Art for Nobody’s Ally.
El fusilamiento by David Yerga (2007). | Flickr

Nobody’s Ally

When the makers of policing tech say “Black Lives Matter”

El fusilamiento by David Yerga (2007). | Flickr
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In this time of overlapping crises, everyone has their own breaking point, when the absurdity-sadness quotient seems intolerable. Mine happened to come the other day when I spotted a tweet from Taser Self-Defense, which makes handheld weapons designed to deliver a powerful electroshock to whichever hapless soul is on the receiving end. Tasers have become a standard part of the American policing armament. While Axon—Taser’s parent company, which produces a range of law enforcement tech—has an “ethics board” composed of legal scholars, research scientists, and ex-cops, its products and business are deeply embedded in the violent, racist world of American policing.

Despite these ethical entanglements, Taser tweeted on June 3 that it would now work toward justice and racial reconciliation. “We stand for protecting life,” proclaimed the maker of a weapon that has been linked to at least a thousand deaths since its introduction, and was used by police to brutally attack two Atlanta college students on live TV only four days prior. “We stand for transparency and accountability,” said the maker of body cameras that can be turned off whenever an officer likes. As I read the tweet and considered the overwhelming gall behind it, my brain began to wobble in my skull.

It wasn’t, of course, just one tweet. Since the most recent round of police brutality protests started, you might say that Axon’s feed has gone full Black Lives Matter, never mind its role in providing weapons, technologies, and other services to police. Lately, its Twitter account has been sharing photos of cops hugging protesters while optimistically touting the possibilities of police reform. And now, according to a message from its CEO, Axon is committed to becoming “actively anti-racist,” adding to its vision statement the following goal: “Eradicate racism and excessive force in the justice system.” (There was no mention, in this blog post, of Tasers.)

“We stand for protecting life,” proclaimed the maker of a weapon which has been linked to at least a thousand deaths since its introduction.

Axon is one of many companies falling over themselves to try to telegraph their outrage at George Floyd’s murder and support for the larger struggle for civil rights. Oil companies and military contractors, Amazon and Walmart, Uber and Lyft, the NFL: all have posted affirmative messages in support of BLM and anti-racist movements. It does not matter how iniquitous your organization is on a day-to-day basis, especially in the lives of black Americans, nor does it seem to matter how milquetoast most of these statements are, forsaking specific demands or accusations in favor of vague calls for comity. After all, the content isn’t that important; it’s the PR gesture that ultimately allows these companies to imagine themselves on the right side of history.

With this, they have something in common with our local Democratic politicians, who have largely issued meek calls for progress while letting their police forces smash legal protests. In the final analysis, there’s little difference between a Taser-maker proclaiming its anti-racism and Washington D.C.’s mayor ordering the painting of Black Lives Matter on a street near the White House while simultaneously increasing the police department’s budget. Each is a superficial gesture concealing material, pro-police commitments that are anathema to black liberation.

Scratch a newly woke corporation, in other words, and it’s easy to find a self-serving authoritarian underneath. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent disastrous curfew in New York, which seemed popular only with the city’s feckless mayor, Bill de Blasio. Uber and Lyft, who days later pledged their support to fighting racism, agreed to suspend service in deference to the curfew. Revel, the scooter company, and Citibike, the bike-sharing firm owned by Lyft, both stopped offering rentals two hours before the curfew started. Public transportation may be increasingly privatized, but it bows to mayoral edicts, no matter who it hurts—in this case, not only protesters but essential workers, at least one of whom spent a week in jail, putting him in possible violation of his parole. (It’s also worth noting that Citibike is difficult to find outside of the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.)

The George Floyd protests have moved companies to publicly address their political commitments like never before, but in few cases do they appear to be willing to do more than make a series of general promises about diversity and empowerment. Some are donating to anti-racist organizations—many of them large, already cash-flush organizations that arguably have little direct connection to what’s happening in the streets—while others simply assure us that they will do better. With many of these companies known for their all-white executive leadership and their exploitative labor practices, it’s hard to believe that these pledges will bring meaningful change. Instacart, for example, has promised to spend $500,000 on easing the burdens of its shoppers, a pathetic amount for a company that plans to hire at least 300,000 new shoppers this year.

There is simply no way that a company like Axon can become “actively anti-racist,” unless it decides to shut down entirely.

This false consciousness is apparent throughout the business and political worlds, but it might be most acute in tech, an industry that still lacks a widely shared code of ethics. Facebook employees have been quitting or staging virtual walkouts in recent weeks, with some declaring their disgust at Mark Zuckerberg for refusing to do more about President Donald Trump’s incendiary, and typically unhinged, posts. It’s commendable that Facebook employees are beginning to wake up to the way their platform is used for fomenting racist violence and division. But even if it were to solve these issues, Facebook is irreparably compromised, a mega-machine of surveillance and data capture whose fundamental business model is based on ever more granular monitoring of users in order to coerce them into desired behaviors. Like Google, which operates according to similar surveillance capitalist principles, Facebook has seen employees calling for the company to be more overtly political in its support of causes like BLM. But until tech workers understand the exploitation that underwrites their fabulous salaries—whether that exploitation occurs in an Amazon warehouse, on Facebook’s platform, or behind the wheel of a Lyft— their calls for racial progress will ring only slightly less hollow than those emanating from Taser.

While American corporate politics may still be a mélange of bad faith PR and focus-grouped sloganeering, some might be heartened by the fact that these companies are slowly being pushed in the proper direction, or something like it. But the debate over the politics of massive capitalist concerns is much like the debate over policing: How far will we go? Will we settle for minor reforms, or fight for abolition?

There is simply no way that a company like Axon can become “actively anti-racist,” unless it decides to shut down entirely. Similarly, while IBM and Amazon have recently made efforts to limit police access to their facial recognition services (for now), they will never be progressive entities as long as they do business with the Defense Department and mistreat their workers. Better to stop waiting for tech companies to align their politics with the protest vanguard that’s now filling the country’s streets. The people marching and risking police assault don’t need late-to-the-party statements of support from companies that exploit their workers and, in the case of Axon, profit directly from the carceral system. These limp expressions of goodwill reveal liberals’ profound misapprehension of what’s happening on the ground. This isn’t just a protest. It’s an uprising whose righteous demands will always eclipse what even the most progressive of corporate America is willing to concede.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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