“Coke is scared to death about what University of Chicago students are doing,” Ray Rogers, founder of Killer Coke, said after a town hall meeting Tuesday. But that fear seems less likely to come to fruition after both the Student Government (SG) General Assembly and Inter-House Council (IHC) recommended that their representatives sitting on the Campus Dining Advisory Board (CDAB) vote against the proposal to remove Coca-Cola products from dining halls at their meeting Thursday of 10th week.
For over a year, student group Kick Coke Off Campus has called on CDAB to end its contracts with the soft drink company over allegations of environmental abuses and involvement with the murders of union members.
The town hall meeting hosted by SG this week served as a final call for the campus to share its opinion. The meeting included speakers from the national campaign, Killer Coke, and the Coca-Cola Company.
Prior to the forum, about 20 students staged a Keep Coke on Campus rally outside of Kent Hall. They gave out $200 worth of Coke and encouraged students to sign a petition to keep Coke at the U of C. Many wore red t-shirts that read “Coca-Cola, satisfying UChicago students since 1892.”
First-year Joseph “Tex” Dozier held a megaphone and chanted slogans such as “What Do We Want? Coke!” to about 20 supporters. Dozier spent about a week organizing the rally and estimates that he now has over 400 signatures on his petition. Some students signed the petition simply because they enjoy the soft drink; others argued that Coca-Cola bottlers provide much-needed jobs.
One reason for the Keep Coke On Campus petition is the belief among some students that the allegations against the company are insufficiently substantiated. “If we could directly link Coke to the murders in Colombia, I would speak out against Coke,” Dozier said.
The anti-Coke students gathered on the steps of Kent to watch the pro-Coke rally and hand out fliers to 250 students who attended the meeting.
CDAB chair Richard Mason began the forum and students voiced their opinions to the 18 SG members present after both sides spoke.
The snaps and hisses of dozens of just-opened Coke cans greeted Killer Coke founder Ray Rogers when he began. “The world of Coca-Cola is a world of lies, deception and environmental abuses,” he said.
In his presentation, Rogers pointed students to the decision by financial services giant TIAA–CREF to drop the company from one of its accounts in 2006 as validation for his claims.
The Coca-Cola representatives denied Rogers’s accusations. “We feel like we have the truth on our side,” said Diana Garza, a company spokesman.
Asked if the company was involved in the murders of union members, she said, “None of it is true,” referring to the dismissal of a Florida court case accusing the company of involvement in the crimes.
Students from both sides voiced their opinions to the SG representatives, although some in attendance expressed frustration, saying they felt “patronized.” An SG representative later said that both talks “would have gotten an F” in U of C classes.
Alejandra Mejia, a second-year from Colombia, pointed to the complexity of the issue, saying that culpability for violence in Colombia could not be pinpointed on a single organization. “You could blame anybody for the violence in Colombia,” she said.
The meeting threatened to spiral out of hand at times as protesters vocally supported their positions. Many students laughed derisively and one shouted “You just murder people!” when representatives from Coca-Cola spoke, while a pro-Coke student continually raised a sign that read “You’re annoying” during Rogers’s speech.
Wednesday night, SG voted 14–6–6 to recommend that its three CDAB members vote against ousting Coke. This follows the 15–8 IHC vote to reject the proposal, although neither body bound their voting members to its decisions.
After the forum, Ryan Kaminski, one of the SG members of CDAB, was “more confident” that he would vote against the wider sentiment of SG and call for the removal of Coca-Cola from Aramark-run locations, such as the dining halls and Maroon Market. The town hall opinion was largely anti-Coke, according to Kaminski, and he felt that a petition with 1,108 signatures and the dozens of e-mails he received on the issue constituted a widespread negative sentiment toward Coke. Kaminski noted that this is the “only time” he has received so many e-mails about an issue.
The SG vote hinged on the validity of the allegations against Coke and whether the anti-Coke petition signers represented a minority of the student body. Some SG members questioned the methods used to attain the signatures, while supporters of the resolution found the sheer number significant.
SG’s decision disappointed fourth-year Miranda Nelson, a leader of Kick Coke Off Campus. She said that anti-Coke activists had done everything CDAB had requested by procuring the petition and by educating students about the issue. Nelson noted that none of the SG members at the forum took notes while students spoke. Alex Moore, another anti-Coke leader, said that he was disappointed “to hear that people who are going to make decisions for students aren’t going to listen to students.”