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Seattle area corporations respond to protests over police brutality with messages of solidarity, but few specifics

Katherine Khashimova Long, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

After employees criticized outdoor retailer REI for staying silent on the issue of racism, the company posted on Instagram with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Sunday night. "We call on our entire community to come together with collective resolve and a commitment to respect, understanding and support," the retailer wrote.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and wife Melinda also tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement Sunday.

Nordstrom executives condemned "acts of violence" that led to "the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others." The company tweeted #BlackLivesMatter on Saturday night, sharing a video of employees talking about how they navigate racist policing.

Both Starbucks and Nordstrom faced criticism over incidents of racial bias in 2018. Nordstrom executives personally apologized to the three Black teens a clerk wrongfully accused of shoplifting from a Nordstrom Rack in St. Louis. Starbucks closed nearly 8,000 of its stores for a day of racial bias training after a barista called police on two Black men waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia store.

Using Black Lives Matter as part of corporate messaging is part of the new normal as brands seek to build a connection with consumers, said Fearn-Banks. But before corporations capitalize on its potency, they ought to clean house first, she said.

"I think that they would want to understand the origin of the slogan and who the people are before they actually adopt it," she said.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, decrying "racism, bias and hatred," asked employees to " join me ... in advocating for change in our company, in our communities, and in society at large."

The company has made criminal justice reform part of its lobbying platform since 2018. Microsoft has helped nonprofits dig into criminal justice data and received a Justice Department grant to build an online tool meant to help Washington judges more equitably level fines and fees.

The company also donated $400,000 in 2019 to a state training course for law-enforcement officials, the 21st Century Police Leadership program. The three-month course aims to build trust between law enforcement and communities by fostering emotional intelligence and communication skills among police leaders.

 

"That program is going to be critical as we address the issues that we are grappling with in light of the outrage over the killing of George Floyd," said Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, calling Microsoft's support "a game-changer." The company's one-time donation made up roughly half the program's 2019 budget.

O'Mara said corporations may find it more difficult to appease demands that they support protesters if President Donald Trump follows through with threats to crack down on demonstrations with force.

"It's going to become more explicitly political," O'Mara said. "It's going to be something where you're going to be asked to speak out against a president, against a certain wing of American politics."

(Seattle Times business reporter Benjamin Romano contributed to this report.)

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