Ben & Jerry Believe Black Lives Matter. Does Ben & Jerry's?

Previously published at theintersectionpr.wordpress.com on February 10, 2015.

At a time when it seems many leaders of organizations are scared silent, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s bravely show their support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement by denouncing police brutality.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sported Hands Up Don’t Shoot t-shirts at the Ben & Jerry’s annual franchisee meeting on Jan. 19. Cohen began his address by listing the names of several black men and boys who’ve died at the hands of police. He encouraged franchise owners to join him in supporting the grassroots organization Hands Up United by selling the t-shirts in their stores.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’” Cohen said to franchise owners. “‘We can’t sell those T-shirts in our shops; it’s controversial.’ But isn’t that exactly the point? If it weren’t controversial, we wouldn’t need to do it. At some point we have to ask ourselves: ‘What do we stand for? Whose side are you on?’” 

Ben & Jerry’s founders arguably displayed the greatest show of solidarity I’ve ever seen from the leadership of an organization. Cohen and Greenfield unapologetically stood for something and weren’t expecting any return on their investment. As both a consumer and future public relations practitioner, it’s that kind of action and commitment I admire.

But let’s look at what happened next. Ben & Jerry’s felt the need to distance itself from its founders by releasing this statement:

Ben & Jerry’s deeply respects and appreciates all those who protect and serve our communities. We do not subscribe to the narrative that we have to choose between black lives and blue lives. All lives matter.

There is injustice rooted in race in our society. This is an important issue and is deserving of efforts from all including businesses, organizations and individuals to further peace and understanding in our communities. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

While the Hands Up Don’t Shoot campaign is not being conducted by Ben & Jerry’s business, we support our cofounders as individuals and our independent franchisees to express their values and be activists in their community.

The problem here is in the first sentence of the statement. Ben & Jerry’s isn’t listening. First, no one’s asking Ben and Jerry’s to choose between Black lives and blue lives (some Black lives wear blue uniforms everyday). Cohen and Greenfield were asking franchisers to stand with them against police brutality, not against police as a unit.

Second, supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement know all lives matter. No one is arguing that Black lives matter more than other lives. This movement rose at a time when many felt they were being told their lives didn’t have value, myself included. Responding with “all lives matter” derails the conversation, and let’s me know Ben & Jerry’s isn’t really paying attention.

Below is one of many similar explanations Twitter users shared about why “all lives matter” is an inappropriate response to #BlackLivesMatter. This user chose to address her white audience, but surely her message can apply to anyone who is not Black.

[View the story “Why “all lives matter” is an inappropriate, racist response to Black Lives Matter” on Storify]

As public relations professionals, our words are important. The language we use is important. It’s painfully obvious when we only pay attention to a part of the messages we receive, and our disconnect shows in our responses.