Yes, that Pepsi ad was an insult.
But if you think it was the worst insult Black Lives Matter suffered last week, then you weren’t paying attention.
Not that the ad wasn’t revolting. Imagine that, three years after the police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., ignited protests by African Americans sick of seeing their sons and daughters killed without cause or consequence, you turn on the television and see a protest march. Except, it’s a curiously color-coordinated crowd carrying curiously color-coordinated signs that say almost literally nothing. “Join the conversation!?” What does that even mean?
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Then Kendall Jenner, a junior member of the famously vapid Kardashian clan, joins in. She plucks a Pepsi from a convenient cooler. (Because, yeah, they have Pepsi coolers at all the great protests. If you look closely, you can even see one in footage from the Edmund Pettus Bridge – an Alabama state trooper knocks it over while clubbing an old woman who wants the right to vote. Sigh.)
So anyway, Jenner approaches a police line and hands the pop to a cop. He takes a long swig. The crowd cheers. Understanding and tolerance ensue.
It was a naked attempt to co-opt the methods and message of Black Lives Matter to sell carbonated sugar water and the internet, predictably, went guano. “If only daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi,” tweeted Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice.
Pepsi was forced to yank the ad and apologize. But if many of us were angered and energized by that, comparatively few noticed as, at roughly the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a sweeping review of consent decrees reached by the Obama Department of Justice with police departments around the country.
These decrees are agreements for federally monitored reform of training, policy and procedure of troubled cop shops. They are in effect in 14 cities, including Ferguson and Cleveland. Four other cities – Miami is one – made agreements to reform without federal oversight.
In a memo released last week, Sessions worries about tarring police with the actions of a few “bad actors.” Yet DOJ investigations repeatedly found that, far from being isolated events, police abuse – unlawful stops, searches, harassment and beatings targeting African-American citizens – were endemic to the very culture of these departments. They were not flaws in the system. They were the system.
Sessions also frets over how consent decrees affect the “morale” of these departments. The morale of African-American people goes unmentioned.
It is unclear what, if anything, he can do to reverse the agreements. But the very fact that he has placed them under review is an ominous sign that, henceforth, protecting black folks from police excesses will not be a priority.
That sobering truth makes even more jarring the sight of Jenner flouncing up to a cop with a Pepsi in hand. Did the last three years not actually happen? Did the primal scream rising from the streets of Baltimore, Ferguson and Any Black Neighborhood, USA, reach human ears or was it just flung into the indifferent ether?
The words of 17th-century theologian Matthew Henry seem apropos: “They know not because they will not understand,” he wrote. “None so blind as those that will not see.”
He could have been speaking about Sessions or Pepsi. Once again, in response to black folks’ fears, people choose to be ignorant. They choose to be blind.
Now African Americans must make some choices of their own.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.