

Similar painful choices are being made in the artistic community.

"What Arizona needs now more than ever is more culture, more arts, more people with different ideas," said Charlie Levy, owner of Stateside Presents, an independent promoter.

Since the Sound Strike began in May, the historic nonprofit Rialto Theatre in Tucson has lost nearly 10 shows, adding up to "more than a six-figure impact," said Curtis McCrary, general manager. "That's a pretty dramatic thing. Our margins aren't that great."

Zack de la Rocha, lead vocalist for Rage Against the Machine and an organizer of the Sound Strike, said boycotting artists must not back down. "To become another shard on the fire that people around the world are joining to limit the taxable revenue in that state is a far more powerful instrument" to force change than playing gigs and speaking from the stage, he said.

For filmmaker Eric Byler, who lives in Prince William County, the Arizona drama is deja vu. He's the co-director of "9500 Liberty," a 2009 documentary on the immigration debate in that county. Breaking the boycott, he is screening his film across Arizona this summer as part of his "Liberty Arizona" project, using each screening as a space for civil dialogue.

"For me personally to participate in the boycott," he said, "would require me to do what I'm always asking people on both sides of the issue not to do, which is to blame an entire group of people for the actions of a few, and make your resentment paramount in your decision-making process."

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