10 Jul 2020
Ari Laurel, an organizer with TWC Seattle, reflects on her experience with the Capitol Hill Organized Protest. She connects it to tech workers’ struggles, and considers the role that organizers can play in it all.
The Worker’s Perspective
By Ari Laurel
On Monday, June 9, someone ordered the Seattle police via text message to evacuate the East Precinct station. Neither the police chief, nor the mayor, nor Mike Solan of the Seattle Police Officers Guild would own up to making the call to evacuate. But with the pigs gone, Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where I live, was about to see a transformation of the roughly six-block area. At the start of the week, the police left the precinct building fenced and boarded. The surrounding area was covered in layers of barricades, all decorated with graffiti. The occupants of the space named it the CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone), and later the CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest).
Many of us who live on or near Capitol Hill received frantic texts from family members urging us to be safe from the lawless activity in the Zone, an appeal that became more and more laughable as the week went on. These lawless activities consisted of gardening, sharing food, watching documentaries, or playing music at all hours on the field. By Friday, the CHOP had become a curiosity; each afternoon it was flooded with thousands of visitors.
While all this was happening around us, many of us in TWC Seattle felt purposeless and ill-prepared. Up until the pandemic, we had mostly focused on the “labor” half of “labor organizing.” It was hard to get information about the ever changing currents in the Zone, and it was hard to know who were trustworthy sources. We wanted to effectively mobilize, and we wanted to make space for radical Black and Indigenous community voices — of which there were many. But we also found ourselves frustrated with the number of institutional and corporate nonprofit voices entering the fray. Night after night, there was at least one new person proselytizing about voting for “real change,” as we sat in the middle of an intersection won by back-to-back nights of direct action.
Community members at the agitational center of the space expressed worry about the political direction of the movement: was it being co-opted by nonprofits? By broad socialist organizations? By informants? Had we forgotten the demands? Had we forgotten to stay vigilant? Seattle police were still posted around the corner, ready to don riot gear at a moment’s notice. The disappointing truth for why the CHOP was renamed: it was not much of an “autonomous zone.” The police were not beaten, they were simply driven out by bad PR, and eventually they would be back.
Then, one morning, the Seattle Department of Transportation arrived, setting up new barricades along the road right next to the precinct. Prior to this, all the barricades were placed at guarded intersections, leaving the CHOP open only to pedestrians. But this change not only opened the road for police to drive right up to the precinct, it also made the CHOP vulnerable to drive-by shootings and other violence from outside the area. After multiple shootings wherein there was no response except by volunteer medics, the precinct has now been retaken, and the protests have resumed. Now ID checkpoints have been set up in the neighborhood so that even residents cannot leave or enter without police approval — making real what was a baseless claim that the police and their supporters had made about the CHOP while it was still active. As usual, warnings of the dangers of a copless world are the projection of the police state we already live in.
It’s clear that people at CHOP are able to determine their needs for the space. The mutual aid stations, memorials, and community gardens all culminated into a sort of prefigurative vision for a healthy society. In spite of this, it was also easy to infiltrate. The Department of Transportation cut up the CHOP by claiming they had spoken to “core organizers” of the movement. Unorganized individuals readily trusted this claim, but others saw it as the city exploiting the movement’s leaderlessness. There have been plenty of personalities and opportunists ready to take center stage. Other individuals, such as the white woman who ran the “No Cop Co-op,” turned out to be police informants right under everyone’s noses. And at its most popular, pockets of the CHOP resembled something closer to a Burning Man decompression party than an organized protest. You can’t have a strong movement without community accountability, and you can’t have community accountability without organization.
From reactionaries, this occupation was called an Antifa plot to threaten the country’s leadership. From the left, the CHOP was often highly idealized and painted as the dawning of a revolution. But the reality is that the shortcomings of the CHOP (and there are many) reveal the gaps in our own organizing and the work that still needs to be done.
Lately I have been talking with others in TWC about “to what end” we are organizing. Exactly why don’t we want tech companies to collaborate with the US military? Why don’t we want police to have access to facial recognition software? We are workers, but we are also part of this community. The nature of tech work is changing before our eyes, spurred on by the pandemic and recession. As a former tech worker, now a contractor with a much lower wage, I can attest to the fact that these divisions are blurring. Overnight, a swath of full-time salaried positions in tech have suddenly become contract positions, while more marginalized people are winding up in the gig economy as “essential workers.” And as jobs become more precarious, more people will want to join the protests. Capitol Hill’s reputation of being a neighborhood for six-figure earners in tech is changing fast, just like things are changing in the streets.
If tech workers are to accept that we are part of the greater Seattle community, we must also accept that our bread-and-butter victories in the workplace aren’t an end in themselves. Even if all the big tech companies became more democratic, equitable, and stable tomorrow, their existence would still give us urgent reason to work beyond bread and butter. Campaigns like #NoTechForICE aren’t to simply absolve our CEOs of wrongdoing so we can feel better about where we work. Our efforts are indelibly intertwined with the struggle for Black and Indigenous liberation. We organize to keep tech out of the hands of police, because we share the long-term vision of police abolition. This is non-negotiable.
Much of organizing is the slow work carried out in between these flashpoints. And it’s in these moments that our frustration belies our own growth areas as organizers. In the short term, we might ask ourselves: “What can workers do to bring the more radical voices to the front? How should we prepare to show up for our community when the next opportunity comes?” But what of the long term? A volunteer group like TWC may not ever be at the forefront of this sort of movement, which is and should be led by Black and Indigenous groups. But that doesn’t mean we are apart from it. Tech contracts support the massive carceral state and the systems that people seek to abolish. If we’re going to be accountable to the demands being made in the streets, we need to be explicit about the fact that our goals lie beyond reforming our work environments, and instead toward changing the nature of tech work itself.
In The News
What does police abolition mean for the tech companies that empower and profit from police violence? Silicon Valley has made billions of dollars by empowering the police with surveillance and data analysis technology that they pitch as unbiased — but it’s not. The more we see so-called “unbiased tech” in the hands of law enforcement, the more clear it becomes that Big Tech and police are accomplices in systemic racism and violence against Black communities. This mutually beneficial relationship with the cops seriously calls into question the legitimacy of tech companies’ statements in “solidarity” with Black lives. Edward Ongweso Jr writes:
In their quest to regain legitimacy by depoliticizing crime as a category and technology as a tool, law enforcement have created the conditions for racist policing to be perpetually reproduced. Nowhere is this more clear than in the implementation of predictive policing and facial recognition software, two tools that have at best simply maintained the status quo and at worst have deepened the racial disparities behind criminalization, police violence, and incarceration.
There is a new campaign for advertisers to boycott Facebook as a response to the company’s jaw-dropping inaction regarding hate speech and hate groups on its platform, as well as other offenses, like enabling voter suppression. Dozens of companies have joined the boycott, but they are a small fraction of Facebook’s 8 million advertisers. Will it be effective? A former Facebook moderator told us why they see little reason for hope:
Advertisers, politicians, and some investors want to change FB’s policies, but none of them are talking about the people who have to implement the policy. Zuck stated a while ago there are 35,000 moderators, that’s a lot of people to ignore. BLM [Black Lives Matter] are protesting the nastiness people are allowed to post online, but the people who have to clean it up are a disenfranchised anonymous underclass.
It certainly seems Zuck isn’t worried, saying “My guess is that all these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough.” This story reminds us of the big banks that caused the 2008 financial crisis, were deemed “too big to fail,” and bailed out. If Facebook is too big to fail, what should be done? One idea is an antitrust approach to breaking up big tech companies that maintain too much control over our lives. Zuck has made one thing clear: he will not be changing its policies unless there is a strong incentive to do so, and we know the only thing he cares about is shareholder value – not moderators or other workers, or civic or political duty.
As much of the US continues to rise up in defense of Black lives, more and more Black tech workers are speaking out publicly about the discrimination they suffer at tech companies. Black women spoke about how Pinterest had discriminated against them when they were employees. Black Facebook workers filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for racial discrimination. A Black female software engineer wrote about the horrific mistreatment she suffered at the hands of her managers at Capital One. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg, as NDAs often prevent employees from speaking up about discrimination in tech. Meanwhile, tech companies continue to ask Black employee groups to help them fix their race problems for free.
The discrimination is not limited to employees. Black startup founder Nerissa Zhang wrote about her experience being ignored by VCs, only to have them respond to identical pitch emails when sent by her male Asian co-founder.
Venture capitalists gave us even more reasons to want to be free of their influence. Leaked audio from the Clubhouse app emerged in which well-known investors spoke about how journalists have too much power, with the conversation centered around investor Balaji Srinivasan’s personal grievances against particular journalists, whom the VCs believe must be “punished.” After the conversation became public, Srinivasan offered a Bitcoin bounty for “memes on this episode.” We’ve wondered before who calls the shots in our industry, and this incident was yet another stark reminder that those making crucial decisions about who “gets funded” do not have our best interests at heart.
Citing human rights concerns over new Chinese national security laws, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Zoom, Google and Telegram have “paused” cooperation with Hong Kong requests for user information. TikTok has pulled out of Hong Kong altogether, while Apple is still “assessing” the situation. Just a couple of months ago, Google abandoned plans to offer a new cloud service in China. These examples show that tech companies see at least some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. But apparently those lines do not prevent them from monitoring protesters and selling their data, or monitoring employees in their own homes.
Uber is testing a feature that lets California drivers set their own fares – or so they say. Michael Bories, a long-time Uber driver in San Francisco, told us: “It’s actually just a fare multiplier in .1 increments, and only if drivers know the app settings. The base fare value is still Uber’s decision, but now they can blame drivers for adjusting the price above their lower-than-minimum wage.” Uber’s new feature seems to be a response to California’s AB5 law, under which Uber drivers are considered employees, and not independent contractors. As The Verge wrote in January, “Uber’s goal is to — despite the new law — continue classifying drivers as independent contractors that Uber simply helps connect with riders. Classifying drivers as employees would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars a year by forcing it to provide benefits like minimum wage guarantees, overtime, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation.” Another feature, called Uber Drive Pass, is being offered to drivers, according to Bories, “to prepay Uber to have the service fee reduced to $0 on each ride you accept, but they still collect the $3 marketplace fee, and each request counts against your prepaid ride count – even if you didn’t meet their gold standard of a 10-second response to ride requests.” Drivers are organizing against a 2020 ballot initiative called Prop 22, backed by Uber and other companies, and which a new report says would “create a permanent underclass of workers.”
On a more hopeful note, researcher and former Google employee Jack Poulson published an exhaustive report on Silicon Valley’s thousands of military, surveillance, and defense contracts. Jack, a member of TWC in Toronto, told us, “This work started with getting invited to a diplomatic meeting of sorts between tech companies and the defense industry, but was ultimately a matter of 1,000 hours collecting and curating public data on contractors and their subsidiaries and subcontractors.” The first article about the report highlights how “Big Tech’s relationship with American military and law enforcement operations continues to blossom.” We hope a closer look at the eye-opening report helps #TechWontBuildIt, #NoTechForICE, and ongoing organizing.
Just over two years ago, Google workers declared their right to have a say in how their work gets used — and won. As Ben Tarnoff writes in an interview with one of the organizers:
For months, Google employees have led a campaign demanding that the company terminate its contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven, a program that uses machine learning to improve targeting for drone strikes. Nearly five thousand Google workers signed an internal petition to cancel the project, and dozens resigned.
The campaign was successful: Google pulled out of the controversial defense project. When we organize, we win.
For more tech worker organizing history, see collectiveaction.tech.
Last week, Salon wrote that protest music has come “roaring back to life” – but from featuring labor songs and music with radical politics in this newsletter since 2018, we know protest music was never dead. ✊ 🎶
All the people with love in your heart
Get unified, get organized (change, change, change)
I got fired because I’m a woman
I got fired because I’m Black
I got fired because I’m a white man
I got fired because I’m fat
I got fired because I’m an asshole
I got fired because I’m gay
I got fired because I’m a Muslim
I got fired for being late
Ooh, looks like nobody’s coming
To my party, no no no no no no no no
All the people with love in your heart
Get unified, get organized (change, change, change)
I got fired because I’m Asian
I got fired because I’m cute
I got fired because I’m ugly
I got fired because I’m a Jew
I got fired because I’m Christian
I got fired because I’m brown
I got fired for being real
I got fired for talking loud
Ooh, looks like nobody’s coming
To my party, no no no no no no no no
Uncle gotta find (change, change, change, change, change)
Change, change, change (Change, change, change, change, change)
There’s an Oakland rain
Falling on my head right now
Fallin’ on my head (right now)