In acquiescence to creeping authoritarianism, one of Charlotte’s premier corporate citizens recently bailed on an American employee wrongly convicted and imprisoned abroad.
In May 2021, Charlotte-based Bank of America ended its eleven-year employment relationship with Samuel Bickett, a 37-year-old attorney who worked in Hong Kong for the bank’s Merrill Lynch operation.
The move came a month before Hong Kong Magistrate Arthur Lam found Bickett guilty of assaulting an off-duty police officer during an act of good Samaritanism.
Bickett, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Hong Kong for nine years and graduated from Chapel Hill’s law school in 2009, was headed to dinner in late 2019 when he saw a middle-aged man in street clothes threatening a teenager with a baton.
When Bickett stopped to intervene and attempted to take the baton from the man, who was later identified as Yu Shu-sang, the man lunged at Bickett, who then wrestled him to the ground.
Yu, it turns out, was an off-duty police officer who was accosting the teenager for jumping a subway turnstile.
In video footage of the incident, Yu, when asked, repeatedly denied he was a police officer. Only after his denials did Bickett intervene.
Police regulations in Hong Kong require officers — even if off-duty and in plain clothes — to identify themselves as such if performing police-related duties. Yu failed to do so and, in fact, affirmatively denied he was a cop.
Nevertheless, Lam convicted Bickett of a crime that required him to have actual knowledge of Yu’s status as a police officer.
Following the verdict, Bickett was strip searched and his hands and feet shackled as he was transferred to a maximum-security prison to serve a sentence of roughly four months, according to a report in the Washington Post.
Bickett has since been released on bail pending appeal.
Increased authoritarianism has swept across Hong Kong in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party seeks to exercise more authority there over politics and civil society. This follows Hong Kong’s return to formal Chinese control in 1997, when Great Britain ended its 99-year colonial rule — during which time the territory developed a bustling, capitalist economy.
While China has committed to allowing Hong Kong a form of home rule until 2047, police and political authorities have cracked down on pro-democracy activists and street protesters in recent years and have begun dismantling Hong Kong’s ability to govern itself.
It was against this backdrop that Lam, the magistrate, returned his verdict convicting Bickett and remarked that the American’s actions posed “a serious threat to public order” and could have “incited a bigger conflict.”
Bickett is but a casualty of the Chinese efforts to clamp down on anyone who challenges the Hong Kong authorities, and it’s unsurprising that the territory’s political and legal powers-that-be railroaded him in a kangaroo court.
But what of Bank of America, Bickett’s former employer? What has it done to stand up for him and stand up to the forces of authoritarianism?
The Charlotte-based bank has been conspicuously absent from the media coverage.
Pieces in the Washington Post describe Bickett as “a former compliance director for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.” The journal of the American Bar Association flatly noted, “He no longer has the job.” Bickett’s LinkedIn profile states his employment with Bank of America ended in May 2021, a month before he was convicted.
The Post articles, which don’t hesitate to rightly, if only implicitly, pass judgment on the Hong Kong authorities, report that when asked about Bickett, Bank of America simply declined to comment.
In a recent discussion on Reddit, someone asked Bickett about the bank’s reaction to his arrest and conviction: “Did you lose your job as a result of your arrest or has your employer supported you (I read somewhere a US Bank)?”
Bickett responded, “I am no longer employed by Bank of America, but I’m unable to say more than that for reasons that I’m sure you all can figure out.”
He and Bank of America, we can infer, entered into some sort of agreement under which he tendered his resignation in exchange for payment of a severance and a promise to remain silent about all matters related to his former employer.
And we know that Bank of America has publicly said nothing in support of Bickett — from which we can infer something about capitalism and democracy: The former has no necessary allegiance to the latter.
We’re raised on the American mythology that capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand.
Bank of America certainly wants us to think of these two systems of social activity as inextricably linked. From the company’s website:
“From building an inclusive, diverse company to promoting equality and inclusion in our communities, we recognize the value in welcoming different voices and perspectives.”
“Like the people we serve, the members of our team come from every walk of life. This rich variety of personalities, traits and abilities helps us relate to our customers and communities while also helping us be a leader for equality at work and beyond.”
Bank of America has declared its commitment “to participation in the political process” while “encourag[ing] our employees to be active in our democratic society.”
And Merrill Lynch, the division of the bank for which Bickett worked, touts its commitment to diversity.
To hear the bank tell it, the company’s work is the work of democracy.
But Bank of America’s public silence in response to Bickett’s wrongful arrest, prosecution, and conviction suggests these pro-democracy talking points are mere propaganda intended to target Americans who fancy themselves believers in democracy and who largely adhere to a civic faith that views self-government and capitalism as coterminous, a faith that requires constant cultivation by those — like Bank of America — that benefit from it.
Its public relations efforts notwithstanding, Bank of America’s actions in the matter of Samuel Bickett demonstrate that when faced with a choice between promoting the values of self-government and preserving its own profits, Charlotte’s homegrown giant of international, corporate capitalism may quite easily — and, within the social systems under which we labor, rather rationally — choose capitalism at the cost of democracy.