“Dave, you’re the kind of customer I’m happy to lose,” Jeff Bezos captioned a recent Instagram post showing a customer email laden with expletives and racial slurs. As you might expect, Dave (his last name redacted) claimed to be speaking on behalf of “White America” against Amazon’s recently announced support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Inviting racists to take their business elsewhere is arguably a stronger endorsement of equality than the $10 million (£7.9 million) Amazon pledged to split among 10 charities working to advance Black rights, a donation which represents just over .01 per cent of the company’s estimated $87 billion (£68 billion) in revenue last year. But it’s a sentiment that’s hard to take seriously when Amazon happily works with organisations spreading the injustice the company claims to abhor.
In another Instagram post a day earlier, Bezos even seemed to display an abstract understanding of what BLM, and these worldwide protests, are about. Again it was framed as a response to a email. This customer suggested that not just Black lives but (sigh) all lives matter. As Jeff put it:
“Black lives matter” doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter speaks to racism and the disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice system. I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same [...] I support this movement that we see happening all around us, and my stance won’t change.
Here, Bezos seemed to be admitting that the laws in the US are enforced in unequal ways that range from discriminatory to deadly – that police, the courts, and the penal system form an enormous machine which serves the interests of people who look like him and me. It would be nice to take Jeff Bezos at his word, but it’s difficult to do when Amazon serves as part of this very machine.
Average consumers likely think of Amazon as a huge retailer – one that just happens to turn over enormous amounts of customer data to law enforcement. The company’s real cash cow, however, is its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services. This arm of Bezos’s empire profited and continues to profit from lucrative contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), effectively powering America’s detainment and deportation efforts.
In ICE facilities, families are separated and detainees are denied adequate medical care – a problem which has been further exacerbated by covid-19 – leading to many unnecessary deaths of, overwhelmingly, people of colour. Thousands of children have claimed they were sexually assaulted by ICE personnel. In one of the most shocking examples of abuse at an agency empowered to carry out the will of a discriminatory justice system with little oversight, former ICE agent Wilfredo Rodriguez used the threat of deportation to rape an undocumented woman in Connecticut “as often as four times a week for seven years,” according to a lawsuit filed last year.
Jeff Bezos helped that agency do its ghoulish work with the utmost efficiency.
Ring – a home security camera company which Amazon purchased in 2018 – has freely shared footage recorded by its devices with at least 200 law enforcement agencies in the US. Alarmingly, it has also tracked customers refusing to share recordings from their Ring cameras with police. The locations of deployed Ring cameras has been shared with cops and the company has held sway over how police talk about Ring. Many of these partnerships are funded by the taxpayer.
Jeff Bezos not only oversaw this foray into an unaccountable surveillance dragnet, he paid $1 billion (£785 million) to buy the company that allowed him to do it.
As privacy advocates continue to push against the deployment of facial recognition, Amazon has continued to invest in its own software – Rekognition – which it has already supplied to US law enforcement, despite multiple studies suggesting it had significant racial biases. A police department which was known to be trialling Rekognition has said Amazon provided no training to its officers on how to use the software and admitted to using it in ways that go against the company’s guidelines. The company has additionally contradicted itself on whether it has any oversight into how Rekognition is being used by its clients.
And as recently as 2018, Amazon tried to sell this dangerous software to ICE.
This is just a brief overview of the company’s involvement with law enforcement. Even so, it shows Amazon’s actions contradict the moral clarity the CEO has asserted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. To put it in the parlance of the tech industry, this willingness to aid the legal and carceral institutions of the US isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. All of this happened with the consent of Jeff Bezos – if not at his direct insistence.
So we’re all left wondering: Does Jeff Bezos actually want racists and racist institutions to spend their money elsewhere, or just ones that call him a piece of shit personally? Feel free to screenshot this for the ‘gram, Jeff. I’ll be waiting for your thoughtful reply.
Featured image: Getty