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Understanding the artist boycott of Arizona through Bright Eyes

The boycott of Arizona by a growing number of musicians has been one of the most high-profile acts of resistance to the state’s new anti-immigrant law. But like most boycotts it has been the subject of great scrutiny in terms of its potentially damaging effect on perceived innocents. For instance, Arizona concert promoter and activist Charlie Levy recently explained that: “By not performing in Arizona, artists are harming the very people and places that foster free speech and the open exchange of ideas that serve to counter the closed-mindedness recently displayed by the new law.”

A reaction such as this, however, is only understandable to those who don’t understand how boycotts work. Their intent is not to harm people or places, but to catalyze segments of a society that have the ability to influence the repeal of an unjust law or policy. Much like the sterilization of a wound, any harm to people or places along the way should be looked upon as part of the healing process. The harm that is caused during a boycott is only temporary and, unlike the injustice it opposes, never terminal. A boycott that’s based on a just cause, such as the repeal of a racist law, is a tactic that resurrects humanity and ultimately improves the quality of life for everyone.

One of the musicians who seems to get this point is Conor Oberst, who fronts the band Bright Eyes (and is featured int he above video). Oberst wrote an intelligent and heartfelt response to Levy, saying that he regrets “any of the collateral damage the boycott is causing” and realizes “that the people of Arizona did not vote on SB1070,” but sees a far bigger picture—one that is “a threat to our basic ideals as Americans and Humans.”

Oberst has already seen a town in his home state of Nebraska adopt a similarly racist immigration law and is “in the process of organizing a fund-raiser for the NE chapter of the ACLU who is suing the town of Fremont.” But should the law pass statewide, he is fully prepared to “be the first to call for a boycott of my home state.”

It isn’t often you see this kind of dedication from a musician. So often there is a hollowness that lies behind musicians’ political statements. Oberst seems keenly aware of this as well and it’s another reason he is determined to stick with the boycott:

Just as you may feel the boycott is an empty gesture, I fear that if we return to business as usual (under the guise of some civic movement) that this will all devolve into the typical grandstanding that is political activism in music. It might make us feel better but won’t do a damn thing to change the minds of the radical, racist minority that seem to have controlled Arizona politics for decades. In short, it will lose its teeth.

At the same time, Oberst is humble enough to minimize his role:

Much of the Artist end of the boycott is symbolic, I acknowledge, and no real threat to the economics of the State.  But it is an important part none-the-less for awareness and messaging.   The Boycott has to be so widespread and devastating that the Arizona State Legislature and Governor have no choice but to repeal their unconstitutional, immoral and hateful law.  It has to hurt them in the only place they feel any pain, their pocketbooks.

Perhaps what’s most inspiring is that entertainers like Oberst, are excited to take part in what could become “the largest and most effective boycott this country has seen in a long time.”