The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin kicked off protests around the country, as well as calls for a boycott of Florida—where the trial took place, and where a controversial “Stand Your Ground” law still exists.
Since the six-woman jury acquitted Zimmerman over the weekend, a petition has been floated at MoveOn.org to boycott Florida tourism, and various Facebook pages have been created (Boycott Florida, Boycott Florida Economy), one featuring a photo of Mickey Mouse and the words “Just Say No.” At Twitter the #BoycottFlorida hashtag has been getting plenty of action.
People who are upset with the Zimmerman verdict have even been voicing their anger at the official Visit Florida Facebook page. “I really LOVE vacationing in Florida, but I cannot, in good conscience, take my kids to Florida, or visit Florida again ever!!” reads a statement from one commenter, responding to a contest to win a vacation in Key West.
A pastor in Nashville, and a Huffington Post travel editor are among those who have chimed in with their support of a full-on Florida boycott, while protesters in Philadelphia seem to be focusing on boycotting Florida oranges and orange juice specifically.
On early Sunday morning in Washington, D.C., protesters marched and held signs reading “Boycott Florida.” Justice wasn’t available through the court system, one protester explained to the Washington Post, and so “we will have to get justice in other ways and a boycott of tourism in Florida is one way of doing that,” she said.
But can a boycott help justice be achieved in this case? For that matter, under what circumstances can boycotts accomplish much of anything? Daniel Diermeier, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has written about consumer boycotts in the past, said in a phone interview that it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of such protests. “It’s very common for a boycott to hurt the local economy,” he said. “Things like conventions can be cancelled.”
Arizona reportedly saw its convention business slide after passing tough immigration laws in 2010, prompting boycotts. It helps the cause if celebrities and well-known figures get involved, to keep the issue top of mind in the public, Diermeier said, pointing to Barbra Streisand announcing her support of a Colorado boycott over anti-gay legislation in the early 1990s. (On Monday, musical great Steve Wonder joined the boycott of Florida, and implored his fans to do the same, according to the Hollywood Reporter.)
“What’s less clear is whether or not boycotts accomplish their stated objectives,” he said. “Very often, the protesters do not state clear objectives. This appears to be the case [in Florida]. They are more driven by outrage.”
What’s more, if and when change does take place, it’s hard to measure clear cause and effect. Things get especially complicated when activists are divided as to whether or not boycotts are aimed at the intended target. Several months after the Arizona boycott was born, immigration advocates were split, according to the New York Times, with some keeping up the boycott as a means to punish the state, and others calling for the boycott to end because it harmed the immigrants and businesses that protesters sought to help. Similarly, some have questioned the wisdom of boycotting the Olive Garden, Hooter’s, Walt Disney World, and other brands just because of their presence in Florida. As one Facebook commenter put it:
These companies employ a large number of African Americans. How does boycotting a company important to the economy of communities like Trayvon’s honor him or do anything but impact those people negatively?
Nonetheless, Diermeier said that the Zimmerman verdict can serve as a rallying call. “Events like this create what we call ‘policy windows,'” openings in which awareness of an issue or movement reaches new heights—and when the odds of change increase sharply. But again, protesters need to focus on a goal that’s more specific and worthwhile than spoiling sales of Florida oranges for a few months, or getting a handful of groups to cancel their conventions in Orlando next year. “The real failure of the ‘Occupy’ movement was that it didn’t translate into concrete policy,” said Diermeier, “and that’s partly because the objectives were so vague.”
As for the calls for a Florida boycott, he said, “It’s not clear what it would mean to be successful. Is it a law passed? A follow-up trial? The anger needs to be translated into something concrete.”
While some boycott organizers call specifically for Florida to get rid of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, or for the government to bring Zimmerman up on federal charges, protesters should be on the same page if they hope to be successful. Without a clear-cut goal, Diermeier said, the boycotts are merely “giving voice to moral outrage,” and “any effect is typically short-term.”