It was 2015 when I received a call from colleagues, informing me that a crowd of 500 white supremacists were storming Stone Mountain Park — the famed “birthplace” of the Ku Klux Klan.
We were told that families of color and Black children were being taunted, chased, spit on, and attacked by men holding confederate flags and military-grade weaponry. When I arrived, I was joined by only three other activists in an overwhelming crowd of now over a thousand people. In the chaos, we saw two Black women surrounded by white men screaming in their faces. One of the women was crying. I knew then that it would be a long day for us all.
For eight hours, I battled the threats of Klansmen, pleaded with apathetic police, and dodged armed vigilantes who proudly boasted that they were “tracking darkies” up and down the face of Stone Mountain. I was trapped between my instincts to fight or flee — on one hand, there were no cameras, my phone was dead, and no one would know if any of us went missing. On the other hand, I could not reconcile abandoning Black women in the middle of a boiling mob with my political beliefs intact.
So, I stayed.
I marched in a sea of confederate flags on a lonely mountain. I sang and chanted with six comrades in a mass crowd that bellowed against us. I stared down the barrel of assault rifles held by men who blatantly told me they would kill me as soon as they caught me away from the group. We laughed together, hid our fears, swallowed our regrets, and contemplated disastrous endings. In the end, we had to be escorted down Stone Mountain by disgruntled police, who had been enjoying the show since our arrival. They allowed bigots with rifles to parade closely behind us, following us to our cars and out of the park. As Stone Mountain shrank in my review mirror, I had to pull over and loosen my grip on the calm air I’ve often adopted as an activist. No one understands what losing that calm means to people like me — people who march on highways toward speeding cars, or climb high into the air to destroy offensive iconographic flags. Black activists around this country have survived harrowing situations, but not without scars. Not without trauma.
And sometimes, we don’t survive at all. Death is not a stranger in our quest to be free.
I share my story, not for click bait or to be melodramatic, but because I think there’s something dangerous about defusing stories like these. Pepsi launched a controversial ad starring Kendall Jenner on Tuesday, which sparked outrage across the Internet. The launch was meant to celebrate “moments when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion and nothing holds us back.” For most, the ad appeared to use imagery inspired by the recent surge of protests fighting for Black liberation across the country. Pepsi, however, irresponsibly presents a troubling twist on the visuals typically splayed across evening news. Instead of Black bodies incensed by injustice, we are met with a sickening happiness among the crowd of well-dressed marchers. There are no slogans pleading for the safety of Black children; instead signage vaguely encourages the reader to “join the conversation.” Smiling white people replace the bodies of brave activists of color. Cheers erupt from the crowd as Jenner offers an officer a can of Pepsi, and the world stops.
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In an instant, we are invited to envision a world where state violence ceases whenever white women gather. We are instructed by Pepsi to “live bolder” and “live louder,” as a crowd of happy-go-lucky protesters mock the political climate we’ve survived. We are encouraged to consider marching with a smile, or bringing peace offerings for the benefactors of systemic brutality, as if maybe that will keep us safe in the streets the next time we stumble upon a protest.
If you’re confused by this narrative, you’re not alone. If you’re angry, your rage is valid.
Let me be the first to burst your bubble, Pepsi: there isn’t anything marketable about resisting state violence, and there’s nothing trendy about protesting as a means of survival. We aren’t exaggerating the violence of the state. The U.S. government has found repression tactics used by officers of the law to be unconstitutional. Are you going to tell the whole truth? How will you repackage tear gas and LRADs for your target demographics? How did this idea flesh out in a board room filled with white people who have never felt the sting of a rubber bullet? How did you gather the audacity to transform our tragedy into a commodity?
In 2014, when Black folks hit the streets in Ferguson, they didn’t know that they would catapult an international movement for Black lives. Women in particular put their bodies on the line every night, and ended up sacrificing their jobs, housing, and in some cases, their parental rights. In Atlanta, “peaceful” protesters were beaten by officers in riot gear, handcuffed for more than nine hours, even kidnaped by policemen. For over two years, we’ve slept out, sat in, marched down, and climbed over institutional constructs that dehumanize our bodies and turn our anger into weaponry against us. Pepsi’s ad supports a dangerous idea: that instead of shutting shit down because our very lives are threatened, organizers around the country should hit the streets for a photo-op.
This ad communicates a reality that doesn’t exist for Black people; our resistance has never looked like a block party. As victims of state violence, there is no way to protest “peacefully” and “safely.” What is safety in a nation built on the marrow of our ancestors? What is peace in a country that kills our unarmed siblings every 24 hours? Even as Pepsi is being praised for a “revolutionary” idea, actual revolutionaries are dying, are surviving as political prisoners, are homeless, are being persecuted by the state for their audacity to imagine and fight for a world where we live freely.
In the face of valid critiques, Pepsi had added insult to injury by taking the video down and offering a pitiful apology. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize,” they said Wednesday, amid outcries. “We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
The damage has been done, Pepsi. A company willing to siphon inspiration from oppressed people for financial gain doesn’t actually care about the anger those people express. Pepsi does not actually care about the righteous rage displayed on the Internet or in these streets during protests. Why else would they apologize to Jenner, a woman complicit in their violent erasure of our bodies, and not to us?
If we are to truly honor the shift in culture that the larger movement for Black lives started, let’s actually honor the sacrifices activists make by naming them, giving their work a platform, and humanizing their stories. Let’s decide to support the sustainability of true revolutionary work. Let your solidarity be proven in action and not in empty rhetoric that promotes no real dialogue. This faulty, unoriginal, violently corrupted ad wasn’t it, Pepsi. This apology that protected white fragility without naming the true victim of your whitewashing (read: us) wasn’t it either. Generating revenue by poorly appropriating the dangerous environment that exists “on the ground” ain’t nobody’s ticket to “Living Bolder,” Pepsi. This is a violent erasure of our work. This is a dangerous assertion of whitewashing.
This is incredibly fucked up.
If you’re truly sorry, you’ll turn over the revenue created in the 48 hours since your abysmal ad. You’ll donate this money to the more than twenty nationally recognized organizations that have been fearlessly working toward Black liberation since the Ferguson Uprising. You’ll gift individual organizers who have sacrificed their lives and safety with honor and recognition. You’ll put that money where your ad was. Or you won’t, and you’ll be added at the end of a long list of institutions willing to perpetuate violence on Black bodies for financial gain.
I wish I could say I’m shocked, but I’m not. This is why we hit the streets, Pepsi. This.