Our View: It's too early to talk of boycotts

July 22, 2013 

It's no big surprise that some politicians are calling for boycotts to demonstrate their outrage over the cases of George Zimmerman and Edward Snowden.

History has proved, however, that boycotts often are ineffective, punish entirely innocent parties and can easily backfire. They ought to be reserved for the worst injustices, after other avenues have been exhausted.

California Assemblyman Chris Holden and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham aren't letting those lessons stop them.

Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, is urging state officials and agencies to curtail travel to and cut business ties with Florida until it repeals its "stand your ground" law — a focus of protests since Zimmerman was acquitted a week ago in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

With the backing of the Legislative Black Caucus, he's drafting a resolution for when lawmakers reconvene next month. He's weighing whether the resolution would be nonbinding (which he concedes would be largely symbolic), or would be mandatory (which would be extremely complex to enforce, for instance with state pension fund investments).

He told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board that the caucus is trying to come up with a reasonable proposal that is not just a "paper tiger," but can pass and wouldn't cost taxpayers.

Calling the Zimmerman verdict "a sad commentary on racial injustice in this country," Holden is asking California residents and businesses to voluntarily join any boycott.

Never mind that such action would penalize business owners and others in Florida who probably oppose the self-defense law as much as Holden does. Never mind that civil rights groups and residents are camping out at Florida's Capitol and would be far more likely to force change. And never mind that a boycott could lead to retaliation against California.

How would we like it if, for instance, a legislature in another state told its residents to stay away from California because same-sex couples are being married or because industries have to buy carbon credits?

The checkered past of boycotts seems lost on Graham, a South Carolina Republican. He's floating the idea of the United States boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia grants temporary asylum to Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker who has been stuck in a Moscow airport for nearly a month.

Graham told NBC that while he loves the Olympics, he considers Snowden a traitor. Giving him refuge would take Russia's transgressions "to a new level."

Does the senator not remember the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, put in place to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? The main result was to punish hundreds of athletes who had trained for years and to politicize an important international gathering. Four years later, the Soviet bloc boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles.

With so many pressing issues before lawmakers, it isn't completely cynical to recognize these boycott calls as being as much about seeking the limelight as pursuing meaningful change.

Several Republican leaders in Congress have already poured cold water on any Olympic boycott. Californians should remember that in 2010, a nonbinding state Senate resolution to boycott Arizona in protest of its draconian immigration law grabbed headlines, then quietly died in committee. Several California cities, including Sacramento, did pass boycotts.

Three years later, the most contentious part of that Arizona law remains in effect, unaffected by the rhetoric.

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