The Working-class and Homeless Organizing Alliance (WHOA) Boycott & Greensboro DSA
The Working-class and Homeless Organizing Alliance (WHOA) boycott, colloquially referred to as “the boycott” or “#BoycottTheTen,” emerged from a fight over panhandling ordinances in Greensboro, North Carolina. In Spring 2018, Greensboro’s City Council considered amending existing regulations to bar so-called “aggressive panhandling.” During this process, community organizations brought attention to the fact that the existing regulations were unconstitutional due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Reed v. Town of Gilbert. In turn, the City Council sought to implement ordinances that would allow police to arrest and push houseless residents out of the downtown area. Our branch, Greensboro DSA, realized we had to take action.
The initial drive for aggressive panhandling ordinances came from a covert lobbying effort. The main backers were Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI), a local organization that administers our Business Improvement District (BID), and the local developer class. Through its connections to commercial landlords within the BID, DGI petitioned local downtown businesses to contact the City Council to demand more anti-panhandling ordinances in response to a growing “aggressive panhandling crisis.” In turn, businesses asked employees to come forward with sexual harassment or misogynistic behavior by houseless Greensboro folks in the downtown area. This was an abhorrent attempt to paint all houseless neighbors and panhandlers as abusers in order to sweep them out of public spaces.
Greensboro’s City Council and mayor are all “progressive” Democrats; yet, the local developer class heavily influences our elected officials, to the tune of $90k in campaign contributions in 2017 alone. Through public records requests, our friends and comrades in the Homeless Union of Greensboro (HUG) uncovered DGI’s lobbying campaign.
These records included emails from businesses to the City Council containing horrid characterizations of houseless people. Nonetheless, in hearings on the ordinances, the Mayor and City Council members consistently fell back on businesses owners’ requests to justify the ordinances. We realized we were in a tough spot; five of the nine City Council members supported the ordinances and we needed to do more than just speak out at City Council meetings. We could not boycott DGI or the developers, as they did not sell things we could buy. That left the businesses organized by DGI to pressure the City Council, so we started discussing boycotting these businesses.
Members of our chapter did not unanimously support this approach at first. While these businesses had said truly awful things about the houseless, they were still local businesses. People viewed them far more favorably than say Marty Kotis, Greensboro developer and noted reactionary. We also knew the coalition of community groups opposing these ordinances, such as DSA, HUG, and other organizations, was running out of leverage to push any of the 5 pro-ordinance City Council members.
Our chapter’s housing working group started planning a boycott, and other organizations soon noticed. We formed a separate organization to house the boycott so community members across the left could help with planning. Thus, the WHOA was born. We created a list of the ten businesses that had directly asked the City Council to pass the ordinances. We then drafted a set of demands these businesses had to agree to in order to be removed from the boycott. These demands included renouncing the ordinances, calling for their repeal, and calling on the City Council to support reforms such as increased spending for social services and passing a homeless bill of rights. We had two weeks until the vote on the new ordinances. If they passed, WHOA would launch the boycott.
We planned to cut up turf, canvass, and reach out to workers at the boycotted businesses to get their support, but word came in that the vote was being moved up. The threat of litigation pushed the City Council to pass a temporary bill through an emergency session. We had to move or we wouldn’t be able to garner the attention needed for the boycott to succeed. Consequently, we launched our petition, started pushing our networks to support the boycott, and began the campaign with an announcement at the City Council meeting where the vote took place. Pushback against our efforts was swift. The City Council condemned our campaign and owners of the boycotted businesses flooded WHOA’s social media inboxes with angry statements about how they had always supported the houseless, despite backing what amounted to state violence against them.
With a small cadre of organizers committed to canvassing, we formalized our petition’s demands and hit the streets. We started with canvassing downtown pedestrians. Considering the nature and targets of the aggressive solicitation ordinances, starting here made the most sense. WHOA canvassers quickly detected a racial dynamic in who supported the boycott and who dismissed it. The average white downtown resident was not interested in supporting the homeless struggle, and many were actively hostile to the boycott effort. In contrast, most black downtown residents supported the boycott and signed the petition. Greensboro is a deeply unequal city, with high levels of gentrification and eviction that primarily affect black, working-class neighborhoods. We should have expected that many people we engaged with would be agents of the very gentrification process we were fighting.
This dynamic highlighted that the fight against anti-homeless discrimination is a fight for racial justice and centering it was key in building public support for the boycott. Most importantly, through our canvassing and on the ground work, we engaged with those suffering from homelessness. We connected with people in the downtown area, who faced the biggest brunt of gentrification and over-policing, and directly used those conversations to inform and shape the boycott’s demands.
We next took the petition to neighborhood blocks surrounding the area, canvassed on college campuses, and visited the City Council at least once a month to keep pressure on its members. We acquired over 700 signatures of people pledging to honor the boycott within a few months. Proof that our agitating was becoming effective came just before the holidays, when council member Michelle Kennedy formed a campaign with five of the anti-homeless businesses listed in the boycott, as well as others, called “Givesboro.” The Givesboro campaign sold discount cards to benefit Kennedy’s Interactive Resource Center (IRC). This was an obvious attempt to repair their tarnished anti-homeless image while still turning a profit. We launched a counter campaign named “Greedsboro,” and while we successfully fought back with flyering and agit-prop posters, the bulk of our organizing energy was about to be redirected into a movement of related struggle.
On September 8th, 2018, the police murdered Marcus Deon Smith, a black homeless man experiencing a mental health crisis. The police hogtied Smith, and he asphyxiated. In a press release, Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott lied about the details of Marcus’ death, claiming he was suicidal and collapsed. WHOA’s work on the boycott was pushed to the backburner as we began working with a broad coalition to demand an end to police brutality in Greensboro and justice for Marcus Smith.
A critical mistake we made was not engaging the public better outside of the petition. Instead of inviting those who pledged to the boycott to join us directly in canvassing, thereby amassing “people power,” we focused on inviting them to WHOA meetings and events. Creating a deeper engagement with the community that focused on building the movement through shared work — versus being mediated through organizational channels — would have made the boycott stronger. Knowing the pitfalls from our original petition/boycott efforts, we have folded those experiences into our present work.
While the boycott work is now dormant and the fight against the anti-homeless ordinances remains, we do not see #BoycottTheTen as a loss. WHOA is now being recognized in other ways, and it is a permanent and active fixture among the left organizations in Greensboro. We have built an effective organization that can continue to struggle against anti-homeless and anti-worker efforts locally. #BoycottTheTen was the first fight in a long struggle, and we’re more determined than ever to win that fight.
La Lutte Continue!