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Anti-Coke Protestors at UCLA By: Alec Mouhibian
Daily Bruin | Friday, April 28, 2006

In order to ride a high horse for any considerable length of time without getting sore, you need a fancy saddle. A group of righteous high horse hobbyists on campus has chosen the accusation of murder as theirs.

The student group Coke-Free Campus wants to ban Coca-Cola products from UCLA because some of the casualties of the ongoing civil war in Colombia have allegedly included union leaders and Coca-Cola factory workers.

Economically, Coke has no incentive to have employees murdered by guerrillas. No workers, no Coke: no-brainer. Legally, they have been acquitted of any responsibility by two judicial inquiries. So why the persecution?

I tried to find out on Friday. While Associated Students UCLA heard arguments for and against the charges, a stampede of high horses gathered to whinny in protest outside Kerckhoff.

I found two answers before my cover was blown: "Our campus" and "students' power." These were in reply to the questions of "Whose campus?" and "Whose power?" This was the Q&A portion of the protest, but I couldn't decipher what it had to do with Coke's supposed guilt.

One student began the rally by announcing the group's intent to silence Coke's representatives. He told everyone that when the time came for the representatives to speak in their defense at the meeting inside, he would signal for all to scream and holler.

"You can't speak here," he yelled. "It's our school and we'll tell you when to speak."

The bullhorn then went to the hands of Karume James, chairman of the African Student Union. He proceeded to compare what Coke hasn't done to "apartheid, Vietnam, the genocide of black people in the Sudan region."

"It's all for profit," he continued, revealing in one fell swoop the breadth of economic, historical, legal and political knowledge stocked by Coke-Free Campus.

I asked James, between his many speeches, why he's mad at Coke and what evidence he has of its guilt. "Direct your conversation to one of the organizers," he said. "I'm just here in support." Minutes later he was leading the chant, "Coca-Cola stop your lying! Because of you people are dying!"

The bullhorn made its way to Claire Douglas, who spoke of "the urgency of this issue." After her speech, she admitted to not being able to say why Coke was guilty.

My search went on. Finally I was directed to Emily Villagrana, of Conciencia Libre and Raza Womyn.

Villagrana admitted "(Coke isn't) the one doing the killing. ... The paramilitary in Colombia is the one causing all these deaths, massacres and tortures." Two minutes later, she was chanting: "Cherry, diet or vanilla: Coca-Cola is a killa."

She admitted Coke was giving Colombians jobs they otherwise would not have. Two minutes later, she was chanting: "We support workers, we don't support Coke."

After these admissions, all that remained was the complaint that Coke hasn't provided enough protection for its workers. Any sensible person dreams of a world in which corporations have armed battalions guarding their factories from government intrusion. Sadly, we have yet to achieve that ideal.

For now, private corporations are subject to the political realities of whatever government they operate under. How are they expected to provide protection in a war-ravaged country such as Colombia?

"As far as I know, they haven't tried anything," Villagrana said.

I suggested that her knowledge might be augmented by listening to Coca-Cola's defenders at the meeting, rather than attempting to physically silence their free speech. "You're entitled to believe that," she said.

Her fellow riders who actually attended the meeting were jolted off their horses when a young Colombian refugee emotionally testified to the heroism of the Coca-Cola Company in her native land. She begged Coke to stay and hold its own, as the thousands of jobs it and other corporations provide help those who would otherwise probably end up joining the paramilitaries.

Colombian Professor Miguel Ceballos, of Foundation for Education, Colombia, said that no Colombian lacks a friend or family member – union or nonunion, Coke worker or non-Coke worker – who's been killed in the violence. He bashed the protestors for knowing nothing about the violent context in Colombia, where Coke is a rare force for saving lives.

Ed Potter, the Coke representative, added that Coke has more union employees than any other Colombian company, and that it provides a hotline for its workers to call to get a safety escort to work.

Such are the condition-enhancing incentives of the profit motive, wherever it is allowed to motivate. Not that the riders really care about Colombian workers or the real effects of profit motive. They're there for the ride, fairgrounds be darned.

The anti-Coke protesters can only hope to be taken as ridiculously as they sound. If taken seriously, they'd have to be placed in the same category as Salem witch-hunters and Southern lynch mobs – so strong is their willingness to disregard free speech, pursuit of truth and presumption of innocence for the sake of a righteous crusade.

Those tenets are among the core principles of a free society. If our university has any responsibility, it is to discourage the type of moral inflation that devalues those principles.

Alec Mouhibian is a columnist for the Daily Bruin.

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