Coke defends arrest of gay Russian human rights advocate

In a troubling, and tone-deaf, statement about the recent arrest of a Russian gay rights advocate for waving a rainbow flag during the Olympic torch relay, Coca-Cola today defended the gay man’s arrest for publicly defending his human rights.

The young man, Pavel Lebedev, was arrested while stepping onto the road and waving a rainbow flag, the international symbol of the gay rights movement, along the parade route of the Olympic flame/torch as it traveled through the Russian town of Voronezh. Pavel was pounced on by a number security officers, including official Olympic security personnel sporting the logos of the Olympic rings and Coca-Cola.

Coke added in its statement that Olympic security officers would continue to sport the Coke logo during future detainment of Russian human rights advocates.

The public display of the rainbow flag, or any other public action or spoken word that in any way suggests that “gay is okay,” is now illegal in Russia, after the country’s passage last summer of a draconian law banning what it calls “gay propaganda.”


Here is Coke’s statement, issued today by email, defending the arrest of the human rights advocate and the placement of Coke’s logo on security personnel who are enforcing Russia’s draconian anti-gay law:

Thank you for contacting The Coca-Cola Company. We appreciate the opportunity to respond.

As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity. We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone human rights abuses, intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world.

As a sponsor since 1928, we believe the Olympic Games are a force for good that unite people through a common interest in sports, and we have seen firsthand the positive impact and long-lasting legacy they leave on every community that has been a host.

We support the ideals of the Olympics and are proud to continue our role in helping to make the Olympics a memorable experience for athletes, fans and communities all around the world.

As a Presenting Partner of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay, our logo appears on all of the uniforms for the staff assigned by the Sochi Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) to support the Torch Relay.

SOCOG reported that a spectator was prevented from breaching the security perimeter around the Torchbearer. The spectator was detained briefly by local police and was fined.

We hope this information is helpful and encourage you to contact us again should you have additional comments or questions.

Jeffrey C
Industry and Consumer Affairs
The Coca-Cola Company

That’s a nice bit of misdirection by Coca-Cola.  I’ve been in touch with LGBT rights activists in Russia (who prefer not to be named, for their own safety), and they walked me through the nearly 4 minute video (below) showing Pavel’s protest, detention and arrest.  While it appears that Pavel was perhaps initially stopped by Olympic security for stepping onto the roadway (though, as shown in the photo below, the Olympic security got its hands on Pavel’s rainbow flag as well), Pavel was then handed over to the police, and detained by them because of his political statement, his rainbow flag.

What transpires in the video is that the Russian police officer initially isn’t aware of what the rainbow flag even is.  Some in the surrounding crowd of spectators are well aware, and goad the police officer to ask Pavel what kind of flag it is.  So the cop does.  Pavel refuses to answer.  In the meantime, at least one spectator tells the officer that the flag is “propaganda,” using that codeword for illegal political activity.

Pavel repeatedly asks the officer for the reason for his detention, and the officer refuses to say, finally stating that Pavel will be taken away to the station for questioning to “clarify the circumstances.”  Pavel was not taken away for trespassing on the parade route, or he would have been told that, Russian LGBT sources tell me. He was taken away for his political speech.

All of this, thanks to Coca-Cola branded Olympic security.

In the animated gif below you can see the Russian police trying to get the flag away from the rather determined activist. This went on for several minutes.


You can watch the entire 4 minute video of Pavel’s arrest.  There’s an awful lot of interest by the cop in getting his hands on Pavel’s rainbow flag – the cop never lets go of the flag:

You’ll also note that there’s an awful lot of Coca-Cola branding going on during the gay rights advocate’s arrest:


As we’d noted the other day, the Olympic security officer (in blue, below) who accosted the rainbow-flag waving human rights advocate was emblazoned with the Coke logo (in the red circle).  You’ll note, interestingly, that he has his hands on the rainbow flag as well.


Coke’s poor-handling of this incident plays into the larger dilemma that the official Olympic sponsors are facing with these “danger games,” as the Sochi Olympics are now being called by marketing experts.  McDonald’s is facing a similar PR debacle surrounding these Winter Olympics, including its disastrous roll-out of a “Cheers to Sochi” social media campaign that immediately became overrun by gay activists, with Queer Nation leading the charge.

Coke is facing the same problem as McDonald’s, and handling it just as poorly, as evidenced by today’s statement about Pavel Lebedev’s arrest.  Coke acknowledges in today’s public response that Olympic security is sporting their logo, and, remarkably, Coke defends the placement of their brand, and gives no indication that the policy will change.  Which means that Olympic security personnel will continue to sport the Coca-Cola logo as they help the Putin government to clamp down on political dissidents, and the civil and human rights of Russian citizens.

I guess thugs do really go better with Coke.

(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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