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America’s Great Racial Reckoning Comes To The Auto Industry As Some Ford Employees Call For End Of Cop Car Manufacturing

America’s Great Racial Reckoning Comes To The Auto Industry As Some Ford Employees Call For End Of Cop Car Manufacturing
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Getty Images)
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Some American corporations have been forced to come to Jesus in the past few weeks with acknowledgements of racial insensitivity, failures in workplace diversity, and other contributions to institutional racism — but for the most part this reckoning has largely bypassed the automotive industry. Or so we thought, before hearing that Ford Motor Company has a situation brewing that could lead to a re-examination of the automaker’s role in law enforcement.

According to a tip in the Jalopnik inbox, a number of Black Ford employees came together to raise concern about their employer’s manufacture of police vehicles. (We have since received clarification that the letter was written composed by a group of Black and white Ford employees.) Ford wouldn’t be the first company to come under scrutiny for making equipment for law enforcement, as folks around the country are raising flags about who gets contracts to produce what for use by police. From small players like bike companies — such as Trek, who makes police bikes — to behemoths like Amazon and its facial-recognition technology a number of companies are facing pressure now, and Ford certainly isn’t the first company with internal revolt.

But questions of Ford’s share in the law-enforcement market couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the automaker, as events in addition to the uprising related to the death of George Floyd might have to force some uncomfortable conversations for Ford CEO Jim Hackett — who, according to our tipster, quickly rejected the idea of Ford halting sales of police vehicles.

Back story: Ford gets tons of free visibility from making cop cars, even if they’re not an irreplaceable part of the revenue picture. Per a recent release, two-thirds of police vehicles in the U.S. are Fords. The Crown Victoria interceptor probably comes to mind first, but it was discontinued in 2011. Today Ford’s law enforcement business rolls on with utilitarian versions of Explorers, F-150s, Expeditions, Fusions and Transits. No matter where you live or where you go, you’re guaranteed to see at least one service vehicle in action wearing a Blue Oval. It reinforces the brand in your mind. And as a bonus, being the chosen vehicle of law enforcement agencies gives Ford one more bragging right over their American rivals.

Because Ford essentially owns the police market, and because police departments are not going to switch to bikes and scooters anytime soon the automaker probably isn’t in a hurry to jump out of the police car business, even if it wouldn’t send them on a path to bankruptcy. Think about your town. Do you, like a good majority of Americans, live in a red state or a city or town with a government that prides itself on purchasing Made In America goods and maybe, totally misinterpreting parts of the constitution? Imagine the public relations headache emanating from areas like yours if Ford canceled thousands of contracts across the country with those kinds of elected officials, and then imagine if all of those towns told their populations to stop buying Fords because a Detroit company is infringing on their freedom or first-amendment rights or some crazy shit.

Giving up what on paper, amounts to a handful of fleet sales, could easily snowball into something more, which is why the automaker is fast approaching a moral crossroads. Ford’s African-Ancestry Network, or FAAN, is one of the company’s intra-office affinity groups — which also includes individual networks of LGBT, women, Hispanic, interfaith employees and more — that promotes workplace diversity while also performing community service on behalf of the automaker outside the office. According to a tip that came in after the this post was published, it was members of FAAN who, in a meeting with FAAN leadership, suggested ending sales to certain abusive police departments. FAAN leadership did not agree to bring that suggestion to Ford leadership.

But, a letter to Hackett and company chairman Bill Ford is circulating at Ford’s headquarters, with employees being asked to digitally sign. According to some of the text of the letter:

On June 1st, you communicated to the company your commitment to “lead from the front and fully commit to creating the fair, just and inclusive culture that our employees deserve.” We thank you for your leadership on this initiative. We also appreciate and fully support your statement against “superficial actions,” and we write to push for real action by Ford Motor Company to address our role in the structures that perpetuate racism in society.

On May 25th, 2020 George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police, alongside a Ford Police Interceptor. Days later, police officers drove Ford Police Interceptors into crowds of protesters in New York City and Los Angeles. During these past weeks, our vehicles have been used to deploy chemical weapons banned by the Geneva Convention.

Throughout our history, the vehicles that Ford employees design and build have been used as accessories to police brutality and oppression. We know that while many join, support, or supply law enforcement with good intentions, these racist policing practices that plague our society are historic and systemic—a history and system perpetuated by Ford for over 70 years—ever since Ford introduced the first-ever police package in 1950. As an undeniable part of that history and system, we are long overdue to “think and act differently” on our role in racism.

Something that stood out to me is Ford’s stance on “superficial actions,” which I’m guessing is a sub toward the many, many public gestures of alliance to Black Lives Matter, ranging from those empty #brand statements of white text on black backgrounds to murals painted on streets that we’re already forgetting about. It’s obvious Ford suggested it wanted to avoid that kind of empty lip service and instead pledged to make real change when an opportunity presents itself.

From the looks of it, no one in Ford’s C-suite was actually expecting such an opportunity to come.

Hackett reportedly caught wind of the letter early in its circulation, or was at least tipped off to the sentiment, and immediately issued an office memo — in something called “The Huddle” internally — saying that while Ford has been vocal about supporting Black Lives Matter and other efforts aimed toward diversity and inclusion, the company believes that there is no conflict between doing these things and continuing to make police cars. Here’s part of that memo:

First, it should be clear both Bill Ford and I believe deeply that there is no room for the systemic repression and racism that have been exhibited by law enforcement encounters gone wrong. We’ve said clearly that Black Lives Matter and I am personally driving a review of our Diversity and Inclusion rituals, practices and behaviors. We do believe strongly that more transparency and accountability is required in police operations.

Second, we also believe the first responders that protect us play an extraordinarily important role in the vitality and safety of our society. Our world wouldn’t function without the bravery and dedication of the good police officers who protect and serve. But safety of community must be inclusive of all members and today, it is not.

Holding these two thoughts together in one’s mind is possible, but now there is tension. It’s our belief the recent issues surfacing from the George Floyd tragedy are bringing a very intensive and necessary spotlight on police training and reform. In fact, I sit on the Business Roundtable, an organization comprised of CEOs from America’s leading companies, which has committed its shared energy to the work on police training and reform.

(We asked a Ford representative for comment on this story, we were referred to Hackett’s message in The Huddle which is posted in full in the comments.)

I try not to nit-pick, but what exactly is a diversity “ritual?” Do you have to cast spells to create a healthy environment for Ford employees of color? Are there wizards on the Dearborn proving grounds? Does a voodoo priestess say a chant over the hood over every third Mustang so that a Black customer will be enchanted to buy one the moment they step into a dealer? But jokes aside, I do question what Hackett says when he says “our world,” because is he really talking about the world outside Dearborn, or just the world for rich white guys making $17 million a year?

But here’s where, in my opinion, it gets a little, uh...yikes. Bolded parts are my emphasis:

It’s not controversial that the Ford Police Interceptor helps officers do their job. The issues plaguing police credibility have nothing to do with the vehicles they’re driving. In fact, as we imagine the future power of our connected vehicles, smarter Ford vehicles can be used to not only improve officers’ ability to protect and serve, but also provide data that can make police safer and more accountable. Just think, dating back to the Model T, Ford has more than 100 years in serving first responders and that leadership over the decades has been earned by co-developing our purpose-built vehicles and technologies with police and emergency agencies to make our vehicles the number one choice.

By taking away our Police Interceptors, we would be doing harm to their safety and making it harder for them to do their job. Again, this is why, given our insights, new capabilities and leadership, I believe these unfortunate circumstances present Ford with an even greater opportunity to not only innovate new solutions but also leverage our unique position to support the dialogue and reform needed to create safer communities for all.

I’m not a marketing whiz, but I am Black with common sense and I don’t think it’s wise for Ford to try to “leverage” deaths of Black people to make better police cars.

But both the letter and concerns and Hackett’s memo went around before Sunday, when during a demonstration in Detroit — where, incidentally, Ford is planning to move a large number of employees, which we’ll revisit in just a sec — a number of protesters were hit by Detroit Police officers driving through the crowd. Their vehicle? A Ford Police Interceptor Utility, or a police version of the Explorer.

The video is terrifying, no matter which side you take. But you might have to take one, since there’s debate over exactly what happened here: Activists say they were peaceful and that the police intentionally hit a protestor, while Detroit Police Chief James Craig* said that one of the protesters smashed out a back window of the SUV which officers thought was a gunshot, prompting them to get out of the scene as quickly as they could.

(*And here’s where I disclose two things: One, in another life, I used to write ad copy for Ford, including some very boring lines about small-town police departments using Crown Victorias in the 1950s, while working for Ford’s ad agency of record. And second, in a more recent life, I used to work for Detroit city government, and sat behind Chief Craig [still a secret Jalop, I think] each Wednesday morning for an hour in mayor’s cabinet meetings. You might say I’m biased, but I’ll say I’ve seen sausage made in a lot of factories which gives me some unique perspective. That all said, I’ve always taken the position that neither the public employees I used to work with nor contractors of a billion-dollar conglomerate are above criticism or scrutiny, so argue with me later.)

If Ford’s Black employees are anything like me, they’re probably wondering about how all this will play out as their employer moves further into the city of Detroit after years in Dearborn, which makes this even more complicated. You might recall that two years ago, Ford bought Michigan Central Station, which is inside Detroit’s city limits, with grand plans to turn the old, vacant train station into an innovation and mobility hub. (A sweet part of that mayor’s office gig was watching my colleagues buzzing like caffeine-addled bees in the days leading up to the announcement, by the way. I thought we were going to give away another goddamn key to the city or some shit.)

Detroit is a city that’s nearly 80 percent Black, and Corktown, the neighborhood Ford’s moving to, has been the focus of a bit of controversy itself. Its second-most recognizable landmark behind the train station is a popular-at-auto-show-time barbecue restaurant owned by a white guy who arrived in Detroit after an underwear modeling career and then became an icon of this Black city during a time when the majority of its residents were in financial distress. It borders the heavily Latino part of Detroit, which has prompted concerns of gentrification there if Ford gets too comfortable. (And we won’t get into the fact that Ford’s current hometown, Dearborn, basically had a white supremacist mayor for decades whose bigoted ideals still linger to this day.)

Obviously an automaker making police equipment when police brutality against Blacks is at its height creates tension around said automaker’s plans to create a large footprint in a Black and Brown city — one they might accidentally gentrify. (Or maybe not if that automaker holds to a number of community benefits agreements signed with some of my former co-workers.)

And you’d be remiss not to mention Ford’s long, complicated history with Black Detroiters that’s almost as old as the company itself. Black Detroiters can’t deny that most of us wear that identifier because Henry Ford practically built this town as we know it. Several of our ancestors came to Detroit from the South, including my great-uncles, to work in Ford’s factories. Ford’s roots are intertwined in all of our family trees here. My dad’s father retired from a Ford plant — and became a police detective driving a Crown Vic. My mom’s father owned a house literally owned by a Ford in-law. Almost all of my relatives drive a Ford, thanks to all of us passing around friends-and-family PINs (which technically you’re not supposed to do if you’re not an immediate relative, but shout-outs to the hardworking car salesmen and saleswomen for keeping the black market going) when we want new cars. I have friends that went to Henry Ford High School on the west side, half the city commutes on the Edsel Ford Freeway on the east side, you’re likely to go to Henry Ford Hospital if you get sick, and everyone roots for the Ford family-owned Detroit Lions at Ford Field downtown.

Henry Ford was still kind of a hardcore racist (and anti-Semite) who bafflingly hated and campaigned against the spread of Black music, employed Black workers en masse but still thought white people were superior to them, and, despite how some historians might remember it, essentially redlined several Black Ford employees into their own city, something that still has ripple effects in 2020 as it’s now one of the economically undernourished in the state of Michigan. We’ve sort of reckoned with this history; all of this is acknowledged in some form or fashion at The Henry Ford, a museum that’s, well, named after the Henry Ford. But during this time of loud, public grappling with corporate wrongdoing, I’m not sure how many folks outside of Metro Detroit know all this context.

Which brings us back to Ford’s new dilemma around police vehicles. According to the letter Ford’s Black employees are seeking action by July 15. “We cannot claim to support the fight against systemic racism while supplying and supporting the very systems that perpetrate violence against Black Americans…We, the undersigned employees, call for Ford to cease development, production, and sale of all custom police vehicles and products. Our resources can and should be diverted to other forms of first response and public safety,” the group writes.

Other than your typical — because we grow up with so many of these living in Metro Detroit that you almost become numb to them — race-related incidents on the assembly line, I can’t think of a time when a Detroit automaker has had to publicly confront its own societal actions on a stage this large. General Motors came close; it had the chance to reckon with its controversial use of eminent domain (enabled by former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young) to push out residents of the Poletown neighborhood (a vast majority of them working-class Poles, but also several Blacks, South Asians and immigrants from across Europe) to build its Poletown plant. GM said nothing about it, but then again, the country wasn’t on fire when that happened. It’s a moot point now anyway, as GM is currently in the process of converting the plant for EV production.

Ford exiting the police market would mean the company would take a sales hit, which could mean layoffs for factory employees during a pandemic. It’s likely a lot of those employees would be people of color; the Ford Police Interceptor Utility, for example, is built alongside the Explorer in the automaker’s Chicago Assembly Plant, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the demographics of Chicago are.

But keeping police vehicles in production would certainly mean more tension between Black employees and management internally, and now, a negative image externally.

But consider this: Ford Motor Company, complex legacy and all, has been around since 1903. It has weathered nearly every economic storm since, was the only of the Detroit Three to not file bankruptcy in the aughts and somehow survives even the worst of scandals that come its way. Ford is a tough company and perhaps if there was ever a time for the kind of conversation that calls it to make a difficult choice in service of its values, it’s now.

Correction: An earlier version of this post attributed the letter that was written to Bill Ford and Jim Hackett to Black ford employees. The letter was in fact written by a group of Black employees and white allies not associated with Ford’s FAAN affinity group. The post and the headline have been updated accordingly.