Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has described Amazon’s dismissal of a black warehouse worker as “racist” after leaked notes revealed senior executives had planned to publicly discredit him. 

On Friday, the Democrat used the words of Amazon’s own executive board by saying that “Amazon’s attempt to smear Chris Smalls, one of their own warehouse workers, as ‘not smart or articulate’ is a racist & classist PR campaign.”

According to leaked notes obtained by VICE News, Amazon executives used a meeting with CEO Jeff Bezos to mock former warehouse employee Chris Smalls for being “not smart or articulate”.

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

Mr Smalls was dismissed on the day he helped organise a mass walkout at the Staten Island, New York City, distribution centre in protest at conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, Amazon said Mr Smalls had been sacked because he had been “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk”.

However, notes leaked from a daily meeting of Amazon’s executive leadership team show how senior bosses believed firing the black worker would produce better PR for the company.

“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” said David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, in the meeting notes obtained by VICE.

The document also describes how Amazon executives wanted to make Mr Smalls, who had worked for the company for five years, the face of a public battle between Amazon and workers questioning safety.

Mr Zapolsky added: “We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organiser’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety,”

“Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organising movement.”

An Amazon spokesperson denied that the proposed strategy was racially motivated, saying: “That’s not true. In fact, Mr Zapolsky didn’t even know the race of the person at the time he made his comments.”

Mr Smalls told CNN last week that the company had not responded to calls for sterilisation at the Staten Island site after a number of confirmed coronavirus cases. He added:

“Amazon would rather fire workers than face up to its total failure to do what it should to keep us, our families, and our communities safe.”

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