On the march against tech company complicity

August 6, 2018

Lea Ramirez reports from New York City as an alliance develops between tech workers and immigrant rights activists to challenge the tech giants’ ties to ICE.

ALMOST 100 people took part in a protest in a New York City on July 31 against tech companies Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce for their complicity in the Trump administration’s racist immigration policies.

The action had an importance beyond its numbers: Through the joint organizing of Movimiento Cosecha and Science for the People, it brought together tech workers and immigrant justice activists, further developing what Mijente co-founder Marisa Franco recently called a “tech-immigrant alliance.”

This past year has seen a spate of organizing efforts among tech workers speaking out against their companies’ work on immoral government projects.

The most significant victory took place at Google, after a March investigative report by Gizmodo revealed the company’s contract with the Project Maven artificial intelligence program was helping “the Pentagon build AI tools to analyze drone surveillance footage.”

Marchers protest Microsoft's contract with ICE outside the company's flagship store in New York City
Marchers protest Microsoft's contract with ICE outside the company's flagship store in New York City (Science for the People NYC | Facebook)

After the report, a dozen Google employees resigned, and more than 3,100 others signed a public letter demanding that Google CEO Sundar Pichai end involvement because “Google should not be in the business of war.” The internal pressure from workers coupled with the bad press led to Google’s decision not renew its contract with Project Maven.

This victory at Google, and similar efforts underway among workers at Amazon and Microsoft to stop their work from being used to aid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other repressive agencies, could have long-term significance, not only around immigration politics, but the labor movement as well.

As Aaron Petcoff, a software engineer and a member of the newly unionized workforce at the New Yorker magazine, explained at the July 31 rally:

Silicon Valley Mythology often separates tech workers from the rest of the working class. But what hundreds of workers at Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce and others are showing is that they understand they have more in common with their fellow workers than they have with Jeff Bezos. And that they can use their power, at work to fight racism, deportation and for a better world.

THE NEW York City protest was part of a national day of action called by the immigrants rights group Movimiento Cosecha against companies profiting off of contracts with ICE and Trump’s deportation machine. Protests took place in 10 cities across the country, with 28 people getting arrested in civil disobedience actions.

In Boston, hundreds of protesters marched to the home of the president of Northeastern University to protest the school’s $2.7 million research contract and student internship program with ICE — and 12 protesters blocked the streets in downtown Boston for hours.

In New York City, Science for the People (SftP) reached out to local Cosecha organizers to build an afterwork moving picket and rally in midtown Manhattan outside of the Amazon bookstore and the offices of Microsoft and Salesforce. The protest included members of local immigrant right organizations, the International Socialist Organization, Rise and Resist, and Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM).

The three targeted companies all have contracts with ICE or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — and all have employees who have demanded that these contracts be ended. SftP had been previously contacted by Microsoft workers and organized a solidarity picket at the Microsoft Flagship store on June 25.

The protest began with a picket of about 70 people outside the Microsoft office. Directly across from the picket were about a half-dozen counterprotesters with pro-Trump and pro-ICE signs, but they were drowned out by chants calling on Microsoft to end its contract with ICE, declaring that refugees and immigrants are welcome here and “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”

A letter written by the over 300 Microsoft workers to CEO Satya Nadella was read out loud to the crowd.

In an internal memo, Nadella responded to employees by claiming that Microsoft’s work with ICE has nothing to do with the family separation policy at the border. Instead, he claimed, “our current cloud engagement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.”

But that argument doesn’t hold water with immigrant justice supporters inside and outside the company. “Any complicity with what Trump is doing at the border right now is complicity with detaining migrant families and separating children from their parents,” said SftP organizer Zach Zill at the protest.

During the picket, a number of Microsoft workers leaving the office stopped by and spoke with organizers, and shared that they supported the picket that was taking place. These sentiments were also expressed in a statement written by an anonymous group of Microsoft workers that SftP released to the media:

Hundreds of Microsoft workers have come together to say that we make this company work and we won’t let it work with an agency that terrorizes immigrants. Microsoft has positioned itself as an ethical leader in AI, and tech more broadly, and we want them to live up to those ethics by releasing the contract with ICE, ending that relationship, and committing to a policy of transparency and meaningful, consequential ethical review that respects their employees and the diverse communities we work with.

We started organizing against the ICE contract because we couldn’t sit by and watch our code be used to attack our immigrant friends, neighbors, coworkers, and families. We’re working with organizations like Science for the People, NWDC Resistance, and Color of Change to build power within and without the company and with your help we believe that we will win! Tech Won’t Build It!

PROTESTERS THEN marched through Times Square during rush hour to the Salesforce Tower, chanting and distributing leaflets about the companies’ ties to ICE to hundreds of passerby, some of whom joined the march.

Outside the Salesforce office, the rally was joined by a marching band and New York City protest institution, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, which added further energy to the picketing.

Organizers read out a letter to the CEO from hundreds of Salesforce workers, calling out the company’s commitment to equality and requesting that management rethink “working with CBP following the enforcement of ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy.”

“We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create — particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values,” the letter continues. “Those values often feel abstract, and it is easier to uphold them when they are not being tested. They are being tested now.”

In his own internal memo, Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff replied that while he opposes Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, has “personally financially supported legal groups helping families at the border” and has written to the White House “to encourage them to end this horrible situation,” Salesforce products are not directly involved in the family separations and that therefore the CBP contract will not be ended.

Apparently unmoved by Benioff’s concern, the Texas-based nonprofit RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), refused to take a donation of $250,000 from Salesforce until it ends its contract with CBP, and issued a public statement explaining its decision:

When it comes to supporting oppressive, inhumane, and illegal policies, we want to be clear: the only right action is to stop. The software and technical services you provide to CBP form part of the foundation that helps ICE operate efficiently, from recruiting more officers to managing vendors. While you justified continuing your contract with CBP by claiming that Salesforce software “isn’t working with CBP regarding the separation of families at the border,” this isn’t enough.

AT THE protest’s final stop, the Amazon bookstore, Cosecha activists organized a direct action inside the store supported by the protest outside.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained documents revealing that “Amazon is aggressively marketing its Rekognition face surveillance tool to law enforcement in the United States, and even helping agencies deploy it.” The group launched a petition calling for an end to governmental use of facial recognition software, which got over 150,000 signatures.

Since then, the ACLU has released results of a test in which Amazon Rekognition was used to compare the faces of members of Congress with a database of mug shots, and found 28 incorrect matches, disproportionately affecting people of color.

Amazon workers have organized to write a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, protesting the sale of Rekognition to ICE and other law enforcement agencies, and demanding that the company remove from its cloud services Palantir, Peter Thiel’s creepy “predictive policing” company that has a big contract from ICE.

The direct action started when Cosecha organizer Lucia Allian dropped the book she was holding and shouting, “This Amazon store is closed! I will not be complicit!” Then, six other activists sat in front of the bookstore with signs opposing ICE.

Allian led the crowd in chanting “We will not be complicit! Will you be complicit?” and singing Cosecha’s song: “Listen my people, my condors, my eagles, no human being could ever be illegal.” A right-wing reporter was booed and chanted out of the picket and retreated inside the Amazon store.

While the six activists sitting in front of the Amazon store were being arrested, speakers at the rally made it clear that Bezos and other tech CEOs aren’t going to get away with maintaining their progressive reputations by limiting popular anger to the most specific of Trump’s atrocities at the border, and that the movement will target everyone complicit in the immorality of the entire machine of deportation and detention.

Lupita Romero, a member of the ISO and an immigrant justice organizer, spoke about the Trump administration’s recent reopening of her brother’s deportation case, and the weak opposition put up by New York City’s liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio:

While De Blasio boasted about a sanctuary city, his administration was still sharing databases with the NYPD and ICE. While Democrats insisted that they stood by us, they stood before the media and put my brother under the bus. If it wasn’t for the countless activists who have said again and again that there are no good immigrants or bad immigrants, only families and only people, my brother would not be here today. He is tired. We are tired. Year after year, we stand in front of buildings and try to convince you all that we are human.

Cosecha’s Lucia Allian pointed to the powerful potential that the day’s protest had showed:

We will not be complicit and continue to raise our voices not just for families, [but] for the nannies, the workers of the street, the construction workers, the delivery guy and those who don’t have families here at all. We want to make sure that we continue to raise our voices and keep families together, not in deportation centers and not in cages, but in their homes. So today, we were able to shut down Amazon and remind them that this country runs on immigrant labor.

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