The Amazon Deal Was Not Brought Down by a Handful of Politicians
Last week, on a bright, brisk Monday afternoon in New York City, about 30 people huddled together on a street corner in the heart of the Queensbridge Houses, a sprawling public-housing community in Long Island City, at the edge of Queens. It was a diverse crowd of local residents—people of different races, ages, and ethnicities—who had come together for a single purpose: to celebrate.
One after another, the people there approached a makeshift microphone in the middle of the sidewalk to rejoice in the news that Amazon, one of the world’s most powerful corporations, had ended its bid to build a new headquarters in their corner of the city.
“People say that they are surprised that Queens is such a force, but I say that we have always been hot, because we have women power, we have immigrant power, and, most importantly, we have people power,” said Tania Mattos, an organizer with the grassroots community group Queens Neighborhoods United, of Amazon’s retreat. “This is a new day for Queens and for New York City. And it feels good to be on the right side of history.”
The crowd roared in response, “Queens is not for sale!”
Until a few days earlier, that basic fact had been in some doubt. Last fall, after closed-door negotiations that failed to allow for public input, the city and state of New York had announced a deal to lavish Amazon with roughly $3 billion in grants and other subsidies to incentivize the construction of a new corporate headquarters in Queens. Though the deal promised to generate tens of thousands of new jobs in the city, the prospect of a tech giant moving into Queens sparked immediate and ferocious pushback from a broad cross section of local grassroots groups, unions, and others who feared the company’s presence would raise rents, displace longtime residents, and give a corporation notorious for exploiting workers far too much sway over local democracy, among other concerns.
Amazon’s stunning February 14 announcement that it would abandon its plans to build a headquarters in New York was, above all, a response to this pushback, which saw organizers, workers, and tenants like Mattos wage a relentless multi-month campaign. The company’s retreat was not, as some reports have suggested, simply a response to the actions of a handful of Amazon critics in Congress, the state legislature, or New York’s City Council. It was not the work of a single, high-profile individual—or of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter feed, though right-wing groups are eager to lay the failed deal at her feet.
“As soon as the Amazon deal got announced here, the opposition welled up in such an organic and quick way,” says Brad Lander, a City Council member from Brooklyn and one of the first local politicians to take a stand against the Amazon deal. “It happened much more aggressively than many of us even expected.”
It began more than a year earlier, in October 2017, during the early days of the HQ2 competition, when a loose coalition of grassroots community and labor groups sent a strongly worded letter to both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing their staunch opposition to any kind of subsidies for the corporate giant.
“To be clear,” wrote the coalition, which together represented some 200,000 New Yorkers, “Amazon should not receive sales tax exemptions, property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, or any other state or local financial incentives, period.” The letter’s signatories included groups like New York Communities for Change (NYCC); Make the Road New York; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); and the Alliance for Greater New York (ALIGN).
The letter went unheeded, but this emerging cohort of Amazon opponents persisted.
In July 2018, the same alliance of local community and labor groups organized protests against Amazon over reports that it was selling white-supremacist products on its website. They rallied outside an Amazon-sponsored summit at Manhattan’s Javits Center and warned that the company’s second headquarters would not be welcome in New York.
“We are here outside Javits Center to take action…to show that people must always come before profit,” said Malika Conner, an organizer with ALIGN, according to a report in AM New York about the protest. “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wants taxpayer dollars and community resources to bring HQ (headquarters) to here. But we are here to say no—we will not subsidize hate, and we will not stand idly by while a company that enables and profits from hate does business in our city.”
While these groups were criticizing Amazon’s practices and warning the city and state not to pamper the company with subsidies, a handful of government officials around the country had started to chafe at the corporation’s Hunger Games approach to selecting the location of its second headquarters.
In March 2018, city-council members in Austin, Texas, and Indianapolis, Indiana, along with New York’s Brad Lander, published an open letter denouncing the way that its search for a new home pitted cities against each other. “Amazon is using their economic and political power to push cities into a race-to-the-bottom,” the council members wrote. “Major corporate subsidies for Amazon would undermine our ability as cities to fund critical needs like education, transportation, housing and infrastructure which makes our cities attractive for investment in the first place.”
All of this offers context for the aggressive anti-Amazon agitation that emerged after the company’s November 13 announcement that it was moving to New York City—and getting an expensive, publicly subsidized signing bonus in return.
The response was swift. The day after the announcement, on November 14, grassroots groups, unions, politicians, workers, and Queens residents held a large rally and press conference in Long Island City to declare their opposition to the move. It was the de facto kickoff of what would become an intense and sustained campaign against Amazon’s planned headquarters in New York.
Fahd Ahmed, the executive director of the Queens-based Desis Rising Up and Moving, which has organized against Amazon over the last several months and participated in the initial kickoff rally, says the opposition to Amazon’s move to New York sprang from several sources.
Some opponents, he says, were against the Amazon headquarters because they felt that it was a terrible deal for New York to shower one of the richest corporations with subsidies and other incentives. Some opposed the planned headquarters because it was the result of a deeply flawed process that featured closed-door negotiations between the company and the city and state of New York, with almost zero input from state legislators, city councilors, and the broader public. Others opposed the headquarters because they felt Amazon is a bad actor that abuses workers and supplies surveillance technology to predatory government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. Still others were against Amazon, Ahmed says, because “the impact of [the headquarters] will be just so devastating on real-estate prices and rent that it will decimate local neighborhoods and communities, and so there really wasn’t a way to make this deal better.”
Taken together, these powerful arguments inspired a steady torrent of anti-Amazon protests, rallies, and hearings between late November 2018 and mid-February 2019.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving—or CyberMonday, a day of feverish online shopping in anticipation of the holiday season—organizers staged several protests against the company, including a prolonged occupation of its marquee retail store in Manhattan. “One hundred and fifty people shut down the 34th Street Amazon store for an hour, and the police weren’t able to remove us,” says Zack Lerner, the senior director of labor organizing at NYCC. “We were able to hold the space and outline all of the different problems with Amazon, why they are a pretty bad corporation.” The action got a slew of media attention. That same day scores of anti-Amazon activists also marched through the streets of Queens.
As this local pushback picked up momentum in late November and early December, the New York City Council—which had been shut out of the negotiations between Amazon, Mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo—called for hearings into the city and state’s deal with Amazon.
“The hearings turned out to be wildly successful,” says Jimmy Van Bramer, a City Council member from Queens whose district includes Long Island City. “It is where Amazon felt the most pressure and where Amazon made the most obvious mistakes.”
Indeed, the hearings—one in December and one in January—were raucous affairs. Council members grilled Amazon executives for hours about the company’s plans as well as its closed-door negotiations with the city and state as activists in the audience dropped banners and chanted and disrupted the proceedings. Many anti-Amazon organizers say the hearings were a turning point.
“When Amazon admitted at the second hearing [in January] that they would not remain neutral if their workers organized to join a union—for them to say that, in a union city, was pretty bold, and I knew that it would have a negative effect on the way the company would be perceived,” says Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director of ALIGN, a grassroots alliance of labor and community groups.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, recalls the moment well. “When [Amazon executive] Brian Huseman told the City Council that Amazon would oppose unionization at their facility in New York, that was a key moment. That was a turning point,” he says. “Amazon exposed itself for what it really is.”
Another critical episode in the fight against Amazon took place on January 7, when a delegation of City Council members from Seattle arrived in New York to discuss the mega-monopoly’s record in their own city. At a presentation before local officials, union members, and community activists at RWDSU’s headquarters in New York, the Seattle City Council members told the gathered crowd unsettling stories about Amazon’s impact on rents and income inequality in their city, and recounted the company’s bare-knuckled campaign last year to block a Seattle tax on corporate profits meant to fund affordable housing and provide services to the city’s homeless.
The event, which had been organized by key members of the grassroots anti-Amazon coalition, including RWDSU and Make the Road New York, was “a really striking session” that outlined the ways that Amazon has “corroded local democracy” in Seattle, according to Lander, who attended the gathering. The Seattle council members’ presentation did not win the company any new friends or allies.
The sustained grassroots opposition to Amazon continued into early February.
On February 9, just days before Amazon announced its plans to pull out of New York, a dozen hyper-local Queens-based groups organized a canvass across their borough to educate residents about Amazon’s plans to move to the area. The groups also collected signatures from residents who opposed the deal.
“We spoke to 500 people in a little over two hours,” says Sasha Wijeyeratne, the executive director of CAAAV, which organizes Chinese, Korean, and Bangladeshi residents of the Queensbridge public-housing development. “Easily 400 of those we spoke with said we absolutely do not want Amazon here.”
For Van Bramer, it was tireless organizing like this that helped keep the pressure on Amazon and provide energy, inspiration, and support for local officials who opposed the deal. “The grassroots effort and all of the organizing and the various progressive organizations gave [local officials who opposed the deal] strength and provided fuel and backup,” says Van Bramer. “I don’t think it is truthful to blame Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, [state Senator] Mike Gianaris, or Jimmy Van Bramer for killing the deal. The truth is, Amazon killed the deal. And the reason that they did so is partly because we asked them tough questions and raised thorny issues that they didn’t want to discuss. But I think it was grassroots organizing and grassroots pressure that kept those issues at the forefront.”
There were many factors that informed Amazon’s Valentine’s Day decision to cancel its plans for a New York City headquarters. The insurgent rise of political progressives like Ocasio-Cortez played an essential role. The empowerment of Amazon opponents in the state legislature played an essential role, as did opposition from New York City Council members. But bottom-up local organizing cannot be left off the list. It was the populist force that propelled politicians’ opposition and captured the attention of the press and the public.
It’s also why local residents and grassroots organizers rallied in Queensbridge last week. They want the public to know that they beat Amazon. They want the public to know that rallies, protests, door-knocking, petition-gathering, face-to-face conversations, and other grassroots tactics can make an enormous difference in the life of a city.
“Our victory against Amazon is a marker that organizing our communities does work,” said Sabrina Jalal, a public-housing organizer with CAAAV, during the celebratory rally. “We are stronger together.”