Beyond Boycotts: An Alternative Approach to North Carolina’s HB2

This notorious anti-LGBT law makes it hard for folks to do business in here — but should the entire state be judged?

© orangesky3 & licensed under this Creative Commons License

There’s the cliche, that all drivers know to be true, of a traffic jam manifesting after a car accident solely from the spectacular schadenfreude of drivers distracted by the scene to the side. Today, I’ve felt like that driver turning their head in slow motion to examine the crash, and then turning away thankful it’s not my problem.

I’m a cisgender lesbian living in North Carolina and HB2 is that car crash. Only, now, I’m stuck with this stationary vehicle and that oil dripping is my state’s economic future ready to explode. Whether you drive by or not, I’m stuck finding solutions to get it moving forward.

After all the accurate coverage of the destructive intent of HB2 to all of North Carolina, there have been a ton of supportive messages from business and community leaders across the country. Increasingly there have been calls for boycotts on a variety of levels: from national conferences to sports tournaments to angel investments. Lots of media coverage is easily found, but the Charlotte Observer provides an amusing side-by-side comparison of those for and against HB2.

I have never lived in a city or state targeted by a boycott before, and this had me interested in the pros and cons of such a tactic. For example, Gov. McCrory has looked ever-increasingly incompetent defending such an obvious piece of discrimination. On the other hand, there are a ton of trans and other marginalized folks that live here, and could use those outside resources to great effect.

Etymology of “Boycott”

Among the most famous American boycotts, the Boston Tea Party and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, straddle the history of the word itself. Although we understand that the colonial refusal to buy and drink English tea was a boycott, the term was not identified until 1880 by another act of resistance against the British Empire.

Charles Cunningham Boycott was in fact a person, and an English captain who executing absentee landlord fees of Lord Erne in Ireland on tenant farmers (Tarrow 2013). Once farmers could not pay unfair rents, they were evicted, relegated to nameless tradition of exploitation. Charles Parnell, of the Irish National Land League, targeted Boycott with a policy ostracizing the landlords and “avoiding the violence that had often broken out during the land wars.” Farmers refused to harvest the crops, and even local merchants refused to trade with Boycott. The newly coined term spread not only through the English speaking world but to French (boycottage) and Japanese (boikotto).

“Why did a term derived from an obscure man’s name spread so rapidly and so far beyond the farm workers who had employed it against him in a British colony? The term had no particular symbolic importance and no connection to an existing discourse, but the tactic was strategically modular: it could be applied to a variety of targets by a variety of actors and organizations without incurring violent reaction of the authorities.” (Tarrow, 56)

At the core of the popularization of the term boycott, was the distinction that economic and social isolation could pressure authorities to change without violent backlash (or aggression).

Yet, underlying the tactic itself is the social justice foundation. Farm tenants had no voice or agency under British colonization. In fact, the only way they could regain their agency, express their preferences, and resist exploitation was to remove their contributions to that very system exploiting them. Denying self-perpetuating economic advantages of this face of colonial rule without jeopardizing their immediate physical safety. Other merchants signed on to support the tenants, but the inherent strength of this first “boycott” was from the empowerment of the disenfranchised. I believe this is one reason the Boston Tea Party and the Montgomery Bus Boycott continue to resonate.

Who Suffers?

I initiated my exploration into the origin of the word boycott in order to give me insight into my current predicament — how do I sort out my feelings of helplessness in the face of an extreme legislature, and my uneasiness hearing the well-intentioned travel bans and repudiations of the North Carolina? I have found many beautiful loving souls here and I remain firm in the belief that #WeAreNotThis.

I am at once harmed by the outrageous policy of HB2 and by the boycotts of the state in its entirety. That doesn’t seem to add up to justice for me or the trans folks most threatened. It was the farmers who banded together, fed up that they, their neighbors, and their families could not survive under the exploitation of colonialism. It was the landlord, ultimately who faced economic catastrophe without rents, crops, and local markets for revenue.

In response to modern legislation, boycotts ostracize not only the landlord — the Governor and Legislature — but also the very workforce under threat. In consideration of the trans community attacked for to pee/basic safety, they are probably more likely to live and work in urban communities that suffer from national companies removing investments. The other side of this irony is that the voters who elected the legislators, live in rural districts seemingly isolated from the urban economies and even harmed by the outsourcing they represent. The urban/rural divide is economically stark in North Carolina, and exacerbated by the country’s most extreme gerrymandering.

North Carolina’s Democracy is Broken

I can see how out of state allies would be confused about the voter-legislator-policy relationship here. Democracy is broken. Even putting aside the well-known slate of voter suppression laws, legislative districts are drawn for partisan advantage, and the result is this:

“The effect is that, despite their strength in statewide politics, Republicans aren’t even running a candidate in 29 House races and six Senate races held by Democrats. Democrats do not have candidates in 28 House races and 12 Senate races.”
- News & Observer

If the idea of state-wide boycotts is that the legislators will feel the heat from their constituents, that assumes competitive races where concessions are made in exchange for more votes. But the legislators are artificially insulated. These boycotts do not harm them, and instead, reinforce their fear of a culture and economy leaving them behind.

However, Governor Pat McCrory does have a strong opponent, the sitting Attorney General Roy Cooper. McCrory’s press conferences and statements are becoming increasingly desperate to provide a counter-narrative (to the truth). Politically, McCrory is threatened by a competitive race this November. But the state legislators, without incentives to back down, seem to be branding him a sacrificial lamb.

Reassessing Economic and Political Targets

Who really is responsible for these extremists in the state government? And how do you push them or, if they won’t respond, remove them?

If we are to fight this legislation with a boycott, it should be more targeted toward the actual people responsible. In this case, that does not include North Carolina’s public at large. If companies, like Paypal who’s Charlotte project was hyped by the governor, feel their job investments are still untenable, they should consider investment in the political system that landed us here. It’s not like the corporations speaking out now have remained nonpartisan in local elections. Significant support was given to the state Republican leadership. Charlotte based Bank of America, for example, is a clear example of problematic history:

“According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Bank of America’s PAC donated $8,000 to McCrory for his losing campaign for governor in 2008, and then gave him another $8,000 in 2012, when he won. Since 2002, it’s also given $41,500 to [president pro tempore of the state Senate Phil] Berger, $13,500 to [speaker of the state House Tom] Moore, and $86,000 to the state Republican Party.”
- The Intercept

Not only are large companies sanctioning the workforce that they proclaim to protect, but they are as culpable as some voters for this ideologically-contradictory group of fear-mongers. Let’s look at what can actually move the state forward.

The general election only provides an alternative in roughly half the races for those who voted HB2 into law. Regular electoral accountability does not apply here.

  1. Where there are alternatives to those who voted for HB2, hold them accountable and donate to the opposition. To be clear, I believe that applies to the Democrats who joined the majority as well.
  2. Where the legislator voted “No,” support them. Even more.
  3. Where no opposition exists, help develop or form a candidate recruitment program.
  4. If we are going to get to the heart of democratic representation, support the redistricting court case for a symbolic number of weeks. Support nonpartisan voter engagement and education programs like Democracy NC, NC Justice, and the NAACP.
  5. Break down the fear that began this entire debacle, sponsor events for transgender visibility through organizations like Ignite NC, Southerners On New Ground (SONG), and local LGBT Centers.
  6. Host jobs fairs in NC specifically asking for LGBT applicants.
Change will not occur through negative repercussions alone; change must come through greater engagement, investment, and visibility.

Businesses should highlight their commitment to equality, non-discrimination, democracy by investing in the queer communities disregarded by the government. Lobby those officials. Participate in political giving to their opponents or non-partisan voter engagement organizations. There are positive investments to be made in the wake of direct economic sanctions against those responsible. Just ask the amazingly resilient and beautiful post-Amendment 1 community that I’m getting to know.

We are not this.

That first “boycott” carried a special moral weight as the merchants responded in support of the farmers resistance. More and more, the current slate of boycotts look like symbolic opportunism without a commitment to change. The LGBT community and, well, all North Carolinians have been held accountable for the actions of a few albeit powerful individuals.

Who will we be?

So, here I am, a passenger in the car on the side of the road, drawing unwanted attention from all the 49 other cars. Well, except that one with Mississippi plates is pulling in behind us, not to be outdone. My driver took unwanted initiative, replaced the oil with an experimental concoction and crashed it for all of us. So, instead of boycotting, would you give me a lift?

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