If someone had told me six years ago that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield—the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream—would speak out against police brutality and anti-black racism with more conviction than the nation’s first black president, I would have laughed in that person’s face.
But that’s exactly what’s happened.
Speaking at their annual franchisee meeting earlier this month in New Orleans, Cohen and Greenfield—who sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever Corp. in 2000 but who reportedly remain heavily involved in operations—have publicly declared themselves allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Specifically raising awareness about the movement’s “Hands up, don’t shoot” iteration, Cohen urged franchise owners to sell T-shirts benefiting the work of Hands Up United, a grassroots organization founded by St. Louis hip-hop artist and activist Tef Poe and activist Taureen “Tory” Russell.
“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?’”
Cohen spoke the names of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Michael Brown, all unarmed black men and children killed by police officers. He also ran a clip of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins responding to criticism he received for wearing a shirt on the field calling for justice for Tamir and Crawford.
To his immense credit, Cohen didn’t equivocate or hide behind politically correct “All Lives Matter” rhetoric, though the corporation would do just that several days later when it distanced itself from the co-founder’s call to action.
“What would Ben and Jerry do at the original shop in the old gas station?” Cohen asked rhetorically, referring to his and Greenfield’s first ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vt. “We’d sell the shirts and do it with pride. You know, I think there will always be injustice, and we are outraged and saddened by it. But it’s in the act of working to end injustice that we find our hearts, our souls and our joy.”
Though this show of solidarity from two prominent Jewish men stands in the shadow of festering tensions between Jewish and African-American communities—stemming in part from the corporatizing and perceived cannibalization of black culture through a version of hip-hop that perpetuates myths about innate black criminality—it is not without historical precedent.
There has been a vast Jewish investment—both financial and moral—in dismantling anti-black racism. From Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Julius Rosenwald to Louis Isaac Jaffe and George Soros, this has been proved time and time again, even as parallel narratives of cultural and racial unrest muffled those contributions.
In keeping with that tradition, Cohen took a hard line against the pervasive and instinctive need to protect white supremacy that causes our children’s blood to run warm in streets, stores and parks across the country. This is about more than T-shirts; and the intense racist backlash that Ben & Jerry’s has received on social media, including calls to boycott the corporation, is reflective of a deep-seated bigotry that permeates factions of this country and exposes their need to deny the humanity of black Americans.
In a sociopolitical climate in which black Greek-letter organizations initially refused to allow members to wear paraphernalia to Black Lives Matter protests, billionaire Oprah Winfrey criticized the movement’s direction and President Obama hopscotched over the most sustained social-justice movement in a generation during his 2015 State of the Union address, Cohen’s willingness to place a corporation that he co-founded on the front lines of a racially charged and polarizing justice movement matters.
Despite the unfortunate lack of media coverage, and even though white saviors are neither needed nor desired, Cohen’s statements should be recognized for the bold display of solidarity that they are.
Thank you, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. It’s important to recognize allies in the fight against injustice when they present themselves, and we see you.