Lloyd Should Not Be Canceled

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There’s an election coming up next week. Obviously, this means that Buffalonians are expressing their political preferences through tortillas.

As we already know, Lloyd served food at the ICE detention facility in Batavia last week. This resulted in a left-wing reaction and threats of boycotts. As we also know, Lloyd reacted positively to that reaction, issuing an apology and donating the proceeds from that outing to a local refugee organization. 

Immediately, Lloyd was branded by bad-faith right wingers as anti-law enforcement generally, and a massive, viral online boycott campaign ensued. One Facebook group has accumulated almost 4,000 members in a few short days. Anecdotal reports reveal that Lloyd was not treated well at the Bills Game. On Monday, Lloyd’s owners held a press conference to apologize yet again, trying desperately to halt a quickening downward spiral. Although it was an odd, belated effort at crisis management, they declared

We serve all communities, we go to all neighborhoods, we are not political. Why would we be? How can any business choose sides in our politically divided country and ever hope to succeed? We make tacos — not war.

As I wrote last weekI think it’s ok if Lloyd serves food at the Batavia facility. After all, it’s not just ICE prison guards who work there, but custodial staff, administrative staff, attorneys for the detainees, and the detainees’ families that would all be able to buy food. I also think that it’s ok if Lloyd decides never to do that again. I think it’s ok for people to not think it’s ok for Lloyd to serve prison guards, and for Lloyd to respond to them as it did — by apologizing. 

The difference between selling a taco to the general public outside of the ICE detention center and giving away thousands in free food for a Tim Howard fundraiser speaks for itself.

Once a business picks a side in politics or the culture war, that business will face an inevitable backlash. Look at Chik-fil-A. Look at the wedding facilities and vendors that refuse service to same-sex couples. Look at Deep South Taco. But that backlash should, in theory, be less acute now that the people who agree will flock there. Conservative evangelicals, for instance, love to own the libs with Chik-fil-A, and to defend the “religious freedom” of places that discriminate against LGBTQ people. So, if a business responds to pressure from a group on the left, can it expect the same level of support? 

As stupid as you may think this whole nacho-flavored proxy war is – and it is stupid – there are several issues that have been neatly distilled in Buffalo in the last few days that merit at least a cursory examination: 

1. If you bring pressure to bear on a person or entity to encourage it to undertake some ethical or political act or omission, this may result in unintended harm. It may rise to the level of existential threat for that business. Be mindful of this unless your goal is to destroy the business itself.

2. If the business upon whom that pressure (e.g., threats of boycotts, pickets, etc.) reacts positively, and bad things start happening to it, a concomitant show of support for that business’ positive reaction would be fair. If not from a non-profit organization, then at least from the most visible and vocal community leaders who pushed for the ethical change in the first place. If you threatened a viral negative consequence against the business and it reacted positively, then why not offer some positive viral reinforcement

3. If you refuse or fail to offer positive reinforcement for good decisions, then that business is up a trapeze with no safety net. This communicates to others that your threats are empty. You can’t boycott a place you don’t patronize. If you threaten the stick and then withhold the carrot, you’re just stirring controversy without regard for the people who depend on that business for their livelihoods; in this case that includes immigrants and refugees. 

If, as the tired trope goes, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” then never mind the Guevara wannabes, for they are few. If your critics reject, ab initio, your very existence, then it’s probably best to ignore and quietly continue to do your thing. When they insist to all and sundry that “brands are not your friends,” then don’t try to be. 

The Battle of Rocket Sauce Ridge made the New York Times, and I highlight this passage, 

“There is no aspect of immigration detention that can survive without for-profit businesses,” said Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families of Western New York, an advocacy organization in Buffalo. “I think businesses have to decide what their values are and what kinds of stands they are going to take. There is no not-political stance.”

Justice for Migrant Families of Western New York is the organization to which Lloyd pledged to donate the proceeds of its objectionable Batavia stop. But do all businesses have to “decide what their values are” and “what kinds of stands they are going to take?” Is there a “not-political stance?” Does your plumber or electrician or spin class leader need to pass an ideological purity test? Your taco joint? There exists also a difference between a personal decision to avoid an objectionable business and an organized boycott. 

The first sentence above notes that “immigration detention” cannot “survive without for-profit businesses.” Few things can. A facile slippery-slope argument could be made whereby we wonder where that ends – do restaurants run background checks on patrons to make sure they’re not serving someone who works for ICE? There exist myriad businesses that do not take political stands, others do overtly, and still others do so quietly. Dick’s Sporting Goods loudly decided to stop selling guns. The foundation run by the founders of Chik-fil-A quietly donates to homophobes. Lloyd is a small local business, wholly unlike Dick’s or Chik-fil-A. Deep South Taco donates free food to fundraise for Sheriff Tim Howard. When people criticized Deep South, its conservative owner doubled down and was unapologetic. The critics boycotted. As the Supreme Court ruled, how you spend your money is political speech.

I try to direct how I spend my money by patronizing good actors in the marketplace and not rewarding bad actors. I prefer small local businesses over megachains. I eat Lloyd, but not Deep South. But that’s not the same as a threat of boycott.

What if the owner of Deep South had relented- apologized and made a donation to a non-profit that promotes some social justice? Would its critics have uttered a word of encouragement about spending money there? The power of a boycott is only as strong as the willingness to spend the money. As a personal example, Carl Paladino could be revealed tomorrow to be the messiah and I’d still never park in an Ellicott Lot or buy things at one of his “Trading Company” locations. This leaves me with a sense of satisfaction, but ultimately powerless to influence Paladino’s or Ellicott Development’s behavior because I won’t willingly or knowingly spend money there, no matter what. 

On Facebook and Twitter, I shared someone else’s thoughts about what happened with Lloyd between the time of its original apology for the Batavia / ICE outing and Monday’s re-apology presser. While the pro-ICE brigades mounted a viral anti-Lloyd holy war – unfairly branding Lloyd to be anti-law enforcement writ large, the people and groups who were originally critical of its Batavia outing said and did nothing to support it; to cushion the blow. Lloyd did the right thing and no one had its back.

That’s not to say Lloyd will suddenly do business with no conscience or moral outlook – just that it’s going to be more careful about what it does and to whom it reacts – once bitten, twice shy.

This being Buffalo, the counter-arguments ranged from bare insults to inanity to wild mischaracterizations. The inane likened Lloyd – a locally owned small business – to Target or Wal-Mart. The bad-faith commentators – the erstwhile pals who lobbed ad hominem attacks about my physical appearance and those too insecure in their own argument to @ reply me, were, as always, a treat. For instance:

The “Lloyds ICE fiasco…” isn’t the “fault of the ‘progressive community'” and no one said it was. Lloyd made its own decision and has to live with it; it chose to react positively to pressure from people and groups that didn’t have its back when the chips were down. This is apparently a lesson Lloyd had fully absorbed and digested by Monday. Lloyd has debts to pay, rents to pay, hundreds of employees – many of them immigrants and refugees themselves – to pay. Lloyd serves food. Does that have to be a political act? Not really. Lloyd’s owners could, of course, donate time, goods, and services to groups and causes they believe in. Indeed, I’m sure they do. Whether they choose to make a big deal about it is their business.

So was all of this really about redirecting Lloyd’s behavior, or about something else? Conceding that Lloyd has a reputation generally as a good corporate citizen, critics of the ICE stop could have reached out privately to Lloyd’s easily accessible owners with a “not cool” and redirected Lloyd in a way that would have not resulted in a firestorm. The whole thing could have been handled in a way that achieved the stated goal of advocating for companies to avoid ICE while minimizing harm to Lloyd and its employees. No business is going to risk public humiliation and widespread boycott for an entity that doesn’t have its back.

Once you demand that businesses take a visible and public political stand, you expose that business to blowback from reactionaries. If you’re quick to punish bad behavior, yet withhold support for good behavior, the business is going to learn from that example and not support you or heed your advice again.

You don’t have to believe in capitalism, by the way, to understand the simple point here. Any parent can tell you the value of positive reinforcement for good behavior. 

We can all agree that Lloyd is better at making food than handling crisis communications. I don’t know who has won from all of this. Certainly refugees, immigrants, and inmates in Batavia have gained nothing. Lloyd has gained nothing. Last week’s critics have gained nothing, except a pledge of a donation and perhaps some moral satisfaction. So, cui bono?

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

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