Could a boycott by black Americans end police brutality and injustice in the US?

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Nathaniel Dyer carries a sign during a protest in Atlanta. The Black Lives Matter chapter boycotted major retailers following the recent police shooting deaths involving black men. Photograph: Branden Camp/AP

“I have had several thousand people over the course of the past two years ask me some variation of this question,” Shaun King, the New York Daily News writer and activist, said. “What else can I do about police brutality? Beyond what we’re doing right now, what else can I do?” The inquiry is something he has spent months “noodling around in [his] head”, King told the Guardian.

King and others believe the answer could be boycotts, a tool of change wielded in recent years against racial injustice and used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Last week, King revealed plans for what he hopes will be a massive and prolonged boycott, slated to begin in December. A few days earlier, the actor Isaiah Washington had announced his own, making headlines for his call on African Americans to boycott working, shopping and going to school for 24 hours as part of his #StayAtHomeSeptember262016 movement. Like the boycotts that came before them, both men are hoping their actions will create pressure on policymakers and bring about change.

Washington’s boycott also began with a question. “Imagine if every single African American in the United States that was really fed up with being angry, sad and disgusted, would pick ONE DAY to simply ‘stay at home’ from every single job, work site, sports arena and government office in the United States of America,” the actor asked his followers on Facebook. “I’m very sure that within 72 hours from Wall Street to the NFL … Black Lives Would Matter.”

The inspiration for the inquiry, Washington said, came from “my confusion, my pain, my distaste of the loss of a friend who was fighting for freedom”, meaning Darren Seals, an activist and protest leader from Ferguson, Missouri, who was found shot dead in a burning car earlier this month. The deaths of others were also on Washington’s mind – Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who was killed by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this month, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was shot and killed last week in Charlotte, North Carolina, by police after he was mistaken for a wanted man and Alfred Olango, who was shot by police on Tuesday.

Planned with Madelon Blue McCullough, who started her own #Missing24 boycott earlier this year, Washington said his “call to action” was intended to “check the temperature of the will of the people, to see how many people respond immediately and quickly and decisively – just as quickly as these peacekeepers have decided to commit extrajudicial killings within seven seconds”.

“My feeling of waiting six to eight weeks, we don’t have the luxury of waiting six to eight weeks. We don’t have the luxury to organize,” Washington added. His boycott had been criticized for being planned too quickly; King’s is planned for three months in the future.

One of their intentions with the stay-at-home boycott, McCullough said, was safety. “When we’re out in the streets, and we’re protesting and marching, our people are still getting injured, they’re still getting killed, they’re still getting incarcerated,” she said. “Our thinking was it doesn’t make any sense for us to be out here and protesting, then paying bail. It’s the same as saying you’re supporting the same system you’re fighting against.” Of the protests that have broken out around the country, many have been peaceful though there have been outlying moments . Last week, in North Carolina, one person was fatally shotduring a protest in Charlotte.

On Facebook, Washington elaborated the event on 26 September was merely “PHASE I”, and mentioned there will be a “Business Target” day in October. He advertised a second boycott for 7 November, which McCullough explained was planned by a group called Moving Forward. They would also be supporting King’s boycott in December, McCullough said.

McCullough, who started #Missing24 after the death of Philando Castile, said she was inspired by reading about boycotts that happened in Zimbabwe and Sudan. In the US, boycotts of the shopping holiday Black Friday began in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown, through campaigns or groups like #NotOneDime or Blackout for Human Rights, a “Collective of Filmmakers, Artists, Activists, Musicians, Lawyers, Tastemakers, Religious Leaders and Concerned Citizens”, though it’s unclear if they made an impact. That Black Friday boycott continued in 2015. Groups called for boycotts of businesses in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling and in Charlotte and Asheville, North Carolina, after Scott’s death. Other groups have called for only buying from black-owned businesses or keeping money in black-owned banks.

Washington’s original post announcing the boycott received 28,000 shares on Facebook, but it’s difficult to determine how many participated. Some expressed their support on social media using #StayAtHomeSeptember262016. McCullough said people from almost every state participated, most hailing from New York, California and Texas. Students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, peacefully held signs and drums as they walked through different buildings on campus in solidarity with the movement, KOIN6 News reported.

The boycott also had its critics, with some saying it was too quickly planned or that some couldn’t afford to skip work. “If you can’t afford to skip work, don’t. Boycott in other ways,” Washington said on Wednesday. “I’m not some wealthy jerk who is telling people to lose their jobs.” Others brought up past remarks made by the actor, who currently stars on the TV show The 100 and was a recurring character on Grey’s Anatomy from 2005 to 2007. The public speculated that the controversial remarks caused the actor to be removed from the latter show. When asked to address those critics, Washington said, “This is about life, liberty and freedom under the constitution of the United States of America. It’s not about me.”

King’s boycott was planned with a nod to boycotts of the past, occurring on 5 December, “the same date that our ancestors began the 381 day long Montgomery Bus Boycott. It is going to take that same type of determination and organization for us to actually make this boycott count”, he wrote in a message to the more than 75,000 people who had signed up thus far. The Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955 and ended with a supreme court declaration that segregated buses were unconstitutional. He also took inspiration from the treatment of North Carolina in light of their transgender bathroom law.

So far, King has released a basic framework for what he hopes his boycott will look like, with targeted boycotting of brands, institutions, cities and states tied to specific reforms. He hopes millions will eventually participate.

While Washington’s #StayAtHomeSeptember262016 was for one day, King thinks his should be in addition to the protests and rallies around the country. He intends for it to last indefinitely, until reforms are made, which he admittedly thinks will take a while. “The United States right now is very resistant to change and very resistant to change on a number of issues, not just racial violence and police brutality,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean King doesn’t have hope, both that a boycott will be effective and be an answer for those he worries are hopeless, wondering what they can do.