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How NYC Beat Amazon

Derek Ludovici Feb 18

In response to the New York City’s fallout with Amazon, proponents of the $3 billion corporate welfare package laid the blame on local politicians, specifically state Sen. Michael Gianaris, City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Others pointed the finger at gentrifiers for taking a not-in-my-backyard stance toward the company’s HQ2.

But if the governor, mayor and big developers who backed the deal were looking for someone to point their fingers at they might have come down to Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens on Thursday evening, hours after Amazon announced it was pulling HQ2 off the table.  

Just after dark drums and chanting began in celebration. Activist held up banners as a children’s mariachi band followed by tassa drummers raised a raucous.

“None of us expected it,” said Anatole Ashraf of PrimedOut NYC, an online group that formed to bring opponents of the city and states’ tax-break and subsidy package for Amazon together. “Even when the New York Times reported it we didn’t believe it.”

In a statement issued on the day Amazon announced the deal was dead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo griped that a “small group of politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community.”

Many see the victory against the corporate behemoth as just the beginning.

But it was that same community that mobilized against HQ2, channeling real, on the ground anger into collective action. Rather than simply a triad of three white politicians — Gianaris, Van Bramer and Johnson — the deal’s antagonists were numerous. They came from a diverse coalition of community groups, union activists, students, tech workers, and Queens residents. If politicians were more receptive to their arguments, it was due in part to an upsurge in left-wing populism in the borough and across the state, that gave the Democrats full control of the state legislature and saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected to Congress.

The socialist freshman congresswoman representing Queens was against the deal from its announcement and used her national platform to lambast the company. However, “many of the elected officials who ended up supporting the fight against Amazon initially signed onto the letter inviting Amazon,” notes Fahd Ahmed, Executive Director of Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM). “But once they felt the pressure of communities they realized the winds had shifted and that would not be a tenable position.”

Angeles Solis of Make the Road New York said her organization was opposed to Amazon’s arrival in Queens even before the corporate welfare package was announced. She cited the company’s “exploitative treatment of workers, their long history of tax evasion, especially in underserved communities, [and] their surveillance and data collection, especially on undocumented immigrant communities.”

“We took a no-compromise, no-negotiations position,” said Solis. “This deal would have been a robbery of our communities.”

Sabrina Rich helped form the student-based CUNY Not HQ2 after members of the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees wrote a letter in support of the Amazon deal, claiming that it would connect students with jobs at the proposed corporate campus.  “[The Board] created a pipeline that we knew would never happen,” Rich said.

Students disrupted and ultimately shut down a Dec. 3 meeting at LaGuardia Community College when the Board of Trustees refused to allow students to speak on the Amazon deal. Rich, a student at Hunter College, was outraged that the administration was working with a company that has collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The CUNY administration was taking a hypocritical stance in supporting Amazon, while also claiming to be supporters of the DACA students,” she said, a reference the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, under threat from the Trump administration.  

Rapi Castillo of Progressive HackNight said the win against Amazon sent a “good message” to corporations and to tech companies in particular: “You don’t just come into our communities and impose yourself. You have to be mindful about what you’re representing, what your technology does. And for us what Amazon’s technology does is hurting families, hurting immigrants, hurting the community.”

Though polls showed a 70 percent approval rating for Amazon across the state, the company attempted to set up in New York City at a time when income inequality and gentrification are on many people’s minds and the left is resurgent.  

“I think we embarrassed them too much with our constant pushback,” Rich said. Amazon wanted a cooperative partner in the city “and we didn’t let that happen.”

Many see the victory against the corporate behemoth as just the beginning.   

“Momentum for our movement is only going to build,” said David Lee of Queens Democratic Socialists of America. “We are still going to fight for things like universal rent control, making housing a human right, fighting gentrification and displacement, fighting big tech and their collusion with the military industrial complex, and all these fascist agencies of oppression.“

Others are seeking to build on the momentum of the grassroots victory to end the kinds of corporate subsidies and tax breaks Amazon was set to receive altogether. Legislation to that effect has been introduced in New York and several other states.

Mohammad Khan of MPower Change, an organization of Muslim activists, noted that Amazon still plans to open campuses in Northern Virginia and Nashville. “As New Yorkers we are going to be in solidarity with those cities and those communities,” he said.

Yet, even without the corporate welfare package, Amazon is still expanding operations in New York, albeit on a smaller scale.

Amazon’s continued presence in New York means two things, said Make the Road’s Solis: “One, the degradation of labor standards across the entire city. They are just driving down worker protections that we fought for for decades. Two, their continued work with ICE, their cooperation with organizations and precincts to create facial recognition software that tracks people in vulnerable communities. It’s a monopoly that needs to be broken up.”


Photo: Anti-Amazon protesters gathered at City Hall in January. Credit: Erin Sheridan.