Celebrating Independents

America’s Independent Businesses Have Reasons for Optimism

By Stacy Mitchell
Published July 2, 2004

On a cold December night, 231 years ago, a band of patriots forced their way onto three ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the sea. Although we often forget it today, their actions were as much a challenge to global corporate power as they were a rebellion against King George III.

The ships were owned by the East India Company, a vast transnational corporation that exerted enormous power over the American economy. It had a firm grip on the British government too. In 1773 parliament passed the Tea Act, which exempted the East India Company from paying taxes on tea it sold in the colonies. The aim was to enable the company to undercut small competitors, all of whom were subject to the tax, and drive them out of business.

“Hence it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vend tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies,,” according to Tea Party participant George Hewes, “but, on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen . . . ”

The British government and the East India Company were betting that the lure of cheap tea would overpower any sense of principle. But they misjudged. The colonists continued to support independent merchants, boycotted East India tea and, that night in the harbor, engaged in a bit of economic disobedience.

It’s impossible to read this history (as in Thom Hartmann’s Unequal Protection) without thinking of subsidies for Wal-Mart, favors for Halliburton, and banking policy designed to augment the power of big banks. Once again we have a government that operates largely in the interests of global corporations.

And once again, there are signs of defiance everywhere. Notably this week, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, thousands of small businesses, led by the new and fast-growing American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), are drawing attention to the importance of small-scale, local enterprise in guarding against economic tyranny.

They’ve declared this Independents Week and are urging Americans to reassert their economic independence, much as their Tea Party forerunners did, by avoiding global corporations and seeking out independently owned businesses.

The odds of local businesses gaining ground in an economy where just twenty chains capture one-third of the $2.5 trillion in annual consumer spending seem about as good as, well, the odds that a group of ragtag rebels could beat back the British Redcoats. Independent businesses are outgunned and at the wrong end of a whole host of government policies that favor their big competitors. But like the colonial rebels, they have an ace up their sleeve: the stubbornly independent, self-reliant spirit of America .

“This is about community self-determination,” said AMIBA director Jennifer Rockne. Local ownership diffuses economic power. It ensures that critical decisions — whether to pay a living wage, protect a natural resource, sell produce from local farms, or contribute to a local charity — are made, not by some distant board of directors, but by people who live in the community and who will feel the impacts of their decisions.

AMIBA is publicizing Independents Week nationally, but many of the events will take place in the dozen cities where local business coalitions affiliated with AMIBA have formed.

In Austin, Texas, the 240-member Austin Independent Business Alliance has blanketed the city with posters calling on residents to “Celebrate Your Independents” and persuaded Mayor Will Wynn to issue an official Independents Week proclamation. Members are organizing a variety of events and contests, all of which are designed get people thinking about how their spending decisions affect Austin ‘s future.

Meanwhile, in Hudson, Ohio, fifty-five independent businesses have been running newspaper ads calling on residents to “dare to live a week without malls.” This Saturday, during a big celebration on Main Street, supporters are planning to link arms to form a giant circle around the downtown — a symbolic act organizers hope will spur opposition to a November ballot initiative that would open the way for big box development.

In Tampa, Florida, the Tampa Independent Business Alliance is hosting a public forum that members hope will galvanize a broad public discussion about the merits of pursuing chain store development versus nurturing locally owned enterprises. One vital difference, notes Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood, is that, unlike chains, independent businesses support a web of local economic activity.

“When we need shelves, we have them crafted here in Tampa,” she said. “We have a local printer, accountant, local bookkeeper, we even have a local, independent pest control company.” The more localized a city’s trade, the less vulnerable it is to the fluctuations of the global economy and the whims of the stock market.

Jimenez was the person who first dreamed up the idea of Independents Week. It’s not surprising that an independent bookseller would connect the dots of political and economic democracy. Local businesses are our best weapons against chain store gatekeepers that increasingly control what books, records, and films end up on store shelves. This week, in my home state of Maine, had it not been for four independently owned theaters, there would have been a complete blackout on Fahrenheit 911.

“This a fun celebration of all of our great independent businesses,” said Michael Levinson, director of Build St. Louis, a fledgling independent business alliance in St. Louis, Missouri, which will kick-off Independents Week with a party at a local brewery emceed by the director of a community-owned radio station. “But it’s also about preserving economic freedom and local self-reliance, values that go back to the very beginning of this country.”

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project (a program of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance), serves on the board of the American Independent Business Alliance and is a frequent contributor to ReclaimDemocracy.or.