A protest is a threat (the Komen debacle)

It’s never just the demonstration that brings about change.  Rather, it’s the larger actions that demonstrators promise (and authorities fear) that lead to concessions.  Demonstrators threaten to storm the barricades, stop paying taxes, or vote, or contribute money.  Their targets assess how credible those threats are and how damaging such action would be.

The recent rapid reversal of a new funding policy by Susan G. Komen for the Cure demonstrates how this works very clearly.  It also shows the different strategies that opposing social movements can employ to try to get what they want–little bits at a time.

Komen raises and spends about $93 million a year to fight breast cancer.  It runs races, promotes pink, funds researchers and service providers, and maintains a large bureaucracy to keep the machine moving.   (Just over 1/5 of its budget goes to fundraising and administration.) It is explicitly non-political.

Last week, Komen announced a decision made weeks earlier, not to fund organizations that are under investigation.  This excluded 1 of the groups it funded, Planned Parenthood, which received just under $700,000 a year to provide breast examinations and referrals for mammograms.  (Jezebel has covered this flare-up comprehensively.)

Among other things, Planned Parenthood also provides birth control and abortion services.

The investigation rationale was, at best, an obvious bow to political pressure.  Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) launched an investigation to discover whether Planned Parenthood was using federal funds to support abortion services (No public evidence on this).  It’s very easy for any member of Congress to launch an investigation.

Much more likely, however, the investigation rationale was a transparent ruse.  After all, Komen ditched it quickly.  Numerous reports noted that Komen’s new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, had pushed for an end to its association with Planned Parenthood.  Handel, who had served as Secretary of State in Georgia, and run an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for governor, is staunchly anti-abortion.   The decision was in the works months ago.  Last December, when Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, was interviewing candidates for a high level public relations position for Komen, he made it clear to candidates that Komen would be cutting its connection to Planned Parenthood.

Once the decision was announced, the reaction was intense and viral, aided by social media.  Runners, contributors, and many many others announced that they were done with Komen, tweeting and posting facebook notifications of their decisions.  (Social media allowed all of this to happen very quickly.)

They also started sending checks to Planned Parenthood.  Most visibly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $250,000 matching grant for new money Planned Parenthood raised to make up the difference.  In short order, Planned Parenthood raised $3 million.  Politicians who supported Planned Parenthood weighed in, publicly pressuring Komen to scrap the new policy.

Komen held the line on its policy, very briefly, shifting rationales and explanations quickly.  In short order, however, Komen’s founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, announced that Planned Parenthood would get the money and would continue to be eligible for grants in the future.

Komen executives realized that their offices, their jobs, their reputation, and their cause were dependent upon public support.  It was all to easy to imagine women foregoing the Race for the Cure and for Planned Parenthood (or someone else!) to start raising its own money to fight breast cancer.  They couldn’t back peddle fast enough.

But it’s not over.  Opponents of abortion are angry that Komen caved to the political and financial muscle of Planned Parenthood supporters.  Presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich released statements of disappointment, while grassroots activists announced their own boycott of Komen.  Komen executives will now have to assess how credible those threats are and how damaging those boycotts might be.  It’s awfully hard to be non-political on abortion when people start paying attention.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to A protest is a threat (the Komen debacle)

  1. This definitely came out of nowhere and rallied the pro-choice and anti-abortion crowds during an election year. Will be interesting to see if there will be any ripple effects this fall.

  2. Pingback: Boycott politics | Politics Outdoors

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