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Reed '21: Amazon and ICE, an exercise in guilt by association

Late last month during a job fair organized by the University’s CareerLAB, students representing the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition staged a protest of four companies, including Amazon, for contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As part of their demonstration, four students stood in front of Amazon’s recruitment table bearing signs that read, in part, “#NoTech4ICE” and “IBM Sold Tech to Nazis.”  Brown Department of Public Safety responded to the scene, but after speaking with the protesters, the officers left without a resolution. In effect, the protesters disrupted the ability of Brown students to speak with Amazon recruiters. 

To be certain, the protesters have, and should have, the right to protest Amazon or any other company for any reason or no reason at all. But the question is not “should they have the right to protest,?” but rather “should they protest?” I’m by no means suggesting a universal standard regarding what should and should not merit public scorn. But if we examine the Amazon protest and apply the protesters’ logic more broadly, what follows is a highly undesirable standard. If Amazon is to be protested and boycotted for doing business with ICE, this sets a dangerously low bar for being “cancelled,” maligned or otherwise cast out as morally ill-suited for inclusion in civil society. 

When the bar is: “If you do business with someone with whom we disagree, then you’re finished” — that is, we’ll protest you, boycott you, shame people from working for you  — any potential for dialogue is drowned in a sea of ad hominems. In such a society, all nuance is removed from the equation: You’re either with us, or you’re with them. Under this standard, being with them is not just a matter of disagreement — it’s indicative of a deep moral failure. It’s classic guilt-by-association: it attempts to draw a false moral equivalency between two groups, the supposed perpetrators of injustice and those who sell them software.

Some have argued that protesting Amazon is tantamount to protesting ICE, because Amazon provides tools which are directly related to ICE’s role in deportations. Specifically, Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing technology which hosts the data ICE uses to track undocumented immigrants. But there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of companies whose products serve a critical role in the mission of ICE. 

If Ford manufactures their squad cars, if Aramark provides their uniforms or if Staples supplies their offices, should these companies be similarly shunned? Should organizations — like Brown — who do business with those companies be protested as well? Should companies who do business with those organizations be lumped in, too?

This is not to suggest that if you can’t boycott them all you shouldn’t boycott any of them. But there hardly seems to be any meaningful difference between Amazon and an office supplier who provides ICE with a  product that is perhaps less cinematic, but no less essential to their function. If you're willing to protest the office suppliers of the world, at least you're applying the standard consistently. But, of what use is such a standard if it results in such an intuitively untenable result?

Even if you think that every business bears the responsibility of refusing to sell ICE its products, consider that the standard set by protesters not only holds companies complicit in the actions of ICE, but their employees as well. Ask yourself, does a Brown student really deserve to be shamed for trying to speak to an Amazon recruiter? And if that student dares to accept a position at Amazon, do they now bear some measure of moral responsibility for the maltreatment of immigrants in ICE facilities? What if I dare keep my Prime membership after learning that Amazon does business with ICE, have I too earned the designation, “ICE-Collaborator?”

The point is, if you don’t like ICE, protest them. But to extend that grievance to Amazon and anyone tangentially related to ICE is self-defeating. Setting such an impossibly high standard lessens the protesters’ credibility and gives ammunition to the people who are predisposed to dismiss their cause with a roll of their eyes and a fleeting “here they go again.” Protesting those who directly execute policies with which you disagree is not just acceptable, it’s how progress is made in civil society. But the notion that anyone with the temerity to sell to ICE ought to be shamed, boycotted, or otherwise “cancelled” is textbook guilt by association.


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