Almost all corporations face organized criticism, whether over animal testing or a particular company's support for (or opposition to) gay rights. Wal-Mart has long attracted censure for labor practices and other issues. Usually these efforts are too scattered to make a long-term difference.
“The personal is the political.” So went the activist expression of the 1960s. Or was it the other way around? I was just a kid.
Now it’s back in a polarized America, and corporations that strive to be apolitical may not be able to avoid being pulled in.
The big example is Starbucks, which has been selected by advocates of the “open carry” movement as a place to show up with unconcealed firearms. Open carriers and gun-control advocates (peacefully) confronted one another recently at the Starbucks in Pike Place Market.
Starbucks says it will follow the law; thus, in states where it’s legal to openly carry a firearm, those customers are welcome. “The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores,” the Seattle-based coffee company said in a statement.
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That might be an artful way to avoid controversy. Unfortunately, it probably won’t work. With Starbucks’ size and iconic place in corporate America, it was the perfect way for the Virginia-based group OpenCarry.org to gain international exposure for its cause.
It also received a backlash from gun-control proponents. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has an online petition urging Starbucks to keep guns out.
One can imagine the worry in the Starbucks legal department over liability and safety of employees. The controversy is far from over.
Starbucks isn’t the only major retailer to face the open-carry movement. Most say they will abide by state laws.
Some 38 states allow a gun to be carried openly. Some have restrictions, but in Washington state the weapon can be loaded. Open-carry Web sites trumpet “OC-friendly.”
This may come to nothing. Almost all corporations face organized criticism, whether over animal testing or a particular company’s support for (or opposition to) gay rights.
Last year, some called for a boycott of Whole Foods because of the chief executive’s public panning of the Obama health-care reform. Wal-Mart has long attracted censure for labor practices and other issues.
Usually these efforts are too scattered to make a long-term difference. In Wal-Mart’s case, the pressure led to some modest changes and an attempt to portray itself as environmentally conscious.
Armed activists just get more attention.
What’s yet to be seen is whether the open-carry demonstrations are part of a deeper shift in an America that on many issues seems more divided than at any time since the Civil War, a nation still struggling with the Great Recession, where millions of people feel disenfranchised and angry.
Across the spectrum, institutions have lost credibility. Activism is on the rise and partisans demand that sides be chosen.
Sometimes the blame may be clear-cut, as in the Move Your Money campaign. It urges people to do business with small banks and credit unions rather than the big banks whose practices helped bring on the downturn.
In other cases, such as open-carry, grievances are only developing on a national level and thus are more unpredictable for corporate leaders.
True, some small businesses openly stake out politically charged territory. But large, international firms don’t want to be tagged as “liberal” or “conservative.
” China gets a pass on many dubious human-rights practices because American companies don’t want to be seen as “political.”
But if unemployment and foreclosures remain high while living standards continue to erode, more people will be looking for someone to blame. And all the clever legalisms and inoffensive marketing may not save companies from being pulled into the domestic political battle.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com