Local businesses boycotted by Black Lives Matter group say action is misguided

The 800 block of Massachusetts Street is pictured on Nov. 17, 2015.

Derek Hogan moved to Lawrence from Overland Park in 1994 because, as he puts it, “Where else in Kansas could a gay kid in his 20s go then?”

“Lawrence was awesome,” he said, and that’s why he chose to open a business here and call it home.

That downtown business, Java Break — with its then-novel rainbow sticker on the door, underground vibe and 24/7 operating hours — quickly became a haven for gay kids and others who didn’t always feel they fit in.

“We were the ‘safe space’ in town,” Hogan said.

That’s why he was surprised — and deeply saddened, he said — to see his 22-year business on a boycott list created by a group that professes to value safe spaces for marginalized people.

The list, created by a group calling itself Black Lives Matter LFK, is made up of businesses that BLM LFK says refused to write letters of solidarity with the group’s causes or wrote responses that the group deemed inadequate.

Representatives from BLM LFK have not returned requests for comment, but its Facebook page lists the causes broadly as support for “revolution” and “unconditional intersectional liberation.” More specifically, it lists expressions of support for “People of Color, the LGBTQIA community, Trans and Non-Binary Folks, Indigenous and Native populations, people of Muslim faith, immigrants, the incarcerated, and the differently abled.”

When asked on its Facebook page if it would create a category for businesses that wanted to “remain neutral” on such topics, BLM LFK wrote: “No, we will not.”

Hogan, like other business owners on the boycott list, said that he doesn’t have an issue with the causes so much as with the group’s tactics.

For one, he said, he was never personally approached as the business’ owner and asked for a letter or to talk about any issues, but Java Break nevertheless wound up on the list.

He says if he had been asked, he would certainly have considered writing a letter because he completely agrees with the group’s goals of social justice.

“Their hearts are in the right places,” he said, but he also questions, on principle, the value of any statement that is made under threat of boycott. Is the statement sincere or is it offered mainly to protect a business’ bottom line?

Sherry Bowden, owner of Z’s Divine Espresso, has similar concerns about the group’s tactics and procedures.

Bowden says she wrote a letter of solidarity for the group in October, but the letter was rejected as inadequate for reasons that still aren’t clear to her.

When she tried to determine what the issue was, she said she was met with hostility, “negative comments” from someone on the BLM LFK Facebook page, then silence.

“I don’t like that no one will explain to me why we are on that boycott list. We did try to support them. It’s really frustrating to me,” she said, adding that Z’s, which she has owned since 2012 but which has been in Lawrence since 2000, “has been an open, inclusive organization since the day it was founded.”

Both Bowden and Hogan said businesses should be judged by their actions and contributions to the community, not simply by the words they will say.

When she looks at the other businesses that are on the boycott list — including Free State Brewery, Wheatfields, Dusty Bookshelf, Zen Zero, among many others — she doesn’t understand what BLM LFK is seeking to accomplish.

“They’re not trying to effect any kind of real, concrete change. Those businesses on the list aren’t engaging in racist or bad business practices,” she said. “We all support the concept of a safe, inclusive community … The boycott list has no specific purpose.”

That’s a sentiment that Martin Watson, owner of Watson’s Barbershop, agrees with.

Watson’s Barbershop is also on the boycott list — despite being one of the few black-owned businesses in Lawrence — presumably for not showing the right kind of support for BLM LFK.

Watson said his 12-year business has always been about serving the community. If people want a haircut, that’s what he’s there for. If they want to make him advertise his feelings about this or that issue, that’s a different matter.

“I just let people talk,” he said. “I don’t get involved in that. It’s not my cup of tea.”

When asked if he was bothered by the boycott, he said simply that it hadn’t hurt his business.

“They don’t control what I do,” he said, referring to BLM LFK.

If a business writes a letter that BLM LFK deems satisfactory — and dozens have — it makes it onto a Facebook list of endorsed businesses. According to BLM LFK’s instructions on Facebook: “We add your name to the endorsed list. You go about your life and feel the warm glow of justice growing inside you. You expect to be contacted by us in 2017.”

One of the endorsed businesses is Meg Heriford’s Ladybird Diner.

Heriford said she was not approached by BLM LFK to write a solidarity letter. She just did it on her own after seeing the “pushback” that The Granada got when it posted “Black Lives Matter” on its Massachusetts Street marquee. She said the business was getting grief for “being political,” but she doesn’t see the issue as one of politics. She sees it as simply “human rights.”

“My only role in this community is to feed people and nourish them,” and nourishment, she said, includes the emotional kind.

When asked how she felt about fellow business owners being boycotted, she said: “No judgment on my part. I just am not and never have been a neutral personality. I genuinely understand all of those positions. I don’t discount anyone’s position.”

Although the BLM LFK boycott list already is posted on Facebook, in a post Dec. 5 addressed to “Comrades,” the group said it had extended “our local participation deadline” to Dec. 19; what that means for businesses on the list, however, was not clear.

Example letters of solidarity

? See more statements of solidarity from local businesses at the Facebook group “Living Justice LFK”

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