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20 September 2012

When Protests Succeed

Following the widespread outrage of many progressives over the "charitable" giving practices of Chick-fil-A and the audacious statements of Dan Cathy, it's president and COO, the company has promised to direct its nonprofit wing, WinShape, to halt all donations to anti-gay organizations and has issued a corporate memo encouraging all employees and owners to "treat every person with honor, dignity and respect—regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender." While they stop short of enacting actual anti-discriminatory policy (though, as far as I know, discrimination had never been an endemic problem), it certainly amounts to a symbolic step in the right direction. However, I've seen several people on Facebook asking "Does this mean I can start eating at Chick-fil-A again?" It's an important question.

To put this into context, let's look back to another social justice campaign, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60's. When buses refused to change their policies about priority seating for white passengers, black customers boycotted the buses, choosing instead to walk whenever they could and to organize carpooling when they couldn't. The protests were ultimately successful, and the bus companies were forced by the courts (albeit grudgingly and primarily for economic and not moral reasons) to change their racist policies. When this happened, the black protesters started riding the buses again. Imagine if they hadn't, though. What if Southern blacks had decided that the reversal of the policy wasn't enough? What if the movement demanded more of their oppressors? What if animosities had been allowed to overshadow the victory? I think this would have been detrimental in a couple ways. First, it would have eroded the sympathy that the Civil Rights Movement had been fostering among non-black wouldbe allies, thus weakening the long-term chances of success of the movement. By not being goal-oriented, the movement would have risked playing into many's suspicions that it was about agitation per se and not about results. Second, the Civil Rights Movement had always been about social equality, about desegregation, and about reunification. By refusing to return to the buses, the Civil Rights Movement would have not only been guilty of baiting-and-switching in the immediate goals of the boycott but also would have been abandoning the overarching goals of the movement itself. Why would things be any different for the Gay Rights Movement?

We should not overlook the fact that the changes at Chick-fil-A are a victory for the protesters. This battle is won. Admittedly, circulating memos and making pronouncements is one thing; actions are another. Observers should most definitely keep a close eye on on the corporate culture at Chick-fil-A and the giving practices at WinShape. In the meantime, I'm going to treat myself to a Spicy Chicken Sandwich--while doing my best not to look smug while eating it.


UPDATED (9/24/2012): Looks like Cathy didn't get the memo.

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