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Do Not Be Silent: Springsteen, North Carolina, and The New Language of Boycotts

I’ve lived longer in North Carolina than I have anywhere else in the world. It is one of the places on this beautiful planet that I feel at home. This is where I went to college, where I got married, where two of my babies were born, where I have worked. It’s where I have grieved, dreamed, and hoped.
It is hard to see a place that used to feel like home turn into something that you are ashamed of. North Carolina is a beautiful state. Rich with history, it is one of the hearts of the civil rights movements. This was the home to the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro. This is where Ella Jo Baker organized Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This is the home to John Coltrane, and to Nina Simone, and to some guy named Michael Jordan. Gorgeous beaches on one side, woods in the middle, mountains (OK, rolling hills) on the other.
North Carolina used to be a great success story in the South. Starting in the 1980’s, it featured a thriving economy, leading global universities, and a booming technology center. We prided ourselves on being the Bay Area of the East Coast.
A few years ago, there was a dramatic turn in our politics. Both houses of the legislature, and the governor’s office, were captured by the GOP. This was not the usual middle of road Republicanism, but a dogmatic, Tea Party, ideological turn. What has followed has been an all-out assault on public education, social benefits, women’s rights, Muslims, gays/lesbians, and immigrants. We became the butt of jokes on Jon Stewart. We laughed along at those jokes, but the kind of laughing that was tinged with tears over what we had become.
North Carolina was at the center of a national debate on same-sex marriage, and passed Amendment One to prohibit marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Eventually, it was the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that overturned that decision.
Undaunted, the state is back, marking ever more ways of humiliating its own citizens. The latest piece of this assault has been HB-2, so-called the “bathroom bill” that purports to restrict transgender people to the bathroom of their birth, but is in reality a mandate to have legally sanctioned discrimination against gay/lesbian folks. We are now the butt of jokes on Stephen Colbert.

Naturally, gay/lesbian North Carolinians have been out in full force, demonstrating, and demanding justice. Some have been arrested in demonstrations of civil disobedience. They were supported by straight allies, human rights activists, and clergy from progressive Christian, Jewish, and Muslim denominations.
But something new has happened: in addition to gay/lesbian/transgender folks protesting hand in hand with their allies, we are seeing national forces flex their political, economic, and cultural muscle. This new language of boycotts and divestment from the state fascinates me.
One of the first withdrawals came from Bruce Springsteen:

“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.

I’ve been a Springsteen fan for a long time. He’s been giving voice to the gritty struggle of working class America. President Reagan may have wanted to coopt “Born in the U.S.A.” as a nationalistic, jingoistic anthem, but those of us who actually read the lyrics knew that it was not a nationalistic roar but rather the brokenhearted cry of ordinary working Americans who are struggling.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

So many of Bruce’s songs are about this theme of a boy and a girl from Jersey or Everytown, USA, hoping and dreaming of getting out: not just getting out of town but getting out of misery, getting out of poverty, getting out of feeling crushed.
On a few occasions, Springsteen has gone full-on political. One of my favorite Springsteen records is a majestic album that captures The Boss at his most energetic during a live performance. Springsteen has always been, at best, a live act, and his fans know and love his legendary energy that he brings to every show. One of these songs captures Bruce at his most revolutionary. It was his song “War” that gave voice to the outrage of lives broken in the aftermath of Vietnam. It’s a remake, but oh what power and gritty energy it has. This is not so much a reasoned debate about the merits of war and warfare, but a cosmic and existential “No!” shouted back to save whatever is left of our own humanity.

What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing!
Say it again,
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, come on

War is something that I despise
For it means destruction of innocent lives
And thousands words in mothers’ cry
When their son’s go out to fight to give their lives

It’s not just The Boss. Other cultural icons have announced that they would lend their moral support: Bryan Adams, Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, and Mumford & Sons.
Some have resorted to civil disobedience. The NAACP has said that if the law is not repealed, it will hold sit-ins. Reverend William J. Barber II, the leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, has rightly connected this law to earlier segregation laws.
It is not just cultural boycott, but also companies divesting from North Carolina. The NBA is openly thinking about pulling the 2017 NBA All-Star game from Charlotte. This hits North Carolina where it hurts: their pocketbook. The previous All-Star game is estimated to have had an economic impact of 104 million dollars.
Paypal has also talked about withdrawing 400 well-paying jobs from North Carolina. Other companies like Deutsche Bank are contemplating similar action.
If these tactics of boycotts and divestment seem strange, they shouldn’t. We cannot write the history of America without also talking about these strategies. From the Boston Tea Party on, this has been a part of the American tradition. The legacy of Martin Luther King, of course, started with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where African-Americans refused to ride the bus system of Montgomery that perpetuated and reinforced white privilege. The suffrage movement used boycotts as a strategy.
The same is true on an international scale. The boycott strategy of course was part of the pressure of the international community on South Africa to overcome its policy of apartheid. Whether in the case of the American civil rights movement or South Africa, it has always been the power of linking together internal resistance with external pressure that has brought about change. In Palestine, the Palestinian civil society has asked for a boycott of Israeli institutions that operate within the framework of the occupation in the West Bank, and many people — including many Jews such as Jewish Voices for Peace — are participating in the increasingly popular Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza.
After all, as we have been told so often, those in positions of power and privilege very rarely if never give up power on the count of their own conscience. Resistance and solidarity, along with the transformation of all of us, is the only thing that has ever changed this world for the better.
Whether the boycott is against a segregated South or segregated South Africa, an occupied West Bank or a homophobic North Carolina, boycotts are an effective strategy for people of good will to link their solidarity from the outside to the resistance of the people from the inside to bring about change.
Boycotts are not the only strategy. There are other strategies, and even in North Carolina one of our own most talented musicians, Rihannon Giddens, one who has taken a profoundly beautiful stance for racial justice, came out to say that she would not boycott the state but perform — and raise awareness.

That, too, is a powerful tool. What is not acceptable is silence in face of oppression. Boycott if you want, or participate if you want. But do not remain silent in face of injustice.
Be The Boss. Or be Rihannon Giddens. But whatever you do, do not be silent. It’s our very ability to have a place worth calling a home that is at stake.

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