As the police have been violently rioting nationwide, the official Twitter account for the city of Chicago—whose officers have been caught vandalizing businesses and beating protesters—wanted their residents to know that if they used the code “CHICAGO2020” in the middle of the protests, they’d get $5 off their Uber ride (only valid until 6 AM Monday).
At the time this tweet was made, there were people who had gone missing either after attending a protest or being beaten unconscious then dragged off by the cops. Activists took to Twitter to organize mass calls to police precincts and hospitals to find them, and were forced to play cat and mouse with Chicago’s Police Department to locate some. Meanwhile, Chicago’s Twitter account was busy tweeting reminders of curfew and transit service suspension (and, more recently, the suspension of Chicago Public Schools’ food distribution program).
There was concern for good reason: just a few years ago it was revealed that Chicago was operating secret interrogation facilities, one of which was described as the “equivalent of a CIA black site.” At one building in particular, located in Homan Square, close to 7,000 people were detained off-the-books, denied legal counsel, beaten, and kept in squalid conditions.
This is where at least 16 cops covered up a fellow cop’s murder of Laquan Macdonald, a black teenager. Chicago’s history of police violence is, unfortunately, the norm. What’s still bizarre, however, is that the city tried to distract from the brutal actions of its officers with Uber advertisements, at a time when it’s shutting down city-run transit options and services.
Neither the city of Chicago nor Uber responded to Motherboard’s request for comment, so we do not have more details about how or why the promotion came to be.
For Uber, in any case, such an ad is in step with how the company has seen recent world events (for example, the coronavirus), as an opportunity for promotion. Whether by rolling out a broken paid sick leave program as a PR stunt or begging the government to protect the ride-hailing company from the existential threat posed if it reclassified its exploited independent contractors as employees, Uber has made it all too clear it plans to profit from the pandemic.
In her New York Times Technology newsletter, Shira Ovide highlighted some of Uber's efforts at using coronavirus to make the company an indispensable part of our transportation system. "Uber said that since the pandemic began, more U.S. cities than ever before have inquired about getting help with adding an option to buy public transit tickets through its app." Another option? Simply subsidizing them "because young transportation companies are most unprofitable and might not make it."
Both options were undesirable before the pandemic given the platform’s poor labor conditions and undeniable negative effects on just about every part of society, and continue to be even more so now that an uprising has spread across the nation. That Chicago is spending its time promoting corporations, not defunding a police force that has its own torture archive is yet another reminder that the people in the streets have radically different interests than those in power.