Photo by Thomasi McDonald

A cadre of Google employees and their supporters gathered outside of their offices this week in downtown Durham to demand the high tech company drop its $1.2 billion cloud computing contract with Amazon to provide the Israeli government and military with surveillance resources and other services.

At the heart of the protests are concerns that the contract, known as Project Nimbus, could harm Israel’s Palestinian residents.

The Google employee protest that took place along the sidewalk in the 200 block of Morris Street late Thursday afternoon was part of a “national day of protest organized by “ tech workers, civil society, and community members in a campaign called #NoTechforApartheid,” in Durham, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, according to a press release from The Worker Agency.

Described in the press release as “unprecedented,” the protests signal that “Amazon and Google workers [have joined] the wave of worker organizing sweeping the nation.”

In May of last year, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud executives signed a contract that agreed to “provide cloud technology to the Israeli government and military,” according to the website notechforapartheid.com.

The website explained that the contract signing took place while “the Israeli military bombed homes, clinics, and schools in Gaza and threatened to push Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem.”

The website asserted that “by doing business with Israeli apartheid, Amazon and Google will make it easier for the Israeli government to surveil Palestinians and force them off their land.”

While noting that the nationwide protests are in response to “over 1,000 Google and Amazon workers to voice their opposition to the contract,” the website declared that “technology should be used to bring people together, not enable apartheid, ethnic cleansing, or settler-colonialism.”

On an overcast afternoon in downtown Durham, nearly 50 Google employees and their supporters gathered outside of their offices in solidarity with the nationwide protests that included rallies at Google and Amazon’s headquarters. Some of the Google workers in Durham held aloft signs that read “Resistance is Justified Against Apartheid, Long Live Palestine” and “Free Palestine.”

Meanwhile, the song, “We Shall Not Be Moved” by Mavis Staples poured out of a mobile speaker. The song was occasionally punctuated by protesters who chanted “Free! Free! Palestine!”

Among the Durham organizers was Bjorn Pedersen, a 31-year-old software engineer who started working with Google in May.

Pedersen, like many of the protesters, was wearing a red T-shirt that read  “Alphabet Workers Union,” or “AWU,” across the front in white letters. Pederson said the workers union was organized about a year and a half ago with the Communication Workers of America. He added that the AWU is not recognized by Google officials.

Pedersen told the INDY that the high tech giant’s employees are worried that the contract “will escalate into the full oppression of the Palestinian people.”

Pedersen said “a lot of this is about details of the contract that was leaked out.” The leaked documents, he added, indicate the surveillance  services may not be limited to non-military use.

Pedersen was referring to training materials about the project that were obtained and reported on by The Intercept in late July. The Intercept reported that “Google is offering advanced artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities to the Israeli government through its controversial ‘Project Nimbus’ contract.”

The Intercept also pointed to an April 2021 announcement of the contract by officials with the Israeli Finance Ministry, who reportedly stated that “the project is intended to provide the government, the defense establishment and others with an all-encompassing cloud solution.” 

Intercept writer Sam Biddle also noted that while Israeli officials “provide no specifics as to how Nimbus will be used, the documents indicate that the new cloud would give Israel capabilities for facial detection, automated image categorization, object tracking, and even sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures, speech, and writing.”

Leon Scroggins, a software engineer with Durham’s Google offices, stood on the sidewalk in front of the building and used a portable public address system to read a statement to his fellow protesters. 

“It’s against Google principles,” he said. “It’s against my principles,”

Scroggins, who also wore a red AWU T-shirt, explained that while he is not Jewish, he’s married to a Jewish woman and they follow the religion’s traditions and practices, including a Jewish wedding and naming ceremonies for their daughters, who received Hebrew names.

“One of the things I really like about Jewish values, and something that we try to impart to our daughters is that every life is valuable,” Scroggins said. “So wherever there is injustice, we should be in solidarity with the people who are suffering. In this case, that’s Palestinians. I don’t want my work, or the work of my colleagues to contribute to Palestinians’ or anyone else’s suffering.”

Several of the people in attendance at the Durham protest supported the Nimbus contract, and wanted to show their support for Israel. One held up a sign that read, “ISRAEL, the only DEMOCRACY in the MIDDLE EAST.”

One of the supporters, Emma, held up a sign that read “Say No To Jewish Hate.” She declined to give her last name to the INDY for fear of retribution. Emma explained that she had grew up in South Africa during the apartheid regime and her parents were anti-apartheid activists.

Emma said she had visited Israel “a number of times,” and said it is an ethnically diverse country and the most “anti-racist country than any other country in that region.”

“I’m here to rebalance the conversation,” and challenge the “incorrect perception that Durham does not support Israel,” she added. 

The Worker Agency press release noted that the nationwide protests followed the resignation of Ariel Koren, a marketing manager for Google’s educational products division who had worked for the company for over seven years.

According to a memo written by Koren that was published by The New York Times, Koren, who is Jewish, stated that she was resigning due to  “retaliation, a hostile environment, and illegal actions [taken] by the company, because of her opposition and activism against the Nimbus contract.”

The New York Times also reported that “Koren is the latest in a string of Google employees who have accused the company of retaliation for their activism.”

Koren was among the 50 tech workers and 25 Google employees who participated in protests in San Francisco, according to the Worker Agency release.

Here in Durham, Scroggins told his colleagues that when he heard about the AWU’s organizing efforts last year in early January, he immediately joined their cause.

“I recognized that as workers, we are responsible for Google’s success,” he said. “And when we unite we have the power to change things for the better.”


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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.