Injustice Boycott: Civil Rights Activist Says Put Your Money Where your Mouth Is

by: Nalani Gordon

New York Daily News Writer Shaun King has issued a call to action. On December 5, 2016, the anniversary of the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King plans to initiate a nationwide “Injustice Boycott” to protest “police brutality, racial violence and systemic injustice in America.”[1] If executed properly, the boycott has the potential to make a significant impact and lead to legislative reforms. Here are three reasons why the boycott could work:

  1. Boycotts have worked in the past.

Let’s be clear: the boycott is not a new idea. Civil rights protesters have long used their economic power to provoke social justice reforms.[2] Buses in Montgomery, Alabama were desegregated after the iconic boycott[3], and an NAACP-led boycott in Claiborne County, Mississippi ultimately led the Supreme Court to hold[4] that nonviolent, politically motivated boycotts are protected under the First Amendment. Money talks.

  1. Boycotts are working right now.

North Carolina (NC) House Bill 2, which affects the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, has caused significant backlash for the state: Major companies have halted expansion plans; celebrities refuse to perform; and the real knockout punch for NC may be the loss of popular sporting events, such as the 2017 NBA all-star game and the NCAA and ACC championship games.[5] Because a large-scale boycott of a state like NC could negatively impact a state’s economy, a state may be inclined to address calls for reform. King states that he and his team will be “building a coalition” of organizations, businesses, and leaders who will participate in the boycott.[6] King’s boycott needs the support of companies like Apple, Wal-Mart, and IBM, which have all denounced several states’ legislation regarding anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.[7]

  1. King’s boycott will avoid the pitfalls of other recent calls for action.

            Last month, actor Isaiah Washington called for every black person in America to boycott work, school, and shopping for twenty-four hours to protest police killings of black citizens.[8] Washington’s proposed protest would assuredly lead to powerful financial consequences[9], but which entity is the specific target of the protest and what is the specific result that Washington is seeking? So, African Americans boycott everything for one day, and then what happens? A boycott that targets no specific businesses or organizations may only result in employment terminations and grade reductions for boycott participants. Think back: The Montgomery Bus Boycott was effective because it focused on a specific issue, targeted the boycott directly at the source of the issue, and made specific demands.[10]

King is attempting to take a focused and strategic approach.[11] The boycott will be targeted to particular brands and corporations that either profit from systemic oppression or are headquartered in states that are “notorious for police brutality and racial violence” and fail to address these problems.[12] To avert outside interference, the boycott’s “targets” will not be revealed until the boycott begins.[13] King attempts to make the boycott more doable by promising to provide alternatives and exceptions to each target of the boycott, so that protesters are not left without options to meet their needs.[14] Importantly, each state will be offered a “clear path out of the boycott,” which will be a powerful incentive for states to negotiate with activists on policy issues.[15]

On paper, King’s “Injustice Boycott” is brilliant. But, boycotts require real action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott that many of us learned about in history class would have been an epic failure if those dedicated Americans had not actually walked or carpooled to work for 381 days.[16] As of October 21, over 113,000 people have pledged to join King’s boycott.[17] 113,000 online pledges represent a relatively high level of support, especially in light of the fact that the boycott is still in the formative stages of development. With that said, in order for a multi-billion dollar corporation to feel the economic sting of a boycott, a significant group of individuals must withhold their spending power.[18] King likely needs several hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of people to participate in the boycott. Perhaps King will be able to garner more boycotters through a strong coalition of partners, vigorous social media promotion, and the New York Daily News’ large audience of readers. But even if the boycott gains traction, a true Montgomery-style boycott requires more than clicking a pledge button or tweeting a hashtag. What will happen if our favorite brand or store is featured on the list of targets that King will release on December 5? Time will tell.


[1] Shaun King, King: Here is how we will boycott injustice and police brutality, New York Daily News (Sep. 30, 2016) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-boycott-injustice-police-brutality-article-1.2812999.

[2] The Montgomery Bus Boycott and an NAACP-led boycott in Claiborne County, Mississippi are just a couple of examples of boycotts that were employed during the civil rights movements of the 1960s. See The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Encyclopedia Britannica, (Aug. 9, 2016), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Montgomery-bus-boycott; see also NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 102 S. Ct. 3409, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1215 (1982).

[3] Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114 (1956).

[4] Claiborne, 458 U.S. 886.

[5] Susan Milligan, LGBT Rights No Longer a Political Liability, U.S. News and World Report (Sep. 20, 2016) http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-20/lgbt-rights-no-longer-a-political-liability.

[6] See King, supra note 1.

[7] Jon Schuppe, Corporate Boycotts Become Key Weapon in Gay Rights Fight, NBC News (Mar. 26, 2016) http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/corporate-boycotts-become-key-weapon-gay-rights-fight-n545721.

[8] Natalie DiBlasio, Isaiah Washington tells African Americans to boycott work Monday, USA Today (Sep. 26, 2016) http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2016/09/25/isaiah-washington-tells-african-americans-boycott-work-monday/91078734/.

[9] According to Nielsen, the buying power of African Americans as a group exceeds $1 trillion. See African Americans are More Relevant Than Ever, Nielsen (Sep. 19, 2013) http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2013/african-american-consumers-are-more-relevant-than-ever.html.

[10] See The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Encyclopedia Britannica, (Aug. 9, 2016), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Montgomery-bus-boycott.

[11] See King, supra note 1.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See id.

[16] See Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 2.

[17] http://www.injusticeboycott.com/

[18] Approximately ninety percent of the black residents in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the buses. See Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 2.

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