The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (Summer 2000).
There is a widespread understanding that the fightback against the powers-that-be and their police enforcers has to take on a broader dimension, that we have to “hit them where it hurts.” That is why many people seized on the familiar refrain, “No Justice, No Peace!” and added “No Profits!”, as well as adopting the slogan “Shut the City Down!”
But the leaders who stood at the head of the movement, Rev. Al Sharpton and his allies in the Amadou Diallo Coalition, took that desire to send a powerful message to Giuliani and directed it into various boycott proposals instead of mass action. Revolutionaries say this is the wrong path to take, and this article will explain why.
One proposal pushed by Sharpton was an Easter-season boycott of major retailers in New York owned by white Giuliani supporters: Disney, Modell‘s, Old Navy, Jimmy Jazz, Blockbuster Video, Harlem USA and HMV‘s. A consumer boycott, however, is very difficult to maintain suc cessfully: people who its organizers would wish to participate in it are isolated from each other and don’t see their collective strength in struggle.
Still, there are occasions when boycotts can be effective, but those circumstances are far from common today. For example, boycotts can be useful as an auxiliary tactic of a large working-class movement first mobilized through industrial action, usually where a party or union leadership has the confidence of an angry and militant following.
Another situation where the tactic has proven very effective was the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-6. The Black community of Montgomery, Alabama responded to the arrest of Rosa Parks for the “crime” of not surrendering her seat to a white man on a municipal bus. They were able to successfully cripple the bus system and win a significant victory through the boycott tactic.
The difference between Montgomery then and New York today is enormous. This was a small Black community of 17,000 people who nevertheless constituted 75 percent of the bus ridership. The community was relatively cohesive; organized by a network of strong churches with a religious and trade union leadership everybody knew well. Crucially, the target was very defined, the Montgomery bus system, and there was no doubt that the impact of a Black boycott would be devastating.
Add to that two other factors: a rising and explosive Black upheaval was germinating across the vastly changing South, and there was tremendous nationwide support for an end to segregation. Compare that to the extremely diverse and far larger Black community in today’s New York, the lack of a cohesive, fighting leadership with an organized following, and the lack of a well-defined economic target toward which boycotters could focus their attack.
In contrast, a strike—especially a mass strike or a general strike of all workers in a city—hits companies in the pocketbook and keeps strikers together and feeling their mass strength. A mass strike culminating in a march and demonstration at City Hall and Wall Street would be a defiant, in-your-face challenge to Giuliani and the bankers and tycoons he serves and protects, just the opposite of a stay-at-home boycott.
We had a taste of this last December, when Giuliani reacted hysterically to the threat of a transit strike shutting the city down by getting obscenely punitive injunctions against the strike approved by compliant judges. (See our detailed account in PR 60.) There is no question that a major strike puts fear in the heart of the ruling class. This tells us something about how to send an effective economic message.
At a meeting of the Diallo Coalition on May 9, attorney Alton Maddox Jr. stated that the boycott was a great success and handed out copies of a May 4 Wall Street Journal article as “proof.” In fact, it was anything but. The article is about poor sales figures for clothing retailers in April. The trend was national, not affecting New York any more than other areas. It also affected all stores, not just those that were boycotted. Thus the article offers no evidence that the boycott had any economic effect at all.
Moreover, the whole point of taking an economic action was to force the establishment to back down from its racist attacks and win the murder victims Diallo, Ferguson and Dorismond some justice. Mass anger succeeded in forcing the police to modify some of their tactics and was a factor in Giuliani’s decision to back out of the Senate race. But he is still in office, with his pro-cop policies intact; not one cop has been brought to justice yet for any of the three murders. This is the real proof of the failure of the boycott strategy.
In an article in the Daily Challenge newspaper, Maddox wrote, “This is a boycott aimed ultimately at economic and political independence [for the Black community].” He elaborated further on this theme:
Black folk spend $500 million dollars over the Easter period. If we don’t spend that money, and invest it instead in our community, we could build over ten Carver Banks, we could build our own television and radio stations—so we would not have to complain about how we are represented in the media.
The Carver Bank has indeed become a prime symbol of the potential for Black economic independence, the kind of institution Blacks should do business with. The radical Black nationalist December 12th Movement called on all Blacks to take their money out of white-owned banks and put it in the Black-owned Carver Bank. They raised this call in speeches at the April 20 march and repeated it at a Haitian Coalition for Justice meeting later.
But just how economically independent is the Carver Bank from the really big players in the white-dominated economic system? We can learn a lot by looking at a major dispute that has been going on the last two years between Carver Bank and a smaller Black-owned bank in Bos ton, the Boston Bank of Commerce (BBOC). The owners of BBOC, Teri Williams and Kevin Cohee, made two proposals last year to merge their bank with Carver; Carver’s board of directors rejected both proposals. Then Williams and Cohee campaigned to get elected to Carver’s board at the shareholders’ meeting this February, charging among other things that “Carver has a history of not lending to community residents. Over $100 million of its loans since 1997 were purchased from Chase Manhattan Bank instead of being generated for community residents.”
With many shareholders supporting the BBOC dissident candidates (who own 7 percent of Carver’s stock), Carver maneuvered to stop them by issuing large blocks of special shares known as preferred voting stock to the giant financial company Morgan Stanley (white-owned) and Provender Opportunities Fund (Black-owned) on January 11, the last day that owning shares allows one to vote at the shareholders’ meeting. This preferred stock amounted to 8 percent of the entire stock in Carver, and it entitled Morgan Stanley and Provender to a special 94-cent dividend rate while the common stock available to individuals in the community only earned a 5-cent dividend rate!
Former mayor David Dinkins was brought in as one of two people to run against Williams and Cohee for seats on Carver’s board. Carver’s candidates won the election by the narrow margin of about 888,000 “share-votes” to 856,000 for the dissidents. The deal with Morgan Stanley and Provender was definitely the deciding factor in the election. BBOC sued, and the case went against Carver on all counts. This is hardly a model for Black economic independence!
But let us have no illusions in the Boston Bank of Commerce’s independence from the dominant institutions of the racist capitalist system either. One white-owned financial giant making big profits off of BBOC and its depositors is Visa. One of the initiatives that Williams and Cohee tout the most is the “UNITY Visa card”: 1 percent of every purchase goes to support various Black organizations. Of course, the profits Visa makes by charging high interest rates on credit-card debts that the cardholders can’t afford to pay off are vastly greater than these donations. Thus BBOC supports itself by acting as a conduit through which Visa exploits Black cardholders. And they’re the “good” Black-owned bank compared to Carver!
The lesson is that this is how the capitalist system works. Black have just as much right to form businesses as whites: but the nationalist goal of “economic independence” under capitalism is an illusion. The boycott strategy will only leave the white masters of the economy laughing all the way to the Carver Bank—which they finance.