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Opinion: Kaepernicks Activism with Ben & Jerry's Ice-cream

So-called Activism takes many different forms. A knee bent in protest. Donations to organizations that promote social justice. A group devoted to educating Black and brown children on their rights.

And, sometimes, a pint of ice cream.(LOL) - Caramel, with fudge chips and swirls of graham crackers and chocolate cookies.

By giving Colin Kaepernick his own flavor, Change the Whirled, Ben & Jerry’s is honoring the work the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback has already done to bring attention to police brutality against people of color. But it’s also giving his message the mass-market treatment, softening it for those who remain resistant to Kaepernick’s fight in a way only the iconic ice cream maker can, one spoonful at a time.

“That very much is our approach, this idea we can help normalize and reinforce these ideas to a more mainstream, general population audience,” Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s head of global activism strategy, told USA TODAY Sports ahead of Thursday’s unveiling of the new flavor.

“It’s not a particularly radical notion to suggest that police forces and policing probably are not the best way to handling things like mental health crises and substance abuse, and contextualize them for people what a different vision of public safety looks like,” Miller said. “We sit in a unique place where, I think, we’re able to do some of that work that speaks to this more mainstream audience.”

Kaepernick had input on Change the Whirled – which is technically a non-dairy dessert, with a vegan, sunflower butter base – and it will be a full-time flavor, available in grocery stores and at Ben & Jerry’s shops beginning in 2021. Kaepernick is donating his portion of the proceeds to his Know Your Rights Camp, which aims to “advance the liberation and well-being of Black and brown communities.”

SWEET SUPPORT: Ben & Jerry's to stop product ads on social media, to support racial justice

"We believe our partnership with Ben & Jerry’s can serve as a model for other businesses to take uncompromising and principled positions in support of Black and brown people and their futures," Patricia Robinson, spokeswoman for Know Your Rights Camp, said in an email.

Activism and social justice are not new for Ben & Jerry’s. It has been speaking up for more than three decades now, on everything from climate change to marriage equality to eradicating racism, often long before it was fashionable to do so. When co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold the company to Unilever in 2000, one of the conditions was that it continue putting money – at least $1.1 million a year, according to The Huffington Post – toward activism.

Nor does the company water down its message so as not to offend consumers, as so many do. When George Floyd was killed by a police officer, setting off nationwide protests, most companies were very careful with their responses, calling for racial equality without directly indicting white Americans. Ben & Jerry’s was unflinching, putting out a statement that read, in part,

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy."

Mixed in with product promotions on its social channels are tutorials on the role of prosecutors, qualified immunity and the gender pay gap.

“We don’t do stuff just to do it. Our goal is really to be constructive and to be a part of movement building,” said Jay Curley, Ben & Jerry’s head of global integrated marketing. “Sometimes that means we need to be out leading ... and serve as, to a degree, a beacon for folks to find their own courage to join us and, more importantly, join the movement. “Which is really how we see change happen.”

All of which made partnering with Kaepernick a natural fit. While it was a donation to Know Your Rights Camp’s COVID-19 assistance fund that led to Change the Whirled, Curley said Ben & Jerry’s had been talking with Kaepernick’s people over the past few years. Long before the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor forced white America to have a reckoning with systemic racism, Kaepernick has been trying to draw attention to police brutality, along with the economic and social disparities that ensure the proverbial deck remains stacked against people of color.

People who challenge power and the status quo are rarely embraced right away, though, and Kaepernick was no different. His protest was twisted into a criticism of the flag or the military – a necessity in order to ignore or discredit his actual message. President Donald Trump used him to rile up his base. The NFL blackballed him.

But Kaepernick had right on his side, and society is already coming around to see that. Polls earlier this year showed that majorities of the country now support athlete protests, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged the league mistreated Kaepernick. By giving Kaepernick his own flavor, and putting his face on the carton where it will be seen in millions of grocery stores, Ben & Jerry’s is telling those Americans still resistant, “See? His ideas aren’t so scary.” By helping fund Know Your Rights Camp, it ensures his work continues.

"We believe in the power of representation and hope that Black and brown youth can see themselves in Colin through Change The Whirled," Robinson said. "While representation is important, history tells us that it alone cannot liberate Black and brown people. That’s why we’ll continue to build Know Your Rights Camp around political education, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that radically change how resources and opportunities are produced, accessed and distributed." One pint at a time.

- Nancy Armour

USA Today

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