Georgia’s Voter Suppression Is Sparking Boycotts. History Shows They Can Work.

Georgia’s new voting law, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25, is part of a nationwide voter suppression effort involving hundreds of bills. No serious analyst buys the Republican claim that voter fraud is widespread: it’s virtually nonexistent. The real rationale for these bills is occasionally admitted, as when North Carolina Republicans said they outlawed Sunday voting because Sunday voters were “disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.”

Evidence is not enough to stop malevolent policies, though. If Republicans can suppress votes based on false claims, they will. Only occasionally do the courts step in, especially now that the federal bench is packed with Trump judges. What, then, can stop the assault on voting rights?

Activists in Georgia suggest an answer. In response to the new law, anti-racist organizations have been pushing corporations to demand repeal and to “put their full weight behind” voting rights legislation at the federal level. Some Black clergy leaders called for a boycott of Coca-Cola, Delta and other Georgia-based corporations that had not publicly opposed the law. Within two days of that call, many companies broke their silence and condemned it.

Many organizers are demanding they do more. The Black Voters Matter coalition began lobbying sports and professional associations to relocate events scheduled in Georgia. Activists within those associations also mobilized. The Major League Baseball (MLB) Players Alliance (composed of Black players and retirees) and the MLB Players Association pressured the league to reconsider its decision to hold the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta. MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred knew that some All-Star players and coaches might “stay away to protest the voting law” — not an abstract prospect given last year’s athlete strikes against racism.

The pressure campaign began to bear fruit on April 2 when Manfred announced he would relocate the game to another state. Governor Kemp fumed that Manfred had “caved” to “cancel culture” and “lies from liberal activists,” and vowed that corporate opposition would not deter his commitment to voter suppression. “For anybody that’s out there thinking that any kind of snowball effect is going to have an effect on me, it will not.”

Kemp is correct that we could see a “snowball effect”: the MLB decision could inspire more anti-racist activists to demand a boycott of Georgia, and could in turn lead more companies and professional associations to steer clear of the state. Faced with this cascade, Kemp may prove more vulnerable to pressure than his bravado suggests.

The success of other state-level boycotts reveals a promising pathway for reversing the Georgia law and blocking similar laws in other states. Recent boycotts have helped restrain the flood of racist and anti-LGBT legislation. These boycotts have succeeded by imposing direct costs on corporations, which have then intervened to demand that state politicians accede to movement demands. Even unreconstructed reactionaries like Brian Kemp are not immune to those pressures.

Making Business Pay the Price for Racism

Boycotts have historically been a vital weapon against white supremacy. They were central to the civil rights campaigns across the U.S. South in the 1950s and 1960s. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, the movement succeeded because it inflicted millions of dollars in losses on downtown retailers, who then urged the police and city government to agree to desegregation. Less known is Black organizers’ proposal for a total boycott of Alabama in 1965 over the state’s refusal to crack down on white terrorism. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that “a campaign of economic withdrawal” would be “the most immediate and effective means of calling responsible people to the fore.”

King’s logic was based on a commonsense reading of power: most politicians take their marching orders from capitalists. In his words, “the political power structure listens to the economic power structure.” This same understanding guided many of the movement’s organizers. The Birmingham chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee argued in 1963 that if capitalists “chose to act to change things in Birmingham, things would change.” The same understanding is apparent in an April 2 statement by Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter, who says that if corporations in Georgia had “wanted to squash this legislation, it would have been squashed.”

We need not go back to the 1960s to find effective boycotts against racism. The defeat of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation provides a more recent model.

In 2010 the state legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 1070, an omnibus anti-immigrant bill whose most infamous provision legalized racial profiling by police, in fact requiring them to demand papers from all suspected immigrants. Emboldened racists introduced similar bills in 31 states. Lawsuits against SB1070 and copycat bills were able to block some provisions, but SB1070 itself survived. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court even upheld the law’s requirement that police racially profile.

Yet by 2016, the law had effectively been gutted. That year, Arizona announced it would no longer require police to racially profile, “a move that pulls the last set of teeth from what was once the nation’s most fearsome immigration law,” as one reporter noted. In the meantime, the same Arizona state legislature that had passed SB1070 by a wide margin rejected multiple new bills that would have further criminalized immigrants.

What changed? Lawyers and lawsuits played a role, tying up SB1070 and other bills in court. More important than deft legal arguments, however, was the boycott of Arizona.

After SB1070 was signed in April 2010, the National Council of La Raza called for a boycott of the state. Dozens of cities, counties and educational institutions outside Arizona joined the boycott. Revenue from tourism and convention hosting declined, Arizona businesses lost contracts with outside municipalities and many Mexican companies stopped doing business with Arizona companies.

In March 2011, dozens of corporate leaders in Arizona publicly demanded an end to anti-immigrant laws. They were not moved by moral indignation. They wrote that the boycott had been so “harmful to our image” that “Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding,” and “[s]ales outside of the state declined.” A week after their letter, the Republican-dominated legislature voted down five new anti-immigrant bills.

The direct economic impact of the boycott was relatively small — millions of dollars, not billions. But the prospect of continued losses in sales, and of the emigration of undocumented workers to neighboring states, scared businesses enough to change their posture. “Any time I turn on a national news program and hear the words ‘In Arizona today,’ it strikes fear in all of us,” said the director of a Scottsdale resort in 2011. The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which had remained “neutral” on SB1070 at the time of passage, became a strong opponent of future bills that could ostracize Arizona. In 2020, the Republican governor of Arizona abandoned his legislative attack on sanctuary cities after the Chamber and other business interests “acted rapidly” to express their displeasure, according to the Chamber’s president.

Outside observers drew important lessons from this battle. For capitalists in other states, it was a warning. “Arizona’s experience served as a cautionary tale for other states that were considering similar measures,” noted the Phoenix newspaper The Arizona Republic in 2020. Activists learned a slightly different lesson: by inflicting costs on business, they could reverse oppressive policies. Even when businesses are not the driving force behind those policies, their economic power gives them the political leverage to block (or at least greatly hinder) the schemes of reactionary politicians.

Making Anti-LGBT Laws Untenable

The Republican assault on LGBT rights has also been countered, and partly beaten back, by state-level boycotts. In Arkansas, the recent legislative attacks on transgender rights have led many activists to discuss the boycott option. A possible boycott of cycling championships held in the state could have a significant economic impact and could be imitated in other industries.

However the Arkansas battle plays out, the defeat of anti-LGBT laws in other states offers a model for activists. In 2016, North Carolina became notorious for passing a law, House Bill (HB) 2, that stripped protections for LGBT workers and forced transgender people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates. Over 120 corporate executives signed a public letter to Gov. Pat McCrory protesting the law. Major corporations and banks also withdrew investments from the state or vowed to avoid doing business there in the future. College and professional basketball associations joined the boycott.

Like Governor Kemp in Georgia, Republican politicians in North Carolina initially insisted that the boycott wasn’t having much impact. They vowed to defend the law and continued their anti-LGBT rhetoric. Yet the economic costs mounted, prompting worried business leaders to lean harder on the politicians. When a major real estate firm pulled out of a new investment in Charlotte later that year, an official from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce privately warned that, “I fear this will be an epidemic outcome for many projects we are still in the running for at this time.” In March 2017, an Associated Press analysis conservatively estimated that the boycott would cost North Carolina $3.76 billion.

Three days after the AP report, the politicians caved. The state legislature approved, and Governor McCrory signed, a replacement bill that rescinded the anti-trans provisions of HB2 (though they also slipped in a poison pill, prohibiting local anti-discrimination laws for the next three years).

The lesson of North Carolina was clear to many business executives in other states. In 2016 the Republican governor of Georgia (Kemp’s predecessor), “under pressure from business interests,” vetoed a bill that would have allowed private entities to deny services to LGBT customers. In 2019, the business press reported that corporate leaders “have held off a slew of anti-LGBT bills” across the United States due to fear of similar boycotts.

As in Arizona, corporations’ protests were based not on morality but on their bottom lines. Capitalists feared that ties to the pariah states would cost them individual customers as well as the businesses, professional associations, and state and local governments with whom they had contracts. Large companies also worried about disruption of their labor force. When PayPal canceled a $3.6 million investment in Charlotte, it said that “becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable.” The company feared it would be unable to attract top talent to its North Carolina facility, including LGBT recruits and their supporters.

It was the growing pressure from customers, and the fear of desertion by workers, that led businesses to protest against oppressive state legislation. When the status quo became “untenable” for companies like PayPal, they used their economic leverage to demand change from the politicians.

The Companies (and We) Hold the Cards

These anecdotes show that even hard-right Republicans can be brought to heel by economic disruption. One leading business analyst predicts that if corporate opposition intensifies, “Georgia is likely to back down” and repeal its voter suppression law. Though Governor Kemp insists he’s impervious to pressure, he may be no match for concerted business power. “The truth is, the companies hold the cards,” says the analyst, citing the fate of North Carolina’s anti-trans law.

We hold some cards too. The ultimate reason for corporate protests against the Georgia law is the fear of losing customers and workers. That gives all of us power to influence the outcome. If the movement can make the situation “untenable” for business, business will make it untenable for Kemp and his ilk. We don’t necessarily need to inflict billions in direct losses: a credible threat of disruption to their profits is often enough to activate capitalists. This lesson may prove useful for confronting the current surge of voter suppression bills, anti-trans legislation and other right-wing initiatives across the United States.

Successful boycotts aren’t easy. They require broad public awareness and indignation, good organizing and alternative options for customers. Organizers must convince people that some short-term “sacrifice” is preferable to the suffering they’re “already experiencing,” as Cliff Albright says about the current battle in Georgia. Organizers must also overcome the resistance of colleagues who oppose confrontation for fear of alienating “moderate” constituencies, as MLK understood when he proposed his boycott of Alabama in 1965. All these ingredients were present in Arizona, North Carolina, the victorious boycotts of the Civil Rights era, and perhaps in Georgia today.

The factors that make boycotts successful are also their weakness. Some targets are more vulnerable to boycotts than others. For problems that are out of sight to most of the public, it can be difficult to rally support. And the fact that capitalists “hold the cards” in our economy and government is antithetical to democracy. But given the built-in depravities of our capitalist system, we must leverage corporate power whenever we can. The boycott is among our most effective weapons against injustice.