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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

Seattle-area corporate giants lined up to decry racially motivated violence as protests denouncing police brutality against Black Americans have swept through the Seattle area and across the nation in the last week.

As demonstrators filled city blocks to decry the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, Amazon tweeted a message of solidarity with the Black community. Starbucks and Nordstrom called for "courageous conversations" around race. Microsoft pointed to its past support for criminal justice reform. "Racism has no home here," Zillow tweeted.

Major companies typically shy away from staking a position on topics as divisive as racially motivated police violence.

But across the country, protesters in the last week have repeatedly emphasized that there is no such thing as staying neutral, forcing companies that have traditionally preferred to stay silent on hot-button political issues to take a stand. During rallies in Seattle on Saturday, protesters carried signs saying "Silence is violence."

In some instances, companies that have denounced racial bias have been met with scorn for what some say are transparent attempts to burnish lackluster track records on race and diversity.

"You can't issue a statement about how you have a philosophy of everyone being equal, and then it comes out that you don't have that policy," said University of Washington professor Kathleen Fearn-Banks, the author of a textbook on corporate crisis communications.

Amazon's repudiation of "the inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country" in a Sunday morning tweet rang hollow to many of the company's detractors.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked in reply, "Will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?" That tweet, by midday Monday, had 10 times as many "likes" as the original Amazon statement.

The ACLU is among those who have criticized the company's sale of its Rekognition technology to law-enforcement agencies, and its partnerships with them to boost sales of its Ring surveillance and home-security products.

A shareholder proposal at Amazon's annual meeting last week sought an "independent, third-party report ... to determine whether customers' use of its surveillance and computer vision products or cloud-based services contributes to human-rights violations."

The company's board of directors recommended a vote against the proposal, citing its own oversight and several steps taken "to review and address concerns around potential misuse of our technologies." The proposal ultimately failed; vote tallies have not yet been disclosed. Amazon has also called for regulation of facial recognition technology.

Amazon did not reply to questions about what the company was doing to "stand in solidarity with the Black community."

Nationally, major corporations including Twitter, Netflix, Nike and Citigroup have publicly allied themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, a loose coalition of community groups opposing violence against Black Americans by police and armed civilians. The movement grew out of demonstrations in 2013 and 2014 after the killing of Black teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

At that time, and in the following years of routine acts of violence against Black Americans, corporations were silent.

Not so now.

Historian Margaret O'Mara, who studies the tech industry at the University of Washington, said she sees the corporate response to Floyd's death "as a departure. We haven't ever had this demand for a corporate response and this idea that silence is violence."

In Seattle, corporations including Nordstrom and REI began tweeting with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to show their support for the movement's goals.

Still, the carefully couched corporate communiques from Seattle-based brands have tended to remain one step distant from the heart of the issues activating protesters.

Within the flurry of carefully worded news releases, tweets and blog posts, few specifically denounced the actions of law enforcement in Floyd's death.

 

Starbucks held an online forum for employees centered around issues of race and protest; 2,000 of the company's nearly 200,000 U.S. employees participated, according to a blog post.

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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