A question about Black Lives Matter sparked an employee walkout at Coinbase this summer

Quick Take

  • Coinbase employees staged a walkout in early June, sources tell The Block, after CEO Brian Armstrong declined to answer a question about Black Lives Matter during an internal Ask-Me-Anything session 
  • The walkout took place months before Coinbase would draw sharp criticism from certain corners of the tech community after a blog post penned by Armstrong outlined the firm’s apolitical mission
  • In an email to staff Tuesday night, Armstrong said employees uncomfortable with the stated mission could leave with generous exit packages
  • On Thursday, the company held an AMA to discuss tensions within the company’s Slack and external communications about recent developments

Coinbase employees staged a walkout in early June after CEO Brian Armstrong declined to answer a question about Black Lives Matter during an internal Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) session, according to people familiar with the event.

One source said Armstrong was asked what he thought about Black Lives Matter and responded that he didn’t have an answer in that moment. Another source said the negative reaction among employees resulted from an apparent misinterpretation by Armstrong of the question and whether it was about the Black Lives Matter movement or the Black Lives Matter Foundation, the nonprofit organization that advocates for a wide range of socio-political changes in America.

A source told The Block that “hundreds” of employees took part in the walkout, which took place soon after the AMA. The source said that the walkout primarily took the form of a refusal to work, given that Coinbase’s workforce is largely remote as a result of COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon after the walkout, Armstrong wrote in a June 4 tweet that “I want to unequivocally say that Black Lives Matter” and later added that “[a]fter speaking with our Black employees this week, it became clear to me how much pain they are in during this moment. I feel an obligation to support all employees at Coinbase, especially our Black employees right now, who are experiencing something I will never fully understand.”

Earlier this week, Erica Baker, director of engineering for GitHub, tweeted about the walkout, writing that “a large portion of the coinbase engineering team walked off the job just before that thread went up because brian *wouldn't* say ‘black lives matter.’”

As Baker noted at the time, an array of U.S. companies moved to affirm their commitment to Black lives and voices following the widespread uproar over the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis resident who was killed during an attempted arrest in late May. Floyd’s death triggered protests throughout the United States and brought renewed attention to race issues.

Details of the story were also published in reports by The Verge and Axios in the past day. Axios reported that, per a source, "Armstrong argued making a public statement in support of BLM would be divisive."

Rumors about the walkout began to circulate after the event and Armstrong’s comment on Twitter. Armstrong himself highlighted “employee walkouts” in a controversial blog post published this week, during which he wrote that Coinbase “is a mission focused company” and should pursue “progress toward our mission, as compared to broader societal issues.” 

Armstrong drew both criticism and praise for his remarks, but a leaked email later indicated that some internal staffers disagreed with the approach — and that Coinbase was offering a compensated exit for those employees.

On Wednesday, those tensions played out in a company internal Slack channel designated for political discussion. During the discussion, an international employee challenged the company’s mission to create an open-financial system despite mainly servicing white, mostly well-off Americans, a source who reviewed the messages told The Block.

On Thursday, Coinbase held an AMA session to discuss the tensions as well as recent developments at the firm more generally. 

This post has been updated for clarity. 

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