April 17 2017

Screen shot: YouTube

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, one of the young sisters in the Kardashian-Jenner family, became the subject of memes and criticism after launching a commercial that parodied social protests—and failed.

The commercial shows Jenner modeling for a photoshoot as a march appears. Two other people, an Asian man who is a musician and a Muslim woman photographer, are showcased as they, like Jenner, are inspired to join the protest. Jenner walks into the crowd of protesters. It’s unclear what exactly they are protesting but there are thousands of people marching through the streets. They are stopped by a line of police officers. Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to an officer as a token of peace. The action is celebrated by her fellow protesters.

In response to the ad, Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., tweeted a picture of her father being pushed by an officer and said, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

After being bombarded with responses on social media, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology for missing the mark, saying that they thought they were encouraging “unity, peace, and understanding.” Missing the mark is an understatement, and it is a reflection of misconceptions around social justice, organizing and protests.

There are many problems with the Pepsi ad and the perception of social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter has been in the spotlight since 2014 when the popular hashtag became the slogan of an international movement. Efforts to address police violence, particularly against black people, come from a long legacy that includes the Black Panther Party.

Harvard Lecturer Jill Avery told The Atlantic that these types of ads are made “[by] brand managers who are not doing their cultural homework—relying upon surface-level understandings of the cultural phenomenon they are featuring in their marketing communications and not understanding the deep well of emotions, identity politics, and ideologies that their ads will trigger.”

Resistance has become commodified and repackaged to sell false ideals. Protesting supposedly lies at the heart of this country, yet these days it seems that only a specific kind of protester is being heard. In the commercial, it is a white woman (Jenner), despite reality showing us most movements are led by women of color. The ad is meant to simplify a complex issue, but its solution trivializes social movements and the violence people have encountered when protesting the very same issue. Decades of protests tell us peace is not that simple.

From my experience, peace is often dismissed as a possibility by law enforcement in riot gear. I have gone to protests in the Bay Area and Chicago over the last few years, and there are only a handful of times where I haven’t witnessed harm by a police officer. In May 2015 I attended a protest against Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s curfew that was enacted to prevent demonstrations after sundown. The crowd was kettled following an act of civil disobedience, which meant no one could leave. Many of us stood face-to-face with officers as they enclosed us. My partner was grabbed from behind and removed by two officers. He was among the 52 arrests made that night.

It was, by definition, a peaceful protest. Refusal to give up our civil rights did not call for kettles or arrests. But that is what happened.

It is wrong for the Pepsi ad to put the responsibility of peacefulness on protesters rather than an institution that promises to protect. Militarized police at peaceful protests are nothing new.

In real protests, it has not mattered whether protesters wore bandanas for anonymity or were decked out in formalwear; many peaceful protests are still met with strong opposition by police. Wearing a suit and tie didn’t prevent Martin Luther King, Jr. and his comrades from tear gas. A similar conversation arose when the Women’s March was commended for the lack of arrests, despite hundreds of peaceful protesters being arrested the day before. Not fearing tear gas, batons and unlawful arrests is an indicator of privilege and ignorance around resistance.

Our country does need a conversation around peace and unity, however, one that will not arrive with corporate sponsorship or the belief that there is only one right way to be heard. There are thousands of groups organizing protests and campaigns; their efforts cannot be co-opted or sold.

This commentary originally appeared in the Richmond Pulse. Click here to read it there.