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OpEd: Pepsi and the Systemic Violence of Capitalism

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St. Louis County Police and Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers stand guard as protesters march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2015. Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as an activist and organizer in the national movement for Black Lives, it is this: No protest is complete without a Pepsi… Or at least, that’s an idea the fizzy drink brand would like you to adopt.

Starring cultural appropriator-turned social revolutionary, Kendall Jenner, their latest advertisement, a vignette entitled, “Live in the Moment,” came under fire for their “tone-deaf” use of a protest campaign as vessel for generating revenue.

On Wednesday Pepsi pulled the ad after publishing a half-assed apology that seemed to carry more concern for Jenner than the thousands of people who voiced pure outrage since the ad’s release.

You may be asking yourself, why outrage? The answer is complex, and requires some context. It wasn’t the smiling, joy-drunk crowd of peaceful “protestors” that set most folks off. It wasn’t the vague and insincere signage that made us so critical of Pepsi’s ad. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t even Pepsi’s audacity to center Kendall Jenner in an important role that historically, white women never sign up for in real life.

Image: Pepsi PR On-Set With Kendall Jenner
Pepsi PR On-Set With Kendall Jenner on February 4, 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand. Brent Lewin / Getty Images for Pepsi

It was the use of our story, our struggle, and our sacrifices as a conduit for capitalistic profit. In a political moment drenched in the blood, sweat, and tears of working-class Black folks who resist systemic violence, the use of our work to forward to financial gain is a violent, sinister act devoid of morality.

Pepsi deserved every single critique thrown their way, and I’ll tell you why:

Since the murder of Michael Brown in 2014, organizers across the country have strategized protests to highlight the impact of systemic violence in Black communities. Launched by a season of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, these protests have targeted a spectrum of institutional benefactors of anti-Black violence.

Related: Late-Night Hosts Skewer Kendall Jenner's Pepsi Ad

Tactical protests have been utilized to shift systemic inequity by putting pressure on state legislators and representatives, police officials, and yes—even national corporations. Contrary to the kumbaya utopia that Pepsi created for their ad, these calculated initiatives are not carefree block parties that occur without sacrifice.

In fact, most organizers, myself included, could tell you first hand the incredible violence and fear that the State enacts on the bodies of activists who dare resist oppressive institutions.

Image: Demonstrators protesting the killings of 18-year-olds Michael Brown by a Ferguson
Demonstrators protesting the killings of 18-year-olds Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri Police officer and Vonderrit Myers Jr. by an off duty St. Louis police officer are confronted by police wearing riot gear on October 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Scott Olson / Getty Images, file

In the weeks following the Ferguson Uprising, children slept in a parking lot near the bloodied spot Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, hoping to draw attention the atrocious (and unconstitutional) tactics St. Louis Police used to quell peaceful protests.

In those early days, national news networks refused to cover what was happening, so we watched in horror on Twitter, Periscope, and Vine. That is what inspired me to organize on the ground as a young, Black, queer woman. I learned quickly that no one was interested in our suffering, but us.

The act of protest is not a marketing strategy, and there is no way to reenact the danger, the life-threatening circumstances one submits to while “on-the-ground”. The sacrifices we each make are in hopes of creating a freer future for the Black people that will come after us, not for the benefit of Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

Knowing this, it is impossible to create an ad like Pepsi’s without either an extreme interest in the oppression of Black people, or an extreme interest in profiting from it. But then, profiting on the backs of anti-Black violence is a symptomatic pattern in capitalism, and Pepsi’s not the only one cutting checks.

Just follow me for a second…

As a wise ancestor once told us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Similarly, companies stand silently as war is being waged against Black and brown people, seldom offering any support or solidarity for the people that make up a large portion of their consumer base.

Protests Continue In Chicago After Release Of Video Of Police Fatally Shooting Teen
Demonstrators block the entrance of Top Shop as they protest the shooting of Laquan McDonald along the Magnificent Mile November 27, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Joshua Lott / Getty Images

In the fall of 2015, organizers around the country from Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson United, Baltimore Bloc, and numerous other organizations banded together to block companies from their typical Black Friday revenue. The intention was to create friction between corporations and their consumers in order to force companies like Walmart, McDonald’s and a long list of others to choose a side in the battle for social justice and equity. The initiative was wildly successful, creating at least a 3.5% decrease in national holiday sales.

Imagine our surprise, when not only did these companies wholly ignore the efforts gaining traction on the ground, but seemed to think that campaigns targeting the disgruntled demographic would cure any rhetoric harmful to brands’ public image. Capitalism tells us that money is a quick solution for controversy—even when these issues stem from social and cultural divisions that exist in a space completely separate from profit margins and revenue averages.

In a capitalistic, anti-Black system, we do not have the privilege of separating apathy and animosity. Even the intentions behind “well-meaning” acts that trivialize our bodies or our lives prove, time and time again, to be fatal.

To this point, Pepsi’s apology was incredibly problematic: “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position."

They missed an opportunity primed for making an impactful political stance, instead using coded language devoid of real substance to prioritize the fragility of rich, white execs, and a starlet complicit in our erasure.

There is no way to white-wash our histories without violence… even if that violence is enacted with the best of intentions. It simply is not possible.

Image: Kendall Jenner in the new Pepsi ad (L) and Ieshia Evans during the Baton Rouge Protest (R)
Kendall Jenner in the new Pepsi ad (L) and Ieshia Evans during the Baton Rouge Protest (R). Jonathan Bachman (R) / You Tube/Reuters

In some ways, I get it. Resistance work has become a central part of our social-cultural lexicon. For almost three years, we’ve watched protestors become pundits, we’ve witnessed politicians acquiesce to community pressure. And in a capitalist society, it may seem like the thematic pattern of progress is nothing more than a pop-culture trend.

Unfortunately, the use of our story-line to stimulate corporate growth is another example of the very systemic violence us angry Black folk continue to resist against.

In a phenomenon upheld by historical constructs, Black people once again create new facets of culture and progress, only to have everyone benefit from our sacrifices.

Everyone, but us.

Sadly, this ad not only erases the lethal impact of state-sanctioned violence, and diminishes the necessity for political resistance, it has found a way to perpetuate that same violence while making a quick buck for all the trouble we’ve caused.

Related: Jussie Smollett Releases Searing Music Video on Trump Administration

Call me when Kendall Jenner gets tired of wearing the Black Experience like a mask. Like the rest of capitalistic world, both she and Pepsi have figured out a way to capitalize on the suffering and oppression of Black people.

While we indict systems, challenge institutional norms, and shift the very culture that normalizes our oppression, Corporations leech off the brilliance and magic that helps us survive. We’ve stared down the barrel of military-grade weaponry, and lived to laugh about it.

Capitalism cashes in on those jokes, it cuts a check off of our laughter. And even as state legislators in communities across the country find ways to criminalize the protestors who have recreated so-called “counter culture,” Pepsi finds a way to whitewash it and make it trendy.

How do y’all do that? How do you always find a way to profit from our lives… and our deaths? It’s a truly remarkable procedure.

Way to go, capitalism, and way to go, Pepsi.

Aurielle Marie is an Atlanta-born Black Queer woman resisting anti-Black state violence through the vehicles of hip-hop, spoken word, and grassroots organizing. She is dedicated to the liberation of Black women and Black Queer folks at their intersections. Follow her on Twitter.