A number of organizations are convinced the Trump campaign has pushed far beyond the boundaries of civilized and productive political competition. Some have been working behind the scenes to encourage many of the country's biggest corporations to divest from the Republican convention entirely. The Fix reached out to Rashad Robinson to learn more.
As a spokesman for the Color of Change PAC, Robinson coordinated the Republican National Convention divestment project. As the great-grandson of Virginia sharecroppers and grandson of a man who never had the opportunity to learn to read or write but who did make a practice of taking Robinson with him to vote, this is precisely the kind of work Robinson wants to be doing. He calls it shaping and participating in democracy. When not doing PAC work like the divestment effort, Robinson also serves as executive director of Color of Change, a very modern kind of civil rights group.
Color of Change works on all kinds of issues, from police misconduct and worker rights to death penalty cases, net neutrality and the often stereotype-packed content of reality TV shows, as well as public policies that can help to drive the private prison industry's profits.
And Color of Change has made notable moves. In 2009, Glenn Beck told his listeners that President Obama was a "racist," with a "deep-seated hatred for white people." In Robinson's words, "behind the scenes, our staff initiated a dialogue with some of Beck’s biggest advertisers — corporations including Walmart, CVS, Best Buy and Sprint. We conveyed to them the concerns of our members and presented them with a clear choice: Stop funding Beck, or become publicly associated with his racism and divisiveness. As a result, most companies quickly pulled their ads."
Then, a few years later Color of Change began working with the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization which exposed the member roster of a then little-known policy shop known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC and its members — which then included the likes of Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Yahoo, Yelp, Facebook, Google, Walmart and Blue Cross Blue Shield — had successfully passed very similar "stand your ground" policies, concealed and open carry permit laws, voter ID requirements and other measures limiting workers' rights in several states. Ultimately, over 100 corporations ended their financial support of the group. And ALEC narrowed its policy focus to economic matters.
The Fix wanted to know when and why Color of Change had fixed its attention on the Republican National Convention, as well as what that's done so far. What follows is a Q&A conducted via email edited only for clarity and length.
THE FIX: When and why did Color of Change decide to encourage companies not to provide financial backing for the 2016 Republican National Convention where Donald Trump is expected to accept the party's presidential nomination?
ROBINSON: We started this campaign in February by reaching out behind the scenes to corporations that had a history of sponsoring the RNC. We explained to these corporations that this year's convention wasn’t business as usual — that the violent and racist messages of Donald Trump were things these companies couldn’t simply ignore, and that they couldn't pretend that their financial support wouldn't help to amplify Trump's rhetoric. We made it clear to these corporations that we would hold them accountable for amplifying Trump's platform.
THE FIX: Presumably there have been candidates and activities inside both major parties in the past with which Color of Change does not agree. What makes Trump and his candidacy different or so objectionable that a coordinated effort to starve the party's convention of resources seemed in order?
ROBINSON: Robust political discourse is healthy for our democracy, which is why we've never previously weighed in on a convention like this. What is different this time, what is unacceptable, is violent rhetoric, racially charged imagery, and the dissemination of paranoid, widely debunked conspiracy theories that embolden white supremacist hate groups and encourage hate crimes.
Trump failed to [immediately] disavow Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support; he tweeted a false, white supremacist-invented statistic that white people are mostly murdered by black people; and he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. This is beyond the pale for any presidential candidate today.
Funding the RNC this year is not a neutral or unbiased endeavor. These companies are helping to reinforce and amplify rhetoric that says national citizenship and all its privileges are to be reserved exclusively for white people.
THE FIX: How precisely did Color of Change make convention divestment requests? Are there other organizations doing something similar?
ROBINSON: When we began this campaign, we recognized that Trump was attacking many communities, so we worked to bring in a number of other organizations capable of raising the voices of an inclusive spectrum of people. This has included Latino, Muslim, women, Jewish and progressive communities represented by groups like Muslim Advocates, UltraViolet, Bend The Arc, Latino Victory Project, MPower, Center for Media Justice, Million Hoodies, CREDOAction, Free Press Action Fund and many others. We held weekly calls to coordinate the campaign and maximize the collective pressure we could put on corporations. Thanks to our work, a total of 16 companies have either significantly reduced or eliminated their sponsorship of the 2016 RNC. Combined, these companies have divested at least $5.6 million from the RNC.
THE FIX: Will you name the companies and how much money they have given to Republican conventions in the recent past?
ROBINSON: Here is a list of the companies that have reduced or eliminated contributions to the 2016 Republican National Convention, as well as the amounts they gave to the 2012 RNC convention:
Reduced donations for 2016:
Coca-Cola — gave $660,000 in 2012, giving $75,000 in 2016.
Microsoft — gave $740,000 in kind and $813,000 cash in 2012. Only giving in kind this year.
Walmart — gave $150,000 in 2012, only giving $15,000 this year.
No donations for 2016:
Hewlett-Packard — gave $406,000 in kind and $150,000 cash in 2012
Walgreens — gave $125,000 in 2012
UPS — gave $100,000 in kind and $300,000 cash in 2012
MetLife — gave $1,000,000 in parking and rental space
Motorola — gave $520,000 in kind and $100,000 cash in 2012
Wells Fargo — gave $500,000 cash in 2012
JPMorgan Chase — gave $200,000 cash in 2012
Ford — gave $100,000 cash in 2012
Apple — nothing in 2012, but $140,000 worth of MacBooks in 2008.
Amgen — $400,000 in 2012
General Electric — $100,000 in 2012
Amazon.com — no donation, providing live-streaming.
THE FIX: There are people who will probably assume that there isn't much overlap between companies that closely value their relationship with a civil rights organization like Color of Change or consumers who may support organizations like it and those that provide large volume financial support to the Republican National Convention. What would you say to these people?
ROBINSON: Corporations across the political spectrum want to gain access to political leaders, and most of them also want a good reputation and relationship with the black community. Our previous campaigns to get over 100 corporations to divest from ALEC, and over 200 advertisers to exit Glenn Beck's show on Fox demonstrates the power of everyday people to hold corporations accountable.
These conventions are different — they’re big celebrations, where every four years, corporations can skirt around campaign finance laws and throw big events to gain access to politicians. The success of this campaign shows that many big brands value the [spending] power the black community and other communities have to hold them accountable over their desire to gain political favors. We've successfully shown these companies that this is not an issue of left or right, but of right and wrong.
When people look back on this campaign years from now, they’re not going to give credit to corporate leaders who had empathy. They’re going to give credit to those that stood up and made decisions that are sometimes tough.
THE FIX: In the run-up to the 2012 election, a number of the large companies which were members of ALEC also made contributions to civil and voting rights organizations. These were organizations actively trying to register more minorities and young people to vote and protesting voter ID laws. Have you encountered any similar signs of political "double dipping" over the course of this effort? For that matter, has the current effort required any financial sacrifices for Color of Change?
ROBINSON: I want to stress that neither Color of Change nor Color of Change PAC takes money from big corporations. Part of our work of holding corporations and government accountable is we don’t take money from them. Our work to empower the voices of everyday people is possible because at no point are we worried about it affecting our bottom line.
Corporations for years have a history of giving to both conventions. When we would get on the phone during the campaign that forced over 100 corporations to end ties with ALEC, leaders in the corporations would tell us that they give to the left and right. We would say that’s really great, but there are not two sides to black people's voting rights or black people's lives. Our work has never been about left or right, but right or wrong.
THE FIX: Have you had any contact with the Trump campaign or RNC related to your convention divestment campaign? If so, what was the response?
ROBINSON: The RNC has made it very clear what their goals are. And the Trump campaign has been clear about who they are and what they stand for. Now that he is the presumptive nominee, there is no difference between Trump and RNC.
THE FIX: Are there any plans to mount a similar financial challenge directed at the DNC convention later this month or to pushing for certain changes in the DNC party platform?
ROBINSON: No. And I just want to underscore how unique our campaign against the RNC is. We don’t run this campaign every four years. This campaign was a unique intervention for us. We were specifically going after the idea that corporations that come to us and say “buy our products” or “purchase our services” should not be throwing a celebration for Donald Trump. When the last three Republican nominees for president are not attending this convention, there’s something very different that’s happening, and that requires a special response.
THE FIX: Will Color of Change be involved in anyway in protests or speechmaking outside the convention hall?
THE FIX: Is protest with a financial penalty a tool that Color of Change uses often or is likely to use more often in the future?
ROBINSON: Pushing back on those who want to engage with the black community with one hand and invest in institutions that put our communities in harm's ways with the other will always be part of how we amplify the voices of our members and the community. This is part of the history of black activism in this country — it’s a model that other communities leverage, from women’s groups to Jewish groups and LGBTQ organizations. Our country has a long history of people leveraging their buying power to change society and government for the better. We’ve used this tactic multiple times and will continue to do so. We always start these campaigns off with behind-the-scenes conversations. At times, we have corporations willing to leave or divest before we amplify our voices publicly.
... If there’s one take away from this historical moment we’re in, it’s that in order to turn outrage into power, you need to have clear and sustained strategic action. Campaigns and advocacy that give people the ability to translate the presence of issues into the power to change the rules.
Note: This post has been updated to clarify the role of the Center for Media and Democracy in bringing ALEC and its members to public attention.