May 25, 2007

Why I'm voting to get rid of Coke

I am writing this piece to both explain and justify my intention to vote in the upcoming Campus Dining Advisory Board (CDAB) meeting to ban Coca-Cola products from University of Chicago Dining Halls, despite the Student Government (SG) Assembly’s 14–6–6 decision recommending the opposite. As a second-year College Council Representative and member of CDAB for two years, I wish to clarify what went into making this difficult decision, and hope others will both understand my opinion and perhaps even rethink their own predispositions.

First, I attended the recent town hall meeting on the issue. This provided both sides with a perfect opportunity to show their cards, and the result could not have been clearer. When I approached Kent Hall, where the meeting was held, the pro-Coke rally mirrored an aggressive ad-hoc circus-like atmosphere. Frankly embarrassing signs for any institution of higher learning, with slogans such as “Fuck Human Rights” and “What Happens in Colombia Stays in Colombia” littered the crowd, while students chugged can after can of Coke for no apparent reason. Though the pro-Coke campaigners argue that these were actually insidious anti-Coke infiltrators, they have—similar to all their other accusations of misconduct against the anti-Coke campaigners—submitted no names or evidence to substantiate this. Moreover, I witnessed no attempts to remove the people with the signs from the rally.

Conversely, the anti-Coke group stood on the steps handing out informational flyers to those approaching the building. While this display did not lead to a decision either way, I certainly thought it would be very hard to side with what seemed like an unruly mob in the face of a group that had run an organized petition drive, maintained some basic level of decorum, and shown a commitment to working in the school’s administrative and bureaucratic process.

Anyone who actually attended the meeting itself—including Coke supporters—would probably admit that representatives from Coca-Cola left a lot to be desired compared to Ray Rogers from the Killer Coke Campaign. While Rogers was at times a little too passionate and jumpy with his arguments, he presented independent evidence from a variety of sources including the LA Times, Business Week, CNN, The New York Times, and others to verify his claims. Conversely, the Coke representatives patronized and, as far as I am concerned, belittled the audience, bringing a supportive World War II veteran, scholarship winner, and a host of other aid recipients to show that Coke cared about people. None of these “examples,” however, had anything to do with the issue at hand, and the moderator, SG Vice President Dave Courchaine, even politely asked the Coke Campaign to more or less move on. Moreover, while Rogers presented a structured argument and speech to make his case, the representatives from Coke, strangely, just let students ask questions and made no attempt to redress possible misconceptions or answer obvious allegations against Coke in a comprehensive manner.

Vague generalizations and red herrings—as pointed out by many students at the meeting—dominated the Coke representative’s presentation, and little to no documentation or opinions were presented. In the background of all this was the anti-Coke campaign, which has collected over 1,100 signatures (more students than voted in last year’s College Council elections); the substantial communications second-years and other concerned students have directed to me and other representatives regarding the importance of kicking Coke off campus; and what I heard from the majority of my constituents present at the town hall meeting.

Overall, I find the latest SG Assembly vote symptomatic of the problem that has been plaguing SG all year: Many representatives forgot time after time that they were representing their constituents and not their own political, social, or ideological interests. Some representatives voted negatively without attending the town hall meeting, quoted their economics textbooks for guidance, ignored tens of emails from concerned constituents, and even suggested the anti-Coke campaign’s petition was entirely illegitimate due to anything from collecting signatures at the wrong time of day to lacking ID numbers—despite having signatures—to “some people” signing it without reading it.

Wednesday’s vote was disappointing in that it subverted a group that worked maturely through the proper channels for over a year, put aside 1,100-plus student demands to remove Coke, disregarded the results of what should have been an advisory town hall meeting, and silenced the overwhelming majority of constituents who actually communicated with their representatives, instead recognizing a group of students who were able to orchestrate an 11th-hour party outside Kent and who claimed they were “pretty sure” they spoke for the majority. As mentioned, I plan to vote based on the clearest wishes of the student association I have in front of me, which, again, disappointingly contradict the decision of the SG Assembly’s Wednesday vote.