Activists in the Bay Area have raised the stakes and targeted Google employees. Good for them.
On Wednesday, my colleague Andrew Leonard wrote a sharp criticism of the latest wave of anti-Google protests in the Bay Area. Actions against the tech giant — both in response to its role in maintaining and upholding a surveillance state, and the gentrifying force of its employees in San Francisco — have escalated. Unlike my esteemed colleague, however, I support this escalation.
Building on demonstrations that blocked Google buses — the private shuttles that usher employees from their Bay Area homes to Google’s gleaming Silicon Valley compound — anti-Google protests have taken an ad hominem turn. On Tuesday an activist group, “Counterforce,” rallied in front of the Berkeley home of a high-level Google engineer. The militancy amounted to little more than ringing his doorbell at an early hour and passing out fliers in the neighborhood. Hardly terror tactics, but the message was clear: Google employees are now targets.
“All of Google’s employees should be prevented from getting to work. All surveillance infrastructure should be destroyed. No luxury condos should be built. No one should be displaced,” Counterforce stated in a manifesto accompanying Tuesday’s protest.
Writing in opposition to the demonstration, Leonard commented, “This is bullshit…slashing the tires of Google buses, confronting individual employees at their homes, and engaging in ludicrous character assassination is not how a civil society operates.”
Respectfully, I disagree. Intimidation tactics targeting the employees of major corporations are nothing new and have a history of success: Indeed, animal rights activists achieved some major victories in securing the closure of animal testing facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s through the intimidation of key investors. This intimidation was deemed terrorism, but, hey, it worked. The Google protesters appear to be paying homage to this model. Their manifesto ends, “We’re coming for you next,” and echo the Animal Liberation Front’s haunting slogan, “We are everywhere.”
Success in terms of protesting Google can’t be measured by the frameworks used by militant animal rights activists and environmental activists over 10 years ago. The tech giant will not be shuttered by personal attacks. Beyond this, even if a number of Google employees were driven to quit, or if Google buses stopped running, the surveillance state would prevail unhindered — it is inscribed and supported in the very fabric of life under late capitalism.
But, and here’s where I stand with Counterforce, Google should no longer get away with playing the good guy. Google has long been invested in its own shiny, happy patina: consider its original but informal corporate slogan “don’t be evil,” or the production of a movie like “The Internship” (which my other colleague Andrew O’Hehir reviewed as “a two-hour infomercial for one of the world’s biggest technology companies”), or Google’s ongoing, laughable attempts to distance itself from NSA malfeasance.
For too long the tech-giant has projected an ill-defined and ill-thought moralism of transparency and good-doing, while at the same time marching in goose step with government and other industry players to effectively establish a totalized surveillance state. Not to mention the firm’s Silicon Valley denizens helping create a de facto bifurcated city, with well-paid tech workers pricing out low-income Bay Area residents.
Google’s insidious creep into nearly every aspect of modern life — from information searching, to communications, to mapping, to home heating — has, at every stage, been accompanied by an enthusiastic P.R. operation, aligning “Googliness” and goodness. Like Counterforce, we should all call bullshit.
Whether targeting individual Google employees is an effective tactic is not really my interest here. Certainly, I concede that it will hardly uproot Google’s hegemonic position, nor will the surveillance state be dismantled. Andrew Leonard cited one Bay Area resident describing the latest militant anti-Google protest as “a group of people violently broaching civic norms.” I say: precisely. Civic norms in our current epoch entail the forgoing of privacy, the enabling of a totalized surveillance state, the steady displacement of poor residents by wealthier implants in all major metropolises. The world’s richest 85 people have as much wealth as half the world’s population put together. These are our current civic norms; they deserve some violent broaching.
Originally published on Salon.com.