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Protesters urge sponsors to press China

Activists holding signs reading "Genocide: It's the real thing" demonstrated outside Coca-Cola Co.'s offices in Manhattan on Friday as part of a nationwide protest targeting several Beijing Olympic sponsors for failing to press China to help end the violence in Darfur.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Activists holding signs reading "Genocide: It's the real thing" demonstrated outside Coca-Cola Co.'s offices in Manhattan on Friday as part of a nationwide protest targeting several Beijing Olympic sponsors for failing to press China to help end the violence in Darfur.

The protest was one of a dozen rallies organized Friday by Dream for Darfur and the Save Darfur Coalition targeting Coca-Cola, Swatch, Volkswagen and General Electric for failing to act against China, which has significant investments in Sudan. China buys more than two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports.

The companies are among 15 of 19 top Olympic advertisers who received poor or failing grades from Dream for Darfur in its second corporate responsibility report card.

"If in any way you're tangentially associated with genocide you have to speak out," said Ellen Freudenheim, the director of corporate outreach for Dream for Darfur in New York. "These companies have the temerity to act like it's business as usual."

About 40 protesters wearing white T-shirts with a red bar and bearing the words "Genocide Olympics?" shouted slogans and handed out flyers to tourists and shoppers from behind barricades on a narrow swath of tony Fifth Avenue in Midtown.

Several times protesters shouted the phone numbers of Coke executives through a megaphone and read scripted messages on their voicemails. They also collected signatures on a letter addressed to Coke's CEO. In Pittsburgh, the Darfur Emergy Coalition planned to present a letter to GE's Pittsburgh office addressed to CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Dream for Darfur's aim is to shame the sponsors into using their public profile and economic heft to lobby Beijing to pressure Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to allow U.N. peacekeepers into his country's western Darfur region, where since 2003 the conflict has killed as many as 300,000 people and resulted in more than 2.5 million displaced people or refugees.

Dream for Darfur is not calling for a boycott of the companies that received low or failing grades but is encouraging viewers to change the channel during commercials promoting the 15 corporations' products and encouraging them to tune into spokeswoman Mia Farrow's alternative opening ceremony, a 20-minute Internet broadcast on Aug. 8.

Freudenheim said Dream for Darfur has targeted Coca-Cola because "Coke is a brand that rings around the world." Protests were planned at five Coca-Cola facilities, including at the corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

At its sprawling complex near Georgia Tech University, below a towering office building bearing the company's famous red logo, about 18 demonstrators chanted, "Hey Coke, you can't hide, help us stop this genocide" and "One, two, three, four, stop the killing in Darfur."

About 25 people gathered in front of Coke's bottling plant in Denver and 30 demonstrated in Washington, D.C.

"They care about competition and games. They care just about fun," said Omhagain Dayeen, a former art history professor who fled Darfur and settled with her family in Lakewood, Colo.

Coca-Cola released a statement defending its record on Darfur. It said it has committed at least $5 million to programs addressing water needs in the province and elsewhere in Sudan.

"We are focusing our efforts and resources where we believe they can make the greatest difference in saving lives and reducing suffering on the ground," the statement said. "While the lack of clean water in Sudan and its role in starting this conflict has been often overlooked by the international community, it has been the focus of much of our funding."

Darfur is an awkward issue for sponsors that have paid tens of millions of dollars to associate themselves with the Beijing Games in hopes of boosting their profiles in the burgeoning Chinese marketplace.

Companies have emphasized their charitable efforts in Sudan rather than speak out against China, which is using the games to introduce the world to its long-shielded culture and celebrate is economic arrival as a world power. Beijing has retaliated in the past for unwanted foreign actions by canceling contracts or restricting market access.

Darfur is not the only issue confronting China. Activists in several countries have interrupted the Olympic torch relay in protest of Beijing's crackdown in Tibet.

In Indianapolis, several dozen people attended a meeting on Darfur as part of a U.N. World Refugee Day program. Mastora Bakhiet, who fled Darfur in 1996 for the United Arab Emirates and has been living since 2005 in Fort Wayne, Ind., emphasized the economic influence on the violence.

"It's very important to put pressure on those companies because they are only looking for profit," She said. "They are making money and this money helps the government of Sudan to buy weapons and kill people of Darfur. So it is very important to stop making money."

The companies singled out by Dream for Darfur insist the Olympics should not be used for political gain.

"We have been involved in promoting the Olympics for over 20 years. Over the years there have been many political issues. We believe these issues are best resolved diplomatically," Volkswagen spokesman Steve Keyes said. "We decided to focus on the games and athletes."

Freudenheim, who wrote the report card, disagrees.

"The Olympics have always been political. Who gets the games is political. How the games are run are political," she said. "The actual games among wonderful athletes is wonderful. Everything around it is political."