By Chris Barton, Co-Editor
Last Friday, our new president signed an executive order which banned immigration from seven majority Muslim countries and blocks all Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The responses to the ban were immediate, impassioned, and divisive. Chaos erupted as immigration officials tried to parse through the unclear order; travelers were detained at airports; protests sprung up across the country; petitions flew around the internet; the ACLU got involved; federal judges stayed part of the order; the White House changed its tune and allowed green card holders in; America’s allies decried it; the GOP fractured over it; the Attorney General was fired for ordering the courts not to defend it and… many, many people deleted Uber.
How did Uber, a relatively innocuous ride sharing app, became a victim of Donald Trump’s immigration policy? The story shows how the new administration’s divisive policies have forced America to draw battle lines – and driven everyone, including corporations, to either pick a side or risk being assigned one.
It all started with a spontaneous protest at JFK airport in New York on Saturday night, when it became clear that two Iraqi refugees were being held at the airport. A protest materialized outside the airport, and as word quickly spread (with Michael Moore’s help), hundreds of people crammed onto the sidewalks outside the terminal and up into the parking structure behind it. Among them were a number of lawyers who arrived ready to work pro-bono to get the refugees released. Protesters made clear that they would not leave until those held at the airport were let free.
Transportation to and from JFK had become a mess. Originally the Port Authority had restricted access to the airport to only those with boarding passes, until New York’s Governor Cuomo weighed in:
I have ordered the Port Authority to reverse its decision regarding the JFK AirTrain. The people of New York will have their voices heard. pic.twitter.com/zwGOYgzQPg
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) January 29, 2017
Knowing that the train was open, and in solidarity with the protesters, the New York Taxi Worker’s Alliance decided to stop servicing JFK, and released this statement, to the delight of those at the airport:
MORE: @NYTWA, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, on Pres. Trump’s immigration order: “We say no to this inhumane and unconstitutional ban.” pic.twitter.com/K4CEQ0PEUS — ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 28, 2017
The protest was growing in both size and intensity. The resolute solidarity of last week’s Women’s March had melded with the fear and indignation set off by Trump’s executive order, and had mobilized NYC’s left-leaning population into a roiling, reactionary cauldron of frustration and outrage. Into this volatile mixture Uber dropped a seemingly innocuous tweet:
Surge pricing has been turned off at #JFK Airport. This may result in longer wait times. Please be patient.
— Uber NYC (@Uber_NYC) January 29, 2017
Fueled by the passion of the moment, Twitter’s reaction came swiftly and without mercy:
And just like that, #deleteuber was tearing across social media, with people deleting their accounts left and right. It quickly came to light that Uber’s CEO (Travis Kalanick) sits on Trump’s economic advisory board, which only fanned the flames already lapping at Uber’s user base. The exact number of people who deleted their account is unavailable, but so many people tried to do it that Uber actually had to change the process by which accounts are deleted, automating it so that the influx of requests didn’t crash their system. Meanwhile, Lyft came out strongly against the immigration order – and doubled down by donating a million dollars to the ACLU. Sunday was the first time, ever, that Lyft downloads outnumbered Uber downloads. As their customer base quickly drained away, Uber responded:
Last tweet not meant to break strike. Our CEO’s statement opposing travel ban and compensating those impacted: https://t.co/joWvPvux9J
— Uber NYC (@Uber_NYC) January 29, 2017
Uber offered to compensate its drivers who were stuck outside the country, pro bono, in order to help them make ends meet until they were back home. Travis Kalanick defended his choice to join Trump’s business advisory panel (which also includes Elon Musk), basically claiming that it’s better to have a seat at the table in order to advocate for “what’s right” than be left in the cold. Uber’s tepid, belated statement – which stopped short of actually condemning the immigration ban – held little water compared to the strong words of Lyft, and likely did little to halt the mass exodus.
The question, though, is this: did Uber deserve to suffer the wrath of the protesters? Maybe. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why one would choose not to support Uber, but the strike-breaking argument doesn’t entirely hold up. Normally, when there is high demand in an area, Uber’s algorithms raise the price of rides from that area. This is called surge pricing. Disgruntled riders have claimed that this amounts to price gauging, but Uber has a different explanation: The rise in price is to attract more drivers to the area. Uber can’t command its drivers to head to areas with high demand, but it can offer them a larger fare if they are willing to go there. When demand for Uber rides is high, the fare gets more expensive, which draws more drivers out onto the road, which satisfies the demand.
With the taxis boycotting JFK on Saturday, demand for Ubers was likely very high. Normally, this would have automatically activated surge pricing, drawing more drivers to the area, organizing more rides at higher prices, making Uber a lot of money, and effectively crossing the Taxi Alliance’s picket line. But Uber turned off surge pricing, which meant that there weren’t more drivers than normal at JFK, despite the high demand. If Uber was trying to profit off the taxi strike, it should have done the opposite of what it did. And it’s worth pointing out that Lyft had price surging on during the strike, and was still operating at JFK.
Why Uber kept drivers away from JFK is unclear; there may still have been a nefarious reason, such as wanting to distance the company from any anti-Trump activity since Kalanick and Trump are now buddies. But it doesn’t really matter, because Uber’s major mistake had nothing to do with sending drivers to JFK – where they messed up was in assuming that their operations were somehow outside politics.
The protesters were angry, they were frustrated, and they were desperate for some way to make a difference and push back against a policy that they vehemently disagreed with. In such a heated situation, the gray area disappears – for much of the country, the operational paradigm was, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Spokespeople and executives from companies such as Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Amazon, and Starbucks came out against the ban, making it clear which side they were on. Howard Schultz of Starbucks proclaimed, “We will neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new administration’s actions grows with each passing day.”
Standing silent was exactly what Uber had done. It had not engaged in the conversation, assumedly hoping to remain apolitical. But a week of divisive politics had eroded the possibility of neutrality, and the immigration ban was the last straw. Lines had been drawn at JFK airport, and with nothing more than a mildly worded tweet, Uber slipped onto the wrong side of the line. Instantaneously, the pent-up fury of the protest turned on Uber. They might not be able to rescind the executive order or release the detainees at the airport, but every single person could open up their phones and delete the app. It was easy. It was satisfying. People on Twitter would retweet the angry message you sent as you deleted it. It was the right thing to do. Oh, the validation; the catharsis. #nobannowall #refugeeswelcome #deleteuber.
Meanwhile, Lyft continued to operate at JFK, with surge pricing on. But a willingness to engage in the politics of the hour shielded the company from criticism. Lyft declared itself an ally, and that declaration bluntly deflected any scrutiny. It took days for people to notice that Lyft also has strong ties to the Trump administration.
The lesson in all of this is that in today’s dystopian America, there is no neutral. Attempting to stay apolitical only opens the door for others to assign politics to you. The protesters hastily painted Uber in political hues that drove people away in droves, while Lyft painted itself in hues that drew people in. Neither portrayal was honest, but one was at least strategic.
It seems increasingly unlikely that any company, organization, or individual will be able to stay neutral long. The lines have been drawn. Pick a side, or have it picked for you.