The Art of Economic Activism, aka Boycotts, Over the Last 60 Years

Sallie Shawl
The Art of Economic Activism, aka Boycotts, Over the Last 60 Years

The Tacoma chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace is currently hosting an exhibit of Historic Boycott Posters at Urban Grace, the downtown church in Tacoma (now through next Thursday, July 16).  It wasn't until we unpacked the crate of posters that we knew the specific ones we would be exhibiting, and I am wowed by what we have brought here. As we took them out of the case and began hanging them (they're in a particular order and are hung that way), words coming out of our mouths included, "Oh, I have this at home as a postcard!" (2 times) and "Whoa, this is SO applicable -- so 'right on' for today," and "I have a t-shirt of this Taco Bell boycott poster" (farm workers' ultra-low wages, working conditions, and lack of benefits). The exhibit includes 58 posters from boycotts over the past 60+ years, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and going up to today's boycotts, including Monsanto, Coca Cola, and Israeli goods and all corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

All the represented boycotts were in my lifetime, and seeing them was quite a walk down memory lane, from the aforementioned Montgomery Bus Boycott to

  • Nestle (powdered infant formula requiring water that was sold overseas to locales with no safe drinking water, thereby killing thousands of babies -- many people really really wanted Nestle's Crunch candy bars in those days, but we were good…), to
  • Lettuce and grapes (union organizing and protesting Chile's Pinochet -- several visitors talked about how their children wanted grapes during those years and that it was hard to explain why they couldn't have them), to
  • Coors (for multiple labor reasons), to the more recent ones such as
  • Monsanto (GMO's),
  • Nike (sweatshops),
  • Walmart (wages & working conditions), and
  • Arizona (SB 1070 targeting immigrants and encouraging racial profiling). 

There were some posters about boycotts that had gone under my radar, including a boycott on Guatemalan tourism to protest the military dictatorship and more than 200,000 Guatemalans who were killed or disappeared during the civil war.  Mitsubishi was the focus of yet another unfamiliar one, for their destruction of rainforests in Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and Siberia (whoa: they got around!).

The reason Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) brought this exhibit to Tacoma is that all of these boycotts put the current Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel (BDS) into an historical context. Visit the BDS site and the JVP site for more information on these boycotts. One of the anti-Apartheid posters from the South Africa era said, "Sanctions won't hurt black workers more than apartheid."  We who support BDS of Israel often hear an argument that boycotting settlement goods will hurt the Palestinians who need the jobs that are available in the settlements.  Seeing this poster about the Apartheid era South African BDS movement shows that arguments opposing boycotts are often the same, from campaign to campaign throughout history. (And the answer to this argument today is that the Palestinians themselves have asked for this boycott. Short-term unemployment is worth it when there is the prospect of a future with human rights. It's kind of like the Blacks in Montgomery being willing to walk to work for over a year in order to win the right to sit anywhere on the bus.)

The gallery guide, a 24 page interpretive booklet that is free for all who come to the exhibit, includes a comparison of the South Africa boycott with the Palestinian call for boycott:

"Posters from the campaign challenging South African apartheid and the movement opposing the Israeli military occupation of Palestine make up the largest sections of this exhibition. They represent the longest continuous international boycott movements—campaigns that have generated many posters throughout the world. Both of these boycotts also created intense controversy. The campaign against South African apartheid is a reced­ing memory, and it may be hard to imagine the strong emotions, broken friendships, and divided families that resulted from this campaign. However, the impassioned divisions around the campaign to end the occupation of Palestine are a clear reminder of the tensions and conflict that economic activism can provoke."

Beverly Naidus of the University of Washington, Tacoma, art faculty spoke at the opening reception on July 2.  She said that when she first walked in, she was stunned and happy to see the artwork of several people she knows, including Ricardo Levins Morales - 4 posters in the exhibit, Doug Minkler - 2 posters, and Lincoln Cushing - 1 poster. Read more about Beverly Naidus' work.

While making her presentation, Naidus asked those assembled what posters they liked best, and why.  Responses showed different people's tastes: one person liked the "No GMO/Monsanto Must Go" poster because there were few words, the graphics were explicitly clear (a skeletal hand holding an ear of corn, with international warning symbols of nuclear radiation and "acute toxicity"), while another person liked the ones that weren't immediately obvious but required some thought. Another liked the ones with perspective that drew her in, and yet another liked the ones with human faces.

This is such a varied show that I expect most people will find a number of posters that they like. In addition, it's about putting our money where our mouths are, and what better venue for such consideration than in the midst of some incredible images?

The Art of Economic Activism, aka Boycotts, Over the Last 60 Years

I invite you to attend this exhibit of boycott art at Urban Grace Church, 902 Market St, Tacoma, Washington, 98402. The days are Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 6 p.m. and Friday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. from July 2 to July 16. (EXCEPT on Saturday, July 11 it runs from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m.) I predict you will be energized, as I was.