In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Stevie Wonder is the first entertainer to announce a boycott of Florida until the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law is repealed. Wonder has refused to perform in various places before, including Arizona during the period when the state did not recognize Martin Luther King Day and an event honoring the Israeli Defense Forces last year.
Arizona has twice in recent memory been the target of the sort of boycott that Wonder has launched on his own; in the 1990s, the state had a scheduled Super Bowl moved to California during the firestorm over its refusal to celebrate the King holiday. (Arizona voters approved a referendum to finally celebrate the holiday when the National Football League was considering whether to award a future Super Bowl to the Arizona city of Tempe; the NFL rewarded Arizona with the lucrative event.)
Sports have, historically, been a more potent means of social change through boycott than entertainment, not least because athletes play in leagues that control their actions while entertainers are free agents who can do what they will. For every entertainer who pledges not to play Sun City, there’s a Paul Simon recording a (classic) record in South Africa. As much as Alice Walker may beg cultural figures not to visit Israel, Alicia Keys can still spin her concert there as a chance to “unify audiences in peace.” While cultural boycotts are porous, sports boycotts aren’t; had the 2011 MLB All-Star game been moved from Phoenix (as some fans called for and as Gov. Jan Brewer responded to in an ESPN Op-Ed), there wouldn’t be another baseball league that could play at Chase Field that night.
But the “Stand Your Ground” case seems too hot for sports leagues to handle; their 1990s boycott of Arizona for major events was based on a case on which practically everyone could agree, the legacy of a civil rights leader who’d been dead for some 25 years, while the more pressing case of Arizona’s SB 1070 anti-immigrant law was very much subject to debate within the current political scene. The Phoenix All-Star game went on without a hitch and the 2015 Super Bowl was scheduled for Glendale, Ariz., in 2011, before the law was limited by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Ongoing political debates are the sort that are necessarily riskier to enter; why risk alienating any segment of a nation of ticket-buyers, many of whom may believe George Zimmerman was justified, by moving upcoming football or baseball exhibitions? It’s difficult to make a stand on something that the nation hasn’t metabolized yet.
Which is why Wonder’s action is so notable. But, as Wonder’s own statement on his boycott points out, he will have to police himself to ensure that he doesn’t perform anywhere with “Stand Your Ground” laws, a degree of shading — so-called “Castle Doctrine” laws vary in nature from state to state — that makes this sadly more difficult than refusing to play in one U.S. state acting in a rogue manner or in one South African casino. Perhaps a less nakedly commercial version of Alicia Keys engaging with local artists in Israel would be a way forward for artists frustrated by the verdict in Florida. Though both of their summer tours have already passed through Florida, both Beyoncé’s moment of silence and Rihanna’s invoking her own younger brother to memorialize Trayvon Martin might, if put out there from the stage of a sold-out AmericanAirlines Arena, change hearts and minds of Florida audiences more than an absence that’d shortly be filled by another pop artist.