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Communicating Movement Transnationally
And more important than theory, in practice, the strategy of heterogenous linkages has been essential for the local movement in Mehdiganj[i] as it ran up against both the traditional economic and political control of local elites, as well as the distant nodes of power of the multinational corporation, in Gurgaon, India as well as Atlanta.
The grassroots community organization in Mehdiganj became involved in the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), conceived as a movement of movements dedicated to an environmental and democratic “people’s development” for India. Through the NAPM, Mehdiganj activists worked with those protesting the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada and began to imagine a network of communities around the Coca-Cola commodity that could be mobilized to increase the points of pressure on The Company – and began to link their fight to other communities with Coke plants, like Kala Dera in the neighboring Rajasthan.
The India Resource Center, which saw itself as an agent in constructing this transnational communications counter-network (in Manuel Castells’ terms) connected the movement up with North American and European environmental and anti-corporate globalization groups, like the Polaris Institute and Corporate Accountability International who were running related campaigns against bottled water and issues of water privatization in the global north, and saw the potential of linking through the signification of the brand, began to amplify coverage of the struggle online.
The World Social Forum in Mumbai, intended as a communicative space for international social movement interaction and connection, came at a timely moment in 2004. There the Indian movement linked with other water activists, and also began to see itself as part of a heterogeneous transnational network of movements around Coke. They exchanged experiences and strategies with other activist groups, like the trade union representing workers at bottling plants in Colombia, and mobilized international support.
Together with representatives of the US-based Colombian labor solidarity campaign, the India Resource Center brought these concerns to college campuses, suggesting to students that they were linked to the business practices of Coca-Cola in other parts of the world through their relationships to Coca-Cola commodities and capital, even if they were not directly consuming goods produced in those locations.
Students, on the basis of these international movements and adding their own calls for an end to what they framed as the “corporatization” of their universities, challenged the company’s large financial contracts with universities for exclusive contracts for beverage sales and the use of university names and logos in marketing. Students at some 45 colleges and universities in the US, Canada, Ireland, the UK, Italy and India, protested against The Coca-Cola Company, over a dozen ending the sales of products at their campuses entirely.
Student activists deployed the signification of Coca-Cola products’ symbolic capital -- its ubiquity, iconicity, and visceral corporeality (as it is physically imbibed) -- in various forms of culture jamming to subvert brand constructions with new political meanings and force prospective consumers to face the international struggles. They attempted to overturn the communication strategies of Coca-Cola, in a “semiotic jujitsu” of detournemente, to produce a critical fetishism of the commodity.[ii]
Activists turned vending machines into crime scenes by wrapping them with police “CAUTION” tape, they performed street theater dressed as pinup girls bottling public water fountains and selling it to onlookers, produced images of thirst-quenching bottles of Coke made repulsive by adding dripping blood or “Toxic” labels and illustrations like this of a Coca-Cola executive sucking up the water directly from an Indian well with a straw.
These texts play on the visceral nature of consumed commodities like Coca-cola, implying corporeal costs accrued to one’s own body in order to emphasize the larger costs that accrue to the social bodies of others because of one’s potential consumption.
[i] Lok Samiti (People’s Committee and earlier Gaon Bachao Sangharsh Samiti – Save the Village Committee) in Mehdiganj, Coca-Cola Virudha Samara Samithi (and earlier Adivasi Samrakshna Samithi or Tribal Protection Committee) in Plachimada, Jan Sangharsh Samiti (People’s Committee for Struggle) in Kala Dera, and Coca-Cola Bhagao, Krishi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Get Rid of Coke, Save Farming Struggle Committee) in Ballia.[ii] Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (New York: Picador, 1999).