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I spoke with a Google worker fired for protesting a $1.2 billion contract with Israel

"It was a complete overreaction on their part to not only fire everyone who was and wasn't involved, but then also threaten everyone else in the company who would dare think to stand up against this...it feels like a very fascist environment."

Quick note: I have a new piece out today on MSNBC.com about Asna Tabassum, the USC valedictorian whose commencement speech was cancelled, and the danger of silencing young voices. Read it here.

Google employee protesters in New York on Tuesday (via No Tech For Apartheid)

In an internal memo Wednesday, Google announced the firing of 28 employees in connection to a protest of Project Nimbus. The previous day inside Google offices in New York and California, a couple dozen employees staged a sit-in to bring awareness to the $1.2 billion Israeli government contract. It began in 2021 and provides cloud computing services to Israel—specifically, we’ve recently learned, to the Israeli Ministry of Defense—and though it has faced internal criticism since its inception, efforts against it have naturally intensified since October 7th. 

The memo from Google’s global head of security Chris Rackow was ominous. “If you’re one of the few who are tempted to think we’re going to overlook conduct that violates our policies,” he wrote to the company’s thousands of employees, “think again.”

I was fortunate to speak with Hasan Ibraheem, one of the employees fired as part of the protest and an organizer with No Tech For Apartheid, Thursday afternoon by phone. It was shortly after news broke that more than 100 Columbia students had been arrested by police in riot gear for a pro-Palestine protest.

Ibraheem is a Syria-born, West Virginia-raised 23-year-old who worked at Google for one year and eight months. It was his very first job out of college. I asked him about getting arrested, how he found out he got fired, and his personal connection to this cause.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MARISA KABAS, The Handbasket: How did you decide a sit-in was the best approach for this protest? And why now?

HASAN IBRAHEEM, Former Google employee and No Tech For Apartheid organizer: That's a great question. This campaign has been going on for about three years now, ever since Project Nimbus was created. And throughout those three years, we had tried basically every avenue possible to try and get the executives to talk to us, at least have some sort of conversation with us, sent petitions. We've exhausted every avenue that we could think of possible. And during that time, we've been building up our supporters in Google—everyone who's become part of No Tech For Apartheid. And then we wanted to do the strongest action we could possibly do because we have been ignored for three years. They wouldn't even give a statement or a conversation with us. So we wanted to make it impossible for them to ignore us.

KABAS: It's more than six months into the current war in Gaza and Israel. But you said this effort precedes it. Do you think the current war accelerated or intensified your efforts?

IBRAHEEM: Definitely. With the current genocide that's happening in Gaza right now, more people were made aware. I joined No Tech For Apartheid only a few months ago. I wasn't even aware about Project Nimbus, and most of the people I talked to in Google weren't aware of it until a couple days ago. So, people are receptive to this once they're aware of the contract, want to make change. But yeah, it's unfortunate that it took a genocide for people to realize that Google is complicit in this.

KABAS: Did you have any hesitation about organizing within your workplace?

IBRAHEEM: At first I wasn't sure if organizing within the workspace was actually something that could lead to any real change. But I realized that it would be better for me to participate and make my voice heard, even if I didn't believe that the execs would drop the contract immediately. Some people need to take the first step in organizing, and whether that means risking their jobs or doing whatever, I wanted to be a part of that first group of people.

KABAS: Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like being in the sit-in yesterday? What was that experience like?

IBRAHEEM: We started at 12 p.m. and it was very quickly evident that the security did not want us there. They tried to get us to leave as soon as possible. They removed our banner that was hanging off the side that was visible from the stairs. And then an hour and a half in, the head of security was very visibly upset and told us “you need to leave right now.” And, as I'm sure you're aware, we were there for almost 10 hours. So an hour and a half in, him telling us that we needed to leave didn't result in anything until much later. 

It was a lot of waiting but we, the people who were there in New York, me and three other folks who were going to stay until arrest, we had each other and we were making speeches, we were doing chants, we were making our voices heard, making our voices as loud as possible so that we could reach as many people as possible. And lots of people came by and asked us what was going on. People were given flyers. And a lot of people were just concerned about the things that we were talking about. They expressed solidarity with us. There was a lot of support from Google employees.

KABAS: And it was just you and three other people?

IBRAHEEM: So in the very beginning, there were more. I think there were over 10 people sitting down. But at an hour and a half in when security told us that we needed to leave, we had different tiers of people who were willing to take risks—like risk of arrest or retaliation, which at this point seems like it wasn’t at all necessary since we all got retaliated against in the same exact way. But for the people who were doing the sit-in and didn't want to be arrested, they left as soon as security told them that they were going to escalate this issue and then it was just the four of us remaining until arrest.

KABAS: So when you were finally arrested, what did security say to you?

IBRAHEEM: Security said, “Alright, we've asked you to leave dozens of times now. And you can leave now, it won't be an issue, or we can have you arrested for trespassing.” And a couple of hours before we actually were arrested, they had put us—the people who were sitting down—they put us on administrative leave so that they could confiscate our badges. Because once you are put on administrative leave, you don't have any access to your corporate devices. You don't have any access to the building, and they just take your badges. So it was only at that point that they could really charge us with trespassing. Because before then, we were Google employees with active badges who had every right to be in that workplace. It took them until putting us on administrative leave that they could actually get the cops to come in.

KABAS: That’s actually helpful context because I was wondering how they said you were on private property if you work there. So that was the way that they did it.

IBRAHEEM: It looked like they were genuinely, the entire time, just trying to figure out what to do. I don't think that they had people do this ever—Google employees just refusing to leave as an act of protest. So they were struggling to figure out what the next steps would be to get us to leave.

KABAS: When did you find out that you had been fired, and how did you find out?

IBRAHEEM: We were arrested around 9:30 PM [Tuesday], then finally got released from the prison at like 2 AM that following day. So we were just there for four hours. And then 7 PM that day—so almost 24 hours after our arrest—I was having dinner with one of the people I was arrested with and they just look up from their phone and say “we’ve been fired.” And then I checked my email and sure enough, we both had received emails just saying “effective immediately termination,” or something along those lines. And then we very quickly found out that more people were fired, and then Google sent out that email saying, “hey guys, we fired 28 of you.”

KABAS: If I understand correctly, some of the 28 people fired were not actually involved in the sit in. Is that right?

IBRAHEEM: Yeah, this was retaliation, like completely indiscriminate—people who had just walked by just to say hello and maybe talk to us for a little bit. They were fired. People who aren't affiliated with No Tech For Apartheid at all, who just showed up and were interested in what was going on. And then security asked to see their badge and they were among the 28 fired.

They had to reach out after the fact to tell us, hey, I was impacted by this. Like we had no reason to suspect that someone who wasn't affiliated with us or wasn't even wearing a shirt or anything related to our sit-in—we had no reason to think that they would be retaliated against.

KABAS: That's baffling

Back to the memo sent out to everyone from Chris Rackow, one line really jumped out which is, “If you're one of the few who are tempted to think we're going to overlook conduct that violates our policies, think again.” How did you interpret that? Did you see that as a threat?

IBRAHEEM: That's a threat. That is without a doubt a threat. They're just saying, “Hey, don't even dare to think that you can do what these people did.”

KABAS: I think people define the effectiveness or the success of a protest in different ways. How would you define whether or not this protest is successful? 

IBRAHEEM: I believe it is successful right now, like just by the response that we've seen. We did not believe that this one protest was going to get Project Nimbus dropped. It was more that we believed that we wanted to encourage more people to stand up against this contract. We wanted to activate more tech workers, to let them know that there are people who are willing to stand up against their company's complicity in this genocide. So I think from the response we've seen, internally at Google, people supporting us and the people reaching out to join No Tech For Apartheid, I'd say this is a huge success.

KABAS: Now that you're not able to protest from the inside because you're not working there anymore, what do you hope that people who remain at Google will do next?

IBRAHEEM: I hope they organize—maybe not the same action, but I hope they do their best to make their voices heard, because a lot of these people are just hearing about this protest for the first time. And we've seen so much support for the people who have been arrested, for the people who have been fired, and we've seen a lot of pushback against the email that got sent out. And I think all of these things together are making people realize, what's going on at Google? And I truly believe people are gonna make their voices heard regardless of the threat that was made.

KABAS: What was some of the internal pushback about the memo?

IBRAHEEM: I mean, very, very reasonably, we were seeing just responses from people saying that like, it seemed threatening. That it seemed a bit much in response to Google employees just sitting-in, in their workspace peacefully, saying, “Hey, drop Project Nimbus or come talk to us about it. Have some sort of conversation with us.” It was a complete overreaction on Google's part to not only fire everyone who was and wasn't involved, but then also threaten everyone else in the company who would dare think to stand up against this. And people are taking notice that it feels like a very fascist environment.

Banner in New York office (via No Tech For Apartheid)

KABAS: I was looking back, and in the past, Google employees have resigned as a result of company retaliation against their activism and some, like you, have been fired. Why in this specific case do you think they took the more extreme action of going straight to firing you?

IBRAHEEM: I think they're scared. I think Google is genuinely afraid of their workers standing up against this project. We know that we [No Tech For Apartheid] are a worker-led organization, even though many times they have tried to paint us as an external group that doesn't represent actual employees. But no, we are Google employees. That's why we all were fired. And Google understands the power that we have, and they are afraid that by more of us speaking up, that they will actually have to do something about it.

KABAS: How can other tech workers support your efforts?

IBRAHEEM: Share the story. Share as far as it can reach. Tell more people about what we're doing. Speak out against your own company if it is complicit in this genocide. A lot of tech companies are—Amazon is also in this [Project Nimbus] contract with Google and Israel. And we have Intel who is also complicit in this genocide. So if you're at one of these tech companies, stand up against them, and if you're not, share the story. And I think we'll have more ways to support our cause going forward.

KABAS: What comes next for you?

IBRAHEEM: That's a great question. I think 28 people right now are all trying to figure out what comes next. For me personally, I'm gonna continue to speak up against this as long as I can make my voice heard. Even if I'm not internally at Google, I've been going to Palestinian protests. I will continue to go to more protests. I'll go to protest against Google. I'll go to protest against anyone who's complicit in genocide—that's first and foremost. And then we can figure out about getting a new job later.

KABAS: And I'm just curious, do you have a personal connection to Palestine? What got you really clued into this particular issue?

I'm Syrian. I'm Muslim. But I'm human, and that should be enough for anyone to have a connection to Palestine.

KABAS: What would be your message to the world right now?

IBRAHEEM: Stand up and make your voices heard, even if it might be scary. Even if you might face retaliation. Even if you're alone—because people need it right now.

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