Posted on October 6, 2020

The Turmoil over ‘Black Lives Matter’ and Political Speech at Coinbase

Gregory Barber, Wired, October 5, 2020

In early June, a week after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, employees at Coinbase gathered, virtually, for an emotional meeting. In the previous few days, mirroring workplaces elsewhere, the company’s Slack channels had been filled with comments about the nationwide protests and demands for more support for Black employees. In the background hovered a specific question: Would Coinbase and its CEO, Brian Armstrong, make a public statement about Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement, as so many Silicon Valley companies had? In an earlier email, Armstrong had told employees that he was hurting along with his employees, but stopped short of that commitment. {snip} So that day, Armstrong was there to listen.

Many of the speakers were members of Colorblock, the company’s internal resource group that includes many Black employees. Attendees describe the conversation as raw, with speakers and viewers in tears. Black employees described feeling invisible at a company that had not publicly acknowledged their pain, and like “a clown” for trying to defend Coinbase’s inaction to outsiders. Coinbase, an exchange for buying and selling cryptocurrency, is not necessarily a household name. But it had grown into an influential force in Silicon Valley, especially in the past three years as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies went more mainstream. And the company’s stance mattered to many of its more than 1,000 employees.

The next day, Armstrong attempted to address the subject in a company all-hands meeting. The effort quickly unraveled. The CEO began by acknowledging the pain of the speakers the previous day, but then turned to a discussion of Coinbase’s mission of “economic freedom” and its “apolitical” culture. His waffling in response to a question of whether racism was linked to that mission appeared to light a fire. Pressed on whether the company would say the words “Black Lives Matter,” Armstrong again demurred. “TBD,” he said, adding that language had been drafted but that he had more to learn about what such a statement would mean.

The reaction was swift. Dozens of employees began posting “Black Lives Matter” in internal Slack channels, and executives in the meeting, including Armstrong, hastily added that they did personally believe that “Black Lives Matter.” But a virtual “walkout” had already begun to spread—through the customer experience team, the employee resource groups, like Colorblock, and the engineering teams. Senior engineers encouraged junior staff to close their laptops in solidarity.

The sudden work stoppage appeared to speed up Armstrong’s education. Within hours, a lengthy Twitter thread appeared on his personal account. He wrote the words “Black Lives Matter,” reiterated his support for Black employees at the company, and announced plans for Coinbase to donate to causes chosen by staff. “I really did not know what to say about it for a long time, and I’m still not sure I do. But I’ve been getting educated,” he wrote. In an apologetic email to staff the next day, Armstrong also announced measures to improve diversity and inclusion at Coinbase, including more listening sessions with employees and a commitment that 20 percent of engineers hired out of college would be from underrepresented groups. (In 2020, by that point, it was 3 percent, according to the email.) {snip}

But in subsequent weeks, the tone changed, past and current employees say. The first moves were subtle. Executives tightened control on internal communications, eliminating the popular all-hands format in which staff could openly question executives. In August, they issued new guidelines for discussion of political causes at work ahead of the presidential election.

Then, at another all-hands meeting in late September, and in a later blog post, Armstrong took a firmer stand. Coinbase would not engage in “social activism,” he wrote, outside of the company’s core mission of “building an open financial system,” arguing that strife attributable to activism had hurt productivity at companies like Google and Facebook. “Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts,” he wrote, in a direct reference to June.

On Tuesday, Armstrong further upped the ante, offering severance packages for any employees who disagreed with the company’s “new direction.” {snip} Staff were given one week to either jump ship or get on board with the vision, however they interpreted it.

Those actions—taken, in large part, with public flourish—have made Armstrong a lightning rod in a Silicon Valley culture war, set against a broader American one. Ironically, they’ve put Coinbase and its employees in the thick of a political debate far outside the bounds of the company’s core mission—precisely what Armstrong said he hoped to avoid.

To many, the move to limit activism clashed with Silicon Valley’s long tradition of free speech, and recent employee protests at tech giants. These people also fear Armstrong’s stand—and potentially copycats it may inspire—will slow or reverse the tech industry’s small gains to be more inclusive to women and minorities. Plus, drawing lines about speech is simply impractical, they say, especially at a company whose mission involves financial access. But for others—most prominently, some start-up founders and venture capitalists, some of whom have long railed against workplace activism and “cancel culture” in Silicon Valley—it articulated what had made the tech industry successful: a pure, inward focus on the product.

Within the company, the lines are more blurred. Some workers have cheered Armstrong’s decision, often quietly for fear of pushback from colleagues. (The “silent majority,” Armstrong called them at a company all-hands Thursday, according to an attendee.) Others have taken Armstrong’s offer and quit, or are actively discussing whether to do so with their colleagues.

But for many, the reaction has been fear and confusion. The CEO’s apparent redefinition of company culture felt personal, hinging on the pressure Armstrong felt from employees to say Black Lives Matter. They view the statement as moral, not political or activist. “A lot of people feel that saying Black lives matter is an ethical statement. They feel it should be an easy thing to say,” one engineer says. Armstrong said in June that he agreed with the statement, and that police brutality was a problem. But he wavered on whether a statement that included “Black Lives Matter” would mean endorsing BLM as an organization and set of policies, like defunding police. {snip}