Soft Drinks, Hard Choices

By Christine Lewis ’07

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This article is trapped in the liminal space between the work of a student and the perspective of an alumna. I am writing this as a senior, my thesis due in a number of days, and in fact the countdown runs through my head in numbers of hours. However, by the time you read this, I will have burnt my drafts in the fire pit, defended my thesis before my board, and shaken Colin Diver’s hand in exchange for my diploma.

I am writing my thesis in the department of anthropology, examining the Coca-Cola Company’s organization and production abroad, with a particular focus on human rights and labor abuses in Colombia. The thesis analyzes boycott efforts against the company, including at Reed, where I have been involved in the activist campaign.

I argue that Americans’ acceptance of endemic political violence in Colombia provides a means for Coca-Cola to run a program against unionist workers, simultaneously rendering this very program invisible. The proof that I marshal includes the results of a fact-finding mission led by New York City Council Member Hiram Monserrate in 2004, which identified 179 human rights violations against Coca-Cola workers in Colombia, including abduction, torture, murder, as well as threats and attacks against family members. Paramilitary units are the agents of these abuses, but the Monserrate investigation found that violence against bottling plant workers was done “with the knowledge of and likely under the direction of company managers.”

Anti-Coke campaigns have been organized by students and labor unions in the United States in solidarity with Colombian resistance groups and other communities worldwide. For instance, activists in India charge Coca-Cola with over-tapping aquifers and polluting water sources near bottling plants, depriving local people of water for drinking and agriculture. These campaigns have included consumer boycotts and actions at shareholder meetings.

Coca-Cola products—including Coke, Sprite, Minute Maid juices, and Dasani water—can currently be found in the Reed bookstore, at events catered by the campus food service, Bon Appetit (though they are not served by Bon Appetit in commons), and in numerous vending machines on campus.

Anti-Coca-Cola organizing at Reed began during Reed Arts Week 2005, when a student activist constructed plaster hands and hung them from empty book stacks in the library, along with a jumble of empty Coke cans. The white plaster hands were ghostly, suggesting the company’s phantasmal global presence, and the cans, with the company’s familiar red-and-white logo, resembled pools of blood. The Reed Student Peace Action Network took up the campaign, tabling with flyers about Coca-Cola’s alleged human rights violations, and lobbying to remove Coke products from all campus locations.

The question of whether Reed should join a multi-college boycott of Coke products was raised by students in early 2006 at a Reed Union where the college’s political neutrality policy was debated. In fact, the bookstore at one point removed Coke drinks from its shelves at the request of activists, only to replace them later after students complained about the lack of beverage choices. Last fall, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which I am a member, drafted a new Coca-Cola campaign plan and conducted taste tests of Royal Crown and Blue Sky, beverage companies without the same poor human rights record as Coca-Cola.

Recently, the student body approved the following resolution in a referendum: The Reed College Student Body supports replacing Coke products on campus with tasty, refreshing and socially responsible alternatives.”

What kind of action anti-Coke activists on campus should now take following this showing of broad student support to join the boycott will become a question for next year’s students. What the college itself should do—join the boycott and ban Coke, or stick with “political neutrality” and take no action—might be something I can influence as a recently-minted alumna. The question of how individual interest weighs against the collective good remains unresolved in the world at large, and at Reed as well.

Our community is used to fierce but respectful intellectual debate, and one area that certainly warrants more debate is what responsibility we have as active consumers of products, in light of the education we receive at Reed. In class, we are taught to question everything; to research, analyze, formulate an argument, advocate a position. So oughtn’t we to question, in a collective process of investigation and decision making, the influence of corporate power in our lives—starting with which button we push at the soda machine?

Christine Lewis graduated from Reed in anthropology this month. Her thesis is titled Complexities in Coca-Colonization: Locating Collective Agency in Colombia and the United States.