The Berkeley City Council has toyed with the idea of an Amazon boycott, which staff says could have wide-reaching ramifications. The tech giant opened a store in Berkeley last year. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Some Berkeley officials want to cut cords with the technology and data behemoths that aid Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Proponents say disentanglement with those companies is Berkeley’s responsibility as a sanctuary city, while city staff says there would be unintended, and devastating, consequences of severing ties.

A proposed ordinance coming to the City Council later this month would prohibit Berkeley from awarding contracts to companies that provide ICE with data collection, resale or analysis services.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison, a sponsor of the Feb. 26 item, said the ordinance would only affect companies that offer the federal agency something “above and beyond” normal services. Among Berkeley’s current vendors, that’s likely Thomson Reuters and Microsoft, she said.

Thomson Reuters provides proprietary data to law enforcement agencies, including ICE. Microsoft provides cloud storage services to the agency.

Those corporations’ products help ICE “track down people,” said Harrison. “These people are putting small children in cages…In my view, [this ordinance] is making sanctuary real.”

Berkeley became the first city to declare itself a sanctuary in 1971, initially to shield Vietnam War draft resisters and soon after to protect immigrants and refugees.

After the election of President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration, Berkeley bolstered its sanctuary status, further restricting city employees from engaging with ICE agents. In early 2017, the council also voted to divest from companies involved in building Trump’s border wall.

City of Berkeley and school district officials gathered to reaffirm Berkeley’s sanctuary city status shortly after the 2016 election. Photo: Tracey Taylor
City of Berkeley and school district officials gathered to reaffirm Berkeley’s sanctuary city status shortly after the 2016 election. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“I’m supporting this because we have taken very important steps in the city of Berkeley to make sure we’re not directly working with ICE on items that involve immigration,” Harrison said. “We’re completely happy to work with law enforcement on other cases.”

However, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley has cautioned that the ordinance could apply to additional city contracts and “obstruct the baseline work” of departments as diverse as finance and fire.

In a memo to the City Council last Thursday, Williams-Ridley wrote that Berkeley already has strong policies in place to protect all residents regardless of citizenship status, which the city does not track.

“While our policies and practices are clear, our ability to control or navigate around the marketplace is limited,” she wrote. “The data broker and extreme vetting services subject to the potential ordinance are frequently offered by corporations that have often also amassed unavoidable market power and breadth into essential operations required of our civic government.”

The staff time required to analyze current contracts and research alternatives would also be immense, she said.

City Councilman Ben Bartlett, another sponsor of the contracting ordinance, said he’s not naive to the challenges of ending or decreasing business with tech powerhouses.

“I don’t want to cripple our city processes and government, but at some point, we’ve got to figure out how to take a stand for our values,” he said.

Could Berkeley boycott Amazon?

The council has also considered a flat-out boycott of Amazon specifically, as ICE uses the company’s cloud services to host data on immigrants.

That proposal is not on an agenda yet, but conversations around the potential boycott have overlapped with the discussion of the upcoming contracting proposal.

“Amazon is picking a side whether it wants to or not,” wrote former Councilman Kriss Worthington when he raised the idea of a boycott last year. “Setting this example will hopefully encourage other cities to follow suit sending a message to Amazon to prioritize human lives over money.”

Worthington was also the first official to bring the contracting ordinance — which later went through multiple versions and was sent to the Peace and Justice Commission — to the council, in the spring of 2018. The Amazon boycott was initially floated that fall. In his proposals, Worthington cited a recent report by immigration advocacy organizations on the tech companies enabling ICE’s operations. Worthington has since retired from the council.

In January, the council directed the city manager to analyze the impact of a full Amazon boycott, including the effects of no longer using Amazon to purchase goods.

Her response sounded similar to her musings on the contracting ordinance.

The memo from the city manager indicated that a municipal boycott of the tech giant wouldn’t be as simple as canceling orders for toilet paper or losing the ability to binge-watch Transparent. Numerous products and services Berkeley uses — from Adobe to NextDoor — rely on Amazon services and could thus become unavailable to city staff under a prohibition.

Customers shop at Amazon’s “4-Star” store on Fourth Street, which sells items that are reportedly trending on Amazon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Customers shop at Amazon’s “4-Star” store on Fourth Street, which sells items that are reportedly trending on Amazon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“The proposed referral will result in massive paper-based interactions” and related increases in staff time, Williams-Ridley wrote. “It will impact the cybersecurity operations and would create many challenges for technology infrastructure needs.”

Berkeley could lose out on grant funding since applications are often submitted to agencies using Amazon cloud services, she said. Many products the city uses, such as the touchscreen software used at Berkeley’s senior centers, are delivered through Amazon as well.

Earlier this month, a Gizmodo reporter published results of her own one-woman Amazon boycott, confirming “it was hell” to drop all products connected to the company. Granted, the journalist, Kashmir Hill, also cut off Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple in one fell swoop.

Bartlett said it’s this very  “monopoly” that makes sending the message of divestment all the more urgent.

“In my point of view, no one should ever be stuck with no alternative in the marketplace,” he said. 

Berkeley, perhaps ironically, is home to one of Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar stores. The Fourth Street shop, which sells the items that are reportedly “trending” online, opened to both cheers and jeers in November. That store, like all local businesses, pays taxes to the city, so Berkeley could find itself in a tricky situation if it pursued a comprehensive boycott.

Regardless of what Berkeley ends up deciding about its own policies, the city is not the only one grappling with relationships with Amazon and the like.

Earlier this month Amazon abruptly pulled out of a deal to open a massive new corporate headquarters in New York City, following an outcry from activists and some politicians over the billions of dollars in government incentives offered to the company there.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...