Culture

Black Lives Matter: How the Tech Community Can Provide Support

4 Jun 2020 9:32am, by

On May 25, 2020, suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died of asphyxiation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He died because one white police officer pressed his knee onto the neck of Floyd — who was already face down on the ground and in handcuffs — for eight minutes while two other police officers helped “restrain” him further and another kept the screaming onlookers from intervening. This was all caught on video.

A Black man’s life was deemed worth less than $20. This was not an anomaly.

There is a war on Black people in the United States. And it is being waged by some of the people who have sworn to protect and serve.

This is completely unacceptable. Humankind should be enraged. Everyone should be amplifying the message that Black Lives Matter. Everyone should be doing what they can to support these protests.

Infinitely more can be done in the medium to long term, particularly in the tech industry, to promote anti-racism, anti-white supremacy, and true diversity and inclusion. But for now, let’s focus on how people in tech can solve immediate, emergent needs.

There is no one size fits all here. Each tech company and its impact is different. Each technologist has a different skill set to contribute.

What is true is that silence and inaction at this point make you complicit. And there has to be a sense of urgency in all of us to change the course of senseless police violence against Black people in the U.S.

This compendium is a starting point at best, for ways we think the tech community can help. We want to create a sort of forum for people in tech to discuss ways to support the Black Lives Matter protests and movement. And we want it to focus as much as possible on what can be done right now.

Direct Your Support

If you want to support those on the frontlines at protests immediately, please donate to city bail relief funds. Cash-based bail is an incredibly biased practice that sees hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. kept in jail every year for weeks, months and even years longer than necessary. Before they’ve even been on trial to determine innocence or guilt. Arresting peaceful protesters and requiring them to pay bail is egregious in normal circumstances. During a pandemic, giving financial support to bail relief funds could actually save lives.

The next most important way to support the Black Lives Matter movement is to donate to organizations that work against police violence and the systemic criminalization of Black communities. Recommended organizations include:

Data has often been wielded against people of color, including the data-driven exclusion of Black people from financial services, healthcare and fair criminal justice like risk-based sentencing. Support organizations that want to leverage data for social change.

Note: Thank you to the big tech names who are donating money to Black Lives Matter causes. You can and should donate more. And donating isn’t enough — there are systemic issues within your organizations that are indirectly contributing to this all. Many of these organizations are also directly contributing by providing mapping, surveillance and predictive tooling police and justice departments use to hold up racist practices. So no, this article isn’t going to toss you any name recognition.

Protest with Care (and Masks)

While we are super grateful to the peaceful protesters out there, we acknowledge we are in a pandemic and even outside mass gatherings increase the risk of spreading it. If you do join a protest, please isolate from loved ones who are particularly at risk of this coronavirus and try to get yourself tested.

This guide to protesting during a pandemic by Vice is excellent.

Please wear a mask to the protest. As Heroku’s Ian Coldwater wrote from their base in Minneapolis, “Mask wearing is good both for health reasons and for defeating facial recognition.”

Data Scientist Rachael Tatman argues that it’s also our duty to better educate ourselves and others about facial recognition software and to be mindful of it when taking photos and sharing images of protesters. You can use a tool like the Signal app to blur the faces of protestors.

Create a Socially-Distant Protest

Tatiana Suarez suggested on Twitter this app what3words which assigns a three-meter by three-meter squared space to three unique words. It’s similar to longitude and latitude coordinates, but for the non-nautical to understand. This tool can be used to organize more socially distant protests in the middle of a pandemic.

Watch the Police

This is an important job that can be done remotely from anywhere in the world. Information support services and organizations are providing police scanner monitoring and callouts, on an on-call 24-hour rotation. We’re hearing of more and more tech employees that are organizing, combining and centralizing reports heard over police scanners with eye-witness reports to help effectively redirect people away from police mobilization and National Guard cordons.

Support Local Journalism

Do what you can to support local journalism. This can be just subscribing to the local paper and amplifying the local journalists. These amplifiers of truth and democracy are in deep danger too, getting arrested and getting blinded by police brutality.

Tech Leaders: Speak Up

Note: If you aren’t speaking up, your silence is deafening.

“CEOs and folks in high positions of power, they carry the weight of their influence. They have power within their communities and their spheres and government influence. They have the power to donate and give,” said Danielle Owens, interim vice president of programs at Code2040, a non-profit committed to dismantling structural barriers that prevent the full participation and leadership of Black and Latinx people in the tech space.

She says leadership also needs to look in their own backyards to think about how they can help.

Owens asks: “What can people at the top do for people throughout their company to care for them at this moment?”

Be a Better Manager

Owens noted that “Remote culture disconnects people from the community and from culture that they get to be a part of in the office.”

It’s common for communities of color to be more often supporting other family members. This is amplified by the healthcare disparities, and, in particular, this pandemic is disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Team leads and managers need to be acknowledging these discrepancies and that especially Black communities in the U.S. are going through a time of high stress, trauma, and loss.

Between the health and racial crises right now, managers must embrace flexible work and time off. They need to set up regular virtual one-to-ones with all team members, but especially these vulnerable employees who more than ever have to be treated with compassion and empathy, and to be openly asked how they are doing and what they need.

“I would implore managers to remember that this is an incredibly difficult time for Black people. We are grieving. We are hurting. We are angry and we are frustrated. I didn’t know George [Floyd], but I know Michael my dad and Mike my fiancé,” Owens said.

Her closest family are both Black men which makes them disproportionately at risk for police brutality and systemic criminalization.

She continued that managers need to make space for that grieving to happen. And they need to make sure there are systems and benefits in place for counseling and therapy.

“Create a plan of action to show care and concern, and to see people as human beings.” — Danielle Owens, Code2040

Then, once these immediate needs are met, organizations need to examine their own practices within the company and examine where inequity is part of work culture. Create a psychologically safe place for frank and honest conversations to happen and where marginalized people can be open and vulnerable. These conversations are needed now more than ever.

“If we are going to value Black lives in the way that we say we do and we want to, then we are all going to have to take a look, a hard look, at the ways in which we contribute to the systems that are causing the problems,” Owens said.

Organize as Colleagues

We acknowledge that, no matter how good their tech standings are, not everyone can simply just quit their company. We are grateful to the people who have the privilege to walk out on jobs, but we can’t recommend that broadly. But there are some things you can do.

Facebook employees appear externally at the start of their in-company organizing but their virtual walkout is significant. We’ve seen that just four percent of Google is enough to steer policy-making. Enclaves of employees can and should band together to amplify shared beliefs.

Work for a small company? It should be even easier to achieve.

While you are working from home right now, your organization most likely has at least one headquarters. This gives your tech organization’s name some community clout. Organize your colleagues to sign a petition and demand change to local laws and law enforcement in your company’s home town.

Organize within your company to try to make an official stance supporting Black Lives Matter. This is perhaps easier virtually because it can be more quickly filtered through an open Slack channel or other communication funnels that allows people to opt-in. That in itself is a quick way to get a number of supportive employees to show to your executive leadership.

Just beware it can backfire. Yes, it’s good that Google and YouTube showed solidarity but the response was quick the company still has massive mapping contracts with border control and immigration and customs enforcement and that less than four percent of employees are Black. There’s a moral imperative for employees to understand what the tools they’re building are actually being used for.

Be a Better Friend and Colleague

Ask your Black colleagues how they’re doing. Statistically, there are very few people of color and especially Black people in most tech companies. They may already feel isolated. Even in the most diverse organization, your Black colleagues have been targets of direct or indirect racism at some point. It is normal for them to be triggered right now. Check-in, but don’t push and don’t ask for advice. Don’t be mad if friends or colleagues don’t have time to talk to you right now either. Just be there for them.

Educate Yourself

This a great starter list by Venture Beat on “Some essential reading and research on race and technology” for how race, racism and technology intersect.

Report Fake News

Make use of the ability to report fake news and threats of violence on Twitter — and keep trying on other social networks. #AllLivesMatter is a good place to start to find people who trend in hatred and trolling.

Also, keep an eye on your local police and local and national politicians’ feeds. Flag, flag, flag.

Tech Projects Desperately in Need

Product Marketing Leader Christopher Campbell gave us some tech projects that are in great demand:

  1. Help governments build a database to monitor suspicious police interactions with the populace.
  2. Help citizens centralize their interactions with police with the ability to upload photos and videos.
  3. Create a centralized system to help identify politicians that support policies that can help achieve better policing.
  4. “Just like the NRA [National Rifle Association] create a rating system assigned to current politicians on how they have supported these initiatives,” he said.

Twitter user @Gerrit_Sevilla gave another idea for a simple one-button mobile app that when pressed immediately starts streaming a camera and microphone to a specific website.

Gerrit continued: “When you’re in trouble, push the button and someone watching the site may be of help.”

Also, don’t forget not all tech contributions have to involve any technical knowledge. The English language is a huge barrier to entry in open source communities and for tech users and contributors as a whole. Whether you are on-site in a city where protests are happening or anywhere around the world, if you speak another language, an important way to volunteer is by offering your translation services to support the spread of vital information. This is especially important for early warning services, including of escalated police violence.

Get Creative

Don’t forget to get creative. It turns out that K-pop is to police brutality as Rick-Rolling is to ISIS. Kudos to the many, many people who, when the Dallas Police Department asked for videos of “illegal activity from protests,” chose to bombard them with South Korea’s finest pop bands.

Don’t Muddle the Focus

As Owens puts it: “Keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is that Black men are being gunned down. And the rate continues to trend up at alarming rates.”

This means don’t say things like “All lives matter.” And don’t focus on the looting. Or on a few good police officers making headlines. Keep focused on the fact that there is a war on Black men in the U.S., that this is beyond unacceptable, and that the racism problem feeding it has to be solved.

The historical, systemic racism of a nation built on slavery won’t be solved simply and it can be hard to concise arguments, when writing to your elected officials or company leadership. This week, the NAACP released more specific, right now demands that are easier to articulate and frankly hard to argue with:

  1. The use of force is only in a necessary last resort.
  2. Ban the use of neck holds and chokeholds that restrict oxygen to the brain.
  3. Prohibit racial profiling and require robust data collection including on demographics.
  4. Eliminate federal programs that provide military equipment to law enforcement.
  5. Prohibit the use of no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches.
  6. Change laws so that law enforcement can be held accountable for the deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties.
  7. Create a national public database of police officers who have had their licenses revoked for misconduct including domestic violence and excessive use of force.
  8. End the qualified immunity doctrine which blocks police officers from being held legally accountable when they break the law.

Don’t Stop, Can’t Stop.

There’s so much more work to do. Within our communities, within our companies, within our countries, and within the tech industry. This list is by no means exhaustive and new great ideas are appearing on our feeds all the time. Keep remembering the names of these victims of police brutality, unfair criminalization and systemic racism.

Keep looking for new ways to support Black Lives Matter.

Author’s Note: We admit this article was written and edited by white Americans, but we did our best to compile advice from Black Americans, reliable research sources, and from allies working in tech. It’s not perfect by any means, but we hope that you will tweet ideas to @TheNewStack to build on and improve our list — our innovative community is coming up with great actions to take all the time.

Feature image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay.

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