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A Fired Google Engineer on Protesting the Company’s ‘Terrible Path in Their Pursuit of Money at the Expense of Human Life’

Zelda is part of a group of workers fired after participating in last week's No Tech for Apartheid demonstration.

Googlers participating in the NYC office sit-in to protest Project Nimbus.
(Photo courtesy of Zelda)

It's an established fact that Israel is using AI to select targets for its drone strikes in Gaza. For a handful of Google employees, that was enough information to spur them to action against the $1.2 billion cloud computing contract their company has with the Israeli government—including specific work with the Israel Defense Ministry. In March, a Google Cloud software engineer was fired after disrupting a Google executive's talk at an Israeli tech conference, and as of early April, two more Google workers reportedly resigned from their roles at the company in protest of the cloud contract, a collaboration with Amazon dubbed Project Nimbus.

Zelda, a No Tech for Apartheid organizer and—as of last week— now a former Google engineer, said they were extremely disturbed when found out about Project Nimbus last October, and Google's previous AI military contract work with the U.S. government, Project Maven, which sparked its own wave of protests by Google employees back in 2018. "What's especially concerning to me is that workers are very plugged out of the impact of their work and how it might be used," they said. "Increasingly, this company is more like a military contracting firm than anything."

That's why they felt it was so important to help organize and participate in the sit-in against Project Nimbus in Google's New York City office last week, which led to their being let go from the company. "I believe in the Palestinian liberation cause, and I feel very strongly about anti-militarism in general, and that's why I was willing to put my job on the line. That's why I got arrested," Zelda, who asked that we only use their first name due to concerns over retaliation, said. 

What they did not expect, however, was the scale of Google's retaliation against employees. So far, Google has fired more than 50 workers in the wake of the protest. No Tech for Apartheid says many of those fired had no role, and barely any participation, in the Sunnyvale and New York City sit-ins; Google, on the other hand, claims that "every single one of those whose employment was terminated was personally and definitively involved in disruptive activity inside our buildings."

Zelda isn't going to fight for their place back at Google, despite the fact that the 23-year-old has worked there on and off since 2018. Instead, they said they're focusing their energy on activating and organizing other tech workers. "Google is afraid, and there's a reason that they're afraid: They know that workers are the ones that ultimately have the power to direct their own labor," they said. "And even in spite of all of the repression that we're seeing, all the retaliation and firings, I still get messages every day from workers asking me, 'How do I get involved?' To me, that speaks volumes."

We talked to Zelda about the workplace harassment they said they experienced at Google, getting arrested, and what's next for No Tech for Apartheid. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hell Gate: When did you start talking to your coworkers about Project Nimbus, and actually organizing a bigger action around it?

Zelda: It was a lot of months in the making of trying to build up the worker power and build up people's trust in one another. There was a pretty big group of us in New York City who were part of No Tech for Apartheid and who work at Google. I was very regularly out in the streets protesting, and I was there with people that I was also organizing with internally, so that made it feel a lot more comfortable to say, "What if we do something more escalated inside the office?" Especially as we were seeing more and more articles come out about the use of AI in this genocide—I really couldn't bear going to work every day, trying not to do something about the state of the world and the genocide taking place, and Google's complicity in it. 

It used to bother me a lot to walk into the office and feel like we were all living a fake life. I would sit there and there was like a cognitive dissonance to being in the space of like, wow, like our technology could very much well be causing all of this destruction that we're seeing in the world and everyone here is just having a grand old time and not having to think about it. 

Around mid-December, I started doing a lot of tabling in the office. I would sit during my lunchtime with a little sign that I taped to the back of my laptop that said, "Ask me about Project Nimbus." I had some fliers next to me, and if someone came up to me, I would tell them about it. I would say a good 95 percent of the time, people were really surprised to hear that Google had this contract with Israel. I actually made so many friends that way—people who still regularly check in with me and see how I'm doing, especially because after a while tabling, I started getting harassed and doxxed and spied on in the office. 

What was the harassment like? 

Back in February, we had a "Day of Solidarity with Palestine" lunch in the New York City office, along with some other offices. The email that I sent out about the lunch got leaked with my name on it, which was a violation of company policy, and then there was a picture of me at the lunch that was shared to Twitter. I also saw my picture was getting shared around internal mailing lists at Google, and people were discussing who let me in—implying that I don't really work there, which I thought was a very discriminatory comment to make. Or, "Who pays them?" I'm like, the same person that pays you, buddy!

But I didn't engage with people, because I knew that that's not where my efforts would be. I started receiving messages from people who were in other internal mailing lists and chats that I wasn't a part of, that were really led by Zionists. People were sending me screenshots to say, "I'm not sure if you've been seeing this, but these people have been talking about you." They were calling me a terrorist supporter, antisemitic, and it got to a point where they were starting to discuss approaching me in person and saying something to me.

How did Google respond? 

Throughout this entire time, I filed 14 concerns with Google's HR, and I didn't hear back from most of them. I started escalating to Google security because I was saying, "Hey, I'm really afraid for my safety here. I know the exact people who are doing all this, because it's all happening on corporate channels where their identities are directly linked to where they're posting. I keep reporting these people and nothing's happening, and now they're talking about approaching me in person." The security person responded to me, saying, "Well, have they come up to you yet?" I was like, "Well, no, but I'm scared that they're going to be aggressive towards me."

Can you walk us through the day of the action? How did that go?

I got to the office pretty early at around 8 a.m. We had been doing some recon about where we wanted to sit-in—wanting to make sure that there was enough foot traffic, but we didn't want to be blocking any foot traffic ourselves. We were very cognizant of not being incredibly disruptive to Google workers, because we were also trying to bring them into this. 

We ended up in an open staircase that goes down two floors, so we could impact the 10th floor, the ninth floor and the eighth floor. We did the banner drop at 11:55 a.m. and we sat down at 12 p.m. Some people who were actually actively sitting, there were some of us who knew that we were not going to move, even when asked, until the project is dropped or until they wanted to arrest us, which is ultimately what they ended up doing. And the rest of the people went outside or were inside flyering. We read some testimonies, and people also read some poems, such as Refaat Alareer's "If I Must Die." 

How did people in the office respond? 

There were a lot of workers who came by, and we handed out flyers to those workers. I don't really have a great sense of timing, because I didn't have my phone on me for safety reasons. But I would say by the two-hour mark, the four people who were engaging in the sit-in who were not going to get up and leave remained, and everybody else had left. We still had workers who are unaffiliated with the action and unaffiliated with No Tech for Apartheid who would come by throughout the day and thank us for what we were doing. 

A lot of other people were just wanting to learn, like, why. "Why do you four feel so strongly about this?" We spoke to them and explained why we felt it's necessary for workers' voices to be listened to in the workplace, that we had been raising concerns internally about Project Nimbus, and about all the retaliation, harassment, and discrimination that workers were facing; for speaking up against Project Nimbus and speaking up in defense of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim workers during this time; and how our leadership didn't do anything about it. Most of the time, it was very, very calm. We talked, we played card games—we played Uno. We had some snacks and people brought us food, but we were afraid to accept help from people because we didn't want to implicate them in potential retaliation for bringing us food or something. 

As it got later, every time that somebody would come by and want to chat with us, we'd say, "Hey, just be careful. Security really does not like that we're here right now, and that we're doing this. We'd love to talk to you, but we want to keep you safe, so if you have any concerns about potential retaliation, I would go if I were you."

Around 7 p.m., they told us we had our access revoked from the office and that we were no longer allowed to be there. So security asked us to leave, and we said we're not going to be leaving the premises.

At that point, security told us that we couldn't use the bathrooms anymore, because we had been using the bathrooms in the office. I was like, "OK, are you gonna stop me? Because I know you can't touch me." And security was like, "I'll stand in your way." I'll be honest, and I don't mind if this is on the record, but I did have an adult diaper on. I was technically prepared, but I really didn't want to use it.

Mid sit-in Uno. (Courtesy of Zelda.)

Yeah. Oh my gosh. 

But since it was 7 p.m., there were still people walking by, so I just got loud and I was like, "THIS GUY DOESN'T WANT ME TO USE THE BATHROOM!" And he got embarrassed and ended up leaving, so then we were able to use the bathroom anyway. 

The NYPD came in at around 9:30 p.m. We were surprised, because we had people from No Tech for Apartheid keeping tabs on all the entrances to the office to try to warn us when they saw NYPD going in to do the arrest. But we got cuffed and taken down a freight elevator, and the freight elevator led to this garage with an NYPD van already parked in there.

I was like, "Oh, I see what you guys did. You really didn't want there to be pictures and coverage of this." It felt like they took a lot of precautions to make sure that it was very discreet. At that point, we got taken to the precinct. We spent almost four hours there, and when we were released, there were a lot of people outside cheering for us. It was like, 2 a.m. at that point, and I was glad to be out.

How many people were arrested and what you were charged with, if anything?

Four of us in New York City were arrested, and five in Sunnyvale. I was given a desk appearance ticket, but the police weren't very communicative in general. I think technically it was a Class B misdemeanor for trespassing? They just told us that it wasn't a big deal. The cops were saying that we basically really weren't doing much wrong, which I also thought was interesting. They were like, "This is so unserious, don't worry about your record or anything." I had asked the officers if they had ever arrested a tech nerd before and they were like, "No, this would be my first time." 

And then when did you hear from Google that you'd been fired?

It was around 7:30 p.m. the next day. I was having dinner with one of the other people who had gotten arrested, because we were just processing everything.

At first, I just thought that it was the people who got arrested who got fired, so I was like, OK, that's to be expected. Then I started seeing all these other people who were, for example, flyering outside or helping with the rally that was outside of the office. And I was like, "Oh my God, these people are also getting fired."

Then there was an email that leaked, the [Google Global Head of Security] Chris Rackow email that was saying that they had terminated 28 employees. And [it said] something like, "if you think about violating policy, think again," which was such a threatening email. Honestly, that alone should be enough to agitate workers to want to stand up like Google leadership, because that was really scary to read. And yeah, then in the wake of that, they started placing more people on administrative leave and firing them—in total, around 50 of us.

You asked me earlier if I knew that I was going to get fired and arrested. I think that I was prepared for it, but also, working at Google had become such a nightmare for me. I was having literal nightmares thinking about having to go into the office and have to see the people who are harassing me. This was something that I had chosen to do, knowing that this place was already incredibly unsafe for me. But it was very devastating and heartbreaking to see the scale of indiscriminate retaliatory action by Google. I was just very disheartened. I don't think that any of us anticipated this kind of response from them. And honestly, to me, it begs the question of what it is that they're hiding that we don't know about, that they're going this hard to go after anyone who's speaking up against this contract as part of the action—whether they were participants in it or just bystanders.

In the wake of all of this, I'm pouring so much of myself into No Tech for Apartheid. Workers ultimately are the ones who have the capacity to stop this genocide by withholding labor. Prior to the sit-in, we didn't have enough workers who even knew about Project Nimbus to think about something like a strike. Now, we're thinking about how we can continue to bring people into No Tech for Apartheid and build some real worker resistance, to be able to say, "No tech for genocide, no tech for oppression, no tech for surveillance."

I think that ultimately our "leaders"—I say leaders in quotes—have really led Google down a terrible path in their pursuit of money at the expense of human life. Tech workers, especially at Google, tend to be in a really privileged position of making a lot of money and not having to think so much about how the things they are getting paid to do might be causing such atrocities and destruction in the world. Some people say there's no place for politics in the workplace and that this sit-in wasn't the right response to Project Nimbus. But I didn't bring politics into the workplace. Google entered a geopolitical contract, and they brought politics into the workplace. It is our responsibility and duty as workers to engage critically with the direction that our leadership goes in. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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