How artists and activists are teaming up to take on Amazon

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Amazon, the corporate behemoth with a disturbing amount of influence, has a bad track record when it comes to causing harm. Their employees have endured unsafe conditions at low pay. Their one and two-day shipping is detrimental to the environment and puts pedestrians and drivers at risk. Their home security service, Ring, is the subject of a massive civil rights lawsuit. Amazon Web Services hosts Palantir, the data analytics company owned by Peter Thiel that is under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s not even Amazon's only partnership with the agency — it also sells its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, to multiple government agencies, including ICE.

While it can feel impossible to do anything about a company so powerful, a growing community of artists are taking action. At least 1,000 artists have signed a letter pledging to “not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future,” because of the company’s connection to the ICE, which monitors and tracks immigrant communities across the country. A growing consensus among legal advocates, politicians, and everyday citizens sees ICE's myriad of human rights abuses as a case for its abolition.

The campaign against Amazon was organized by Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis and the music journalist Jes Skolnik. Before long, they were joined by Joey La Neve DeFrancesco of the punk band Downtown Boys, artist and activist Evan Greer, musician Adult Mom, and Remember Sports’ singer and guitarist Carmen Perry. Their action was partially motivated by Amazon’s Intersect Festival, a music, art, and technology festival set to take place in Las Vegas next month. Dupuis explained that when artists started to receive backlash about agreeing to be a part of the festival, she thought it would be wiser to direct that energy towards Amazon itself, rather than individual artists on the lineup.

“I have no organizing experience,” Dupuis tells Mic. She reached out to Greer, who in addition to her work as an artist, leads the organization Fight For The Future, a non-profit organization that aims to ensure that “the web continues to hold freedom of expression and creativity at its core,” according to their website. In a single weekend, nearly 100 artists signed on to their letter.

“Corporations have always tried to exploit art and artists as a way to profit,” Greer explains. “The music industry has always had gatekeepers, and they've always been large corporations, particularly, the record labels. Now we have new gatekeepers, which are the tech companies and their algorithms.”

Amazon's Intersect festival is further indication that the company is attempting to gain a larger stake within the entertainment industry. The Intersect lineup includes Anderson .Paak, Jamie XX, Kacey Musgraves, Kaytranada, Leon Bridges, and Spoon — big names with large followings. For the first year of any music festival, it's an impressive group of musicians. This is in addition to its other footholds in the industry; Amazon has its own streaming platform for TV, music, and movies, as well as an award-winning studio producing original content. Amazon Prime exclusively hosted the Fenty Savage runway show, and will also stream Kacey Musgraves' holiday special. The Amazon talent roster of beloved celebrities seems only to be growing.

“It's an individual choice how you want to incorporate your politics into your work, but art doesn't happen in a vacuum,” Dupuis says. “To me, those things have always been intertwined. And I think for more and more people that's becoming true. Just by accumulating a sheer number of artists that people admire, perhaps it shows to music listeners, or it shows to new artists, that you do have the capability to speak out against things that upset you in the world. You do have some power as to what your art is supporting.”

The coalition of artists is asking for Amazon to “terminate existing contracts with the military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses.” It also demands that they “stop providing Cloud services and tools to organizations such as Palantir that power the US government’s deportation machine,” and “End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product.”

Dupuis says she wanted to make sure this action had an impact beyond an outrage cycle at Amazon’s music festival, which meant that the action needed to include the perspectives of people who have already been working on issues related to their boycott.

“We started to incorporate a few other people's perspectives, musicians, people who work in tech ... we got it looked over by a couple of groups who have done similar actions,” Dupuis explains.

One of those groups was Mijente, an immigrant’s rights organization that has been organizing around big tech’s involvement with ICE with the campaign NoTechForICE. “We’re happy to see musicians making the connections between the human rights abuses carried out by ICE and the for-profit companies supporting them,” Jacinta Gonzalez, the Senior Campaign Director of Mijente, said in an email to Mic. “Amazon is not a passive vendor in this, and it’s important that in times like these artists take a stand and refuse to take blood money.”

Greer, who has run other anti-surveillance campaigns says that she’s constantly making an effort to help artists use their platforms in more effective ways. “Just getting artists to make noise about something doesn't necessarily help,” she says. “But getting artists to make noise about something as part of a broader strategy can have a tremendous impact.”

For signatories of the letter, this was an opportunity to direct their political energies into a specific action. By calling out Amazon for working with ICE, they’re lending more voices, attention, and energy to a sustained movement to get tech companies to stop working with an agency that has overseen the degradation and abuse of immigrants.

“This isn't about which artists are pure, because they've decided to boycott Amazon and which ones are impure, because they still may be playing at an event or something like that,” Greer says. “It's more about how can we, as artists, use our power and platforms to get Amazon to do the thing that immigrant rights groups have been demanding that they do — that concretely benefits millions of people's lives, that keeps families together, that puts an immediate stop to ongoing human rights abuses that are being powered by these software companies.”