“We would never knowingly disappoint our customers or the communities we serve,’’ Publix said in a statement Friday. “As a result, we decided earlier this week to suspend corporate-funded political contributions as we reevaluate our giving processes.’’
The announcement came moments before “die-in” protests organized by 18-year-old gun-control activist David Hogg began at several Publix supermarkets, forcing store managers to reroute shoppers around the protesters, who lay on the floors of the aisles. At an Orlando supermarket, store managers fetched grocery items for customers who stood to watch but mostly went on shopping, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
At two Publix supermarkets in Parkland, survivors of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shouted “USA, not NRA!” as customers navigated their shopping carts around them on the floor, according to the Associated Press. Counterprotesters supporting the NRA turned up at one of the stores, where a near-confrontation almost occurred between two men before police intervened.
Hogg, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, has risen to national fame in the wake of the shooting by advocating for gun reform and co-founding the March for Our Lives. This most recent protest came one week after a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Southeast Texas killed 10 people, and on the same day that an Indianapolis middle school student opened fire in his classroom, injuring a student and a teacher.
The protesters were calling for an end to Publix’s support for Putnam, Florida’s agricultural commissioner, who has called himself a “proud NRA sellout.”
“A lot of people don’t support who Publix is supporting,” Haylee Shepherd, a 15-year-old sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, told the Associated Press. “It’s going to reflect on them as a brand and people shopping there.”
Publix has faced increasing backlash since the Tampa Bay Times reported that the company had given $670,000 to Putnam in the past three years. Another $147,000 was donated on top of that, including $78,000 from Carol Barnett, the daughter of Publix’s founder; $49,000 from former Publix executive M. Clayton Hollis Jr.; and $20,000 from Publix executive Hoyt Barnett, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Putnam’s open support for the NRA led Hogg to call for a boycott of Publix, which said in the statement that it “did not intend to put our associates and the customers they serve in the middle of a political debate.”
Hogg’s calls for gun control have made him a target of conservatives in the months since the Parkland shooting. Just a week after a gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 people at Hogg’s school, online media sites including YouTube swelled with false allegations that Hogg was secretly a “crisis actor” pretending to be a grieving student in local and national television news reports.
At the protest in a Coral Springs, Fla., Publix, which Hogg attended, Hogg asked for a big round of applause for the supermarket chain for allowing the demonstrations, the Orlando Sentinel reported. At one point, he found himself facing counterprotester Bill Caracofe, who stuck his middle finger in Hogg’s face, the AP reported.
“There are millions and millions of people who don’t worship everything that comes out of his mouth,” Caracofe told the AP.
He was among about a dozen NRA supporters who held a counterprotest inside the store. He told the AP that students’ anger toward Publix should instead be directed at the sheriff’s office and school district for failing to keep the students safe.
Industry experts disagree on how Publix will be impacted by the protests and the suspension of political contributions.
Phil Lempert, who heads the website Supermarket Guru, told the Orlando Sentinel that Publix’s recognition of the protesters’ demands was unusual.
“But we live in unusual times, and when we look at gun violence, all the rules are being rewritten,” he said. “I think the impact will affect their bottom line in the very short term due to the protests, but canceling all political contributions is a very smart move.”
The move could also lead to a rush of support for Publix from loyal customers. That’s what Chick-fil-A experienced when activists called for a boycott because of its CEO’s opposition to same-sex marriage, said David Livingston of DJL Research, who spoke to the Orlando Sentinel.
“Publix is a cult. Employees and customers are members,” Livingston said. “Publix will probably have a positive reaction. Everyone knows they are a standup company, especially after a hurricane.”
Livingston was referencing the outpouring of gratitude customers showed Publix during Hurricane Irma last summer. The grocery chain set up hurricane landing pages on its websites, responded to customers on social media and even won the Internet over with hurricane-themed cakes, which read “Go Away Irma” and “Weather it Out,” according to the Tampa Bay Business Journal.