Do “Black”-outs work?

Cross-posted at the Brave New Films Blog.

Money Fist

Activist and Radio Talk Show Host Warren Ballentine has called for a Black out on Friday, Nov. 2nd. This is in response to, among other things, the domestic torture of Megan Williams, and the Jena 6.

From the release:

Until we have federal legislation in place regarding these hate crimes, as African Americans we need to band together to show our “Economic Power” by refusing to spend ANY money that day from fast food restaurants to gas.

There are calls for these sorts of actions all the time, and they are usually motivated by positive intentions: solidarity, taking a stand, being deliberate with your economic power. We see them on all sorts of issues, from gas prices to impeachment. These are all good things, but I question their effectiveness. For one, this sort of action can only successful if it is extremely specific and if it is sustained.

Case in point:

  • Motgomery Bus Boycott:
    Extremely specific, focusing on one business in one sector in one location.
  • Don’t spend any money anywhere:
    Not-so-specific, a call to every everywhere not to spend anything anywhere.

Something this non-specific is overwhelming, and ends up being a bigger ask to the participants than it is to those you are trying to influence.

Finally, sustainability. A disparate, one-day action will not register more than a blip on people’s radars. One-day actions don’t really show mettle in terms of demonstrating a willingness to change behavior in any meaningful way. It’s like going to the gym once a year and then telling someone, “Yeah, I work out.” Only when a change in behavior is

  1. Threatened,
  2. Demonstrated, and
  3. Continued

does it have lasting impact. The Montgomery Bus Boycott went on for nearly a year. Saying “I’m not going to ride the bus for a day” would not have sent any message whatsoever.

These two go hand-in-hand: it’s pretty hard to create something sustainable out of something non-specific. Boycotting McDonalds, Citgo, and Kmart for a day won’t do a thing to change situations.

My suggestion to Ballentine and the other organizers is to pick a specific target and commit to action against that target for a significant amount of time. Here’s an example:

For every day that Mychal Bell remains incarcerated, we will hang a noose outside of Gov. Blanco’s office.

This would force the Governor to decide how long she wanted this to continue. The visibility of the nooses would highlight the absurdity of the situation.

Am I off?

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

5 responses to “Do “Black”-outs work?”

  1. Carl Quindel says :

    No, not off at all. Specific, measurable, and realistic is the phrase of the time for successful organizing. The results of the action are what people hope for…not the intention, not the dream, and not the feelings. This action also does not seem to fit the crime. The target becomes very hazy and the results of the action is confusion, inaction, and, soon after, amnesia. A bystander witnessing this “protest” does not instantly connect all the players or issues at stake because there is no target or too many targets depending on how you look at it.

    Also, I believe there is already a holiday a small group of progressive people have been celebrating for some time called “Buy Nothing Day”. It is more for an act of solidarity in protest of our U.S. consumerist ways and the messages of “BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY” we hear in our heads every day as we window shop. This at least makes sense. However, it is still ineffective in inspiring others to join the cause as there is really nothing passionate to get behind for ordinary people with ordinary lives. And this is why most folks have not heard of this holiday unless they are in a college, in a commune, are priviledged, or are just cooler than everyone else.

    I completely agree with the post here. What people are now gravitating towards is something I hear Barack Obama say: “[I think the country is sick of being against everything and would rather be for something]” or Chris Rock’s “Sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Why not just buy Black instead of not buying? Why not just be the change we want in the world (Somebody important said this already…don’t know who)? Why not use economic power to shut down the epitome of what is wrong and lift up the epitome of what is right? Not just a boycott, but also a BUYcott. The tandem might be more effective as it targets what’s wrong and what’s right. This moral stance can create a powerful base to build momentum: new targets, new positive examples, etc.

    I wouldn’t want to shut down a national movement for positive change (nor do I think I could). I would rather see a “Black” out than the masses distracted, busy, and unaffected. However, results of our actions tend to dictate our growth as a country, not just headlines…

  2. Villager says :

    Your point is well taken. I agree that one-day boycotts aren’t effective on an economic level. Especially if all we do is POSTPONE our purchase and go back to the white businesses with our money the next day.

    However, I do think that anything that focuses our attention on my conscious use of our economic power has merit.

    We have to learn to be less consumer and more owner.

    peace, Villager

  3. mel says :

    Leave it to some rich lawyer to call for a Blackout on payday. In fact, the first payday of the month. I got groceries to buy and rent to pay. And American Gangster and Darfur Now comes out on Nov 2.

  4. Steven M DeVougas says :

    I think this shows the danger of “fashionable or reactivie” activism. I totally support the spirit, but the execution is off. If this were just the beginning, if it had the consistency Garlin mentioned, then we would be on to something. We need to stop looking for the Knockout and learn to use our power strategically over time.

  5. African American Political Pundit says :

    I agree, these types of efforts although noteworthy, gain limited traction because there are no specific, targeted, activities for specific segments of black communities to be involved, over a specific period of time.

    Black communities are not there yet, regarding national Black Outs and boycotts. If black folks did not organize after a whole city “New Orleans” of black folks were displaced by Federal government in-action (check out the difference in the treatment of folks in SanDiego vs New Orleans) why should we think blacks are going to organize around 2-3 dozen nooses and the gang rape of a yound black women from WV?

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