As protests and uprisings spread nationwide in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, corporations, elected officials, and police officers have tried to speak up in support of (and in opposition to) demands for justice.
The interests and concerns of these figures may seem radically divergent, but look closer and you find they share a common purpose. Whether it be declarations of support from tech giants who thrive on racialized exploitation, or police who shoot tear gas at protesters moments after kneeling with them, we find ourselves assailed by outside agitators desperate to hijack a burgeoning rebellion that threatens the status quo they draw strength from.
Nowhere has this fact been more clear than in the private sector, where a chorus of companies have loudly stated with press releases, tweets, and donations that they too support the struggle for justice. For many, these actions are beyond tone-deaf—they’re hypocritical.
For example, Amazon’s statement said that “inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop” and promised to “stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” This makes sense until you remember how the company treats its workforce, including its Black employees: inequitably and of interchangeably. CEO Jeff Bezos treats his workers with the sort of disregard for safety and dignity that you’d expect from the world’s richest man. An Amazon contractor fired a Black worker raising questions about safety conditions, and the company fired then plotted to smear a Black organizer as “not smart or articulate”; workers have said they feel they are treated like disposable robots.
Amazon is also the technical backbone of ICE, hosting data for the federal agency and its surveillance collaborators such as Palantir, which is key to terrorizing, detaining, and deporting undocumented immigrants. Or take Amazon’s Ring security camera surveillance network: Ring has “partnerships” with at least 1,000 police departments that have resulted in package theft stings with the goal of arresting people. Fear has been a key selling point for Ring, leading to the mass adoption of a product that fuels racial profiling and reinforces the suburban paranoia that turns everyone into a cop and every Black person into a suspect. And then there is Rekognition, Amazon’s racially-biased facial-recognition software that it continues to license to police departments (and refuses to confirm whether ICE has licensed).
Or take Uber, where CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted the same sentiment, stating the company “stands in solidarity with the Black community and with peaceful protests against the injustice and racism that have plagued our nation for too long.” To that end, he announced a $1 million donation to two racial justice think tanks “to support their work in making criminal justice in America more just for all.” At the same time, Uber is leading a $110 million campaign to overturn AB5, a law that ends the misclassification of driver-employees (who are overwhelmingly people of color) advanced by Uber to minimize labor costs and cheat drivers out of basic benefits such as a minimum wage and health insurance. Studies of Uber’s major markets (e.g. San Francisco and New York City) consistently find a majority non-white workforce that is economically exploited by sub-minimum wages.
There are more examples: Nextdoor, a website watched by the police that fuels and amplifies racism and fear, released a statement saying “Black lives matter. You are not alone. Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood.” And yet people say they have recently had their comments deleted from the site for posting about #BlackLivesMatter. McKinsey & Company, a management consultant that actively empowers corporations that have hollowed out the middle class and authoritarian countries, affirms there “is no place for racism, prejudice or hatred” and a “commitment to do our part to ensure that black lives are spoken for and valued for, both inside our firm and beyond.”
The list goes on. The Plug created a Google Spreadsheet that tracks close to 80 companies that “stand in solidarity” but have business models or supply chains that are part of the problem. It all raises the question: can you really stand in solidarity if you rely on child laborers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have censored Black creators, or empower the police to abuse surveillance powers on your platform, as they do on others?
In reality, the vast majority of these companies have business models explicitly designed to profit from what MLK called the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” Dignified jobs have always been at the forefront of racial justice campaigns for good reason: Poverty is just another form of violence—“the worst form,” according to Mahatma Gandhi. With MLK’s legacy being repeatedly invoked during debates over the protests, it’s important to remember this thread that ran through the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the Poor People’s March on Washington, where he planned to pressure Congress to pass an economic bill of rights before his assassination.
“Don’t trust anyone who gets rich during a pandemic,” is how Jacob Silverman opens his survey of how Big Tech used the coronavirus pandemic to profit by escaping antitrust scrutiny and framing themselves as indispensable to our political economy. That companies like Amazon and Uber spent the early months of the pandemic gambling with their workers’ lives is surely water under the bridge for some, suggesting that these companies will leave the pandemic stronger than before.
Perhaps we should add a few more qualifiers to Silverman’s warning. Don’t trust anyone who gets rich selling tech to police departments or ICE. Don’t trust anyone who gets rich exploiting their workers. Don’t trust anyone who gets rich platforming racists, or fueling their paranoia. Don’t trust anyone who gets rich providing consulting services for authoritarian governments. Don’t trust these companies when they say Black Lives Matter.