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How anti-gentrification activists derailed Amazon’s New York City plans

"I think this marks a turning point because of the size and power of Amazon."

by Rex Santus
Feb 15 2019, 12:04pm

When Amazon announced its plan to open a new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, working-class residents worried that the presence of a nearly $1 trillion company in their borough would price them out. Within hours, community organizers started going door-to-door, planning protests, and enlisting the support of local officials to fend off the e-commerce giant.

Months later, they succeeded. Amazon abandoned the plan for its new HQ2 in Queens on Thursday and specifically cited a lack of support from “a number of state and local politicians.”

Throughout U.S. history, community opposition has stopped urban development projects, but the victory against HQ2 stands out because of its size and apparent desirability, which dangled the promise of thousands of new, high-paying jobs, according to gentrification experts.

“I think this marks a turning point because of the size and power of Amazon, and because it was not a dirty, polluting factory or waste transfer station that was being challenged,” said Trina Hamilton, an associate professor of geography at the University of Buffalo (SUNY) and co-director of its Center for Trade, Environment, and Development.

Amazon promised its new HQ2 would create 25,000 jobs with an average salary of $150,000. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who offered the company a grand total of $3 billion in tax breaks to pick their city from a long list of suitors, highlighted those figures when backing the project.

But more jobs, different jobs, with higher salaries can also catalyze rapid gentrification, or the redevelopment of a neighborhood to match middle-class tastes, which pushes out long-time, low-income residents. It’s a problem New York City knows all too well. Amazon also faced opposition over its hostility to organized labor and documented history of poor working conditions at its facilities.

Those concerns lead community organizations like Queens Neighborhood United, Make the Road, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL), the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project, New York labor unions, and others to mobilize against the deal. The backlash is part of a “right to the city” movement, which prioritizes the needs and values of long-time residents over corporations and developers, according to Henry Louis Taylor, a professor in the urban planning department at Buffalo.

Activists started going door-to-door, packed public hearings, staged sit-ins, planned marches, rallied support from progressive politicians, and put pressure on other elected officials to stand against the deal. The protests and opposition focused largely on the secrecy of the deal as well as Amazon’s $3 billion tax gift from New York amid crumbling subway infrastructure in dire need of public funding.

"I think this marks a turning point because of the size and power of Amazon."

The most show-stopping moments of protest came when Amazon executives went to New York City Hall and faced hours of grilling by city council officials, many of whom came to oppose the deal after its announcement. At those hearings, opponents drastically outnumbered supporters of the deal. Zero city council members spoke up in support of the e-commerce giant at a December hearing and railed against its treatment of workers and ties to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which Amazon courted to use its facial-recognition software to detain and deport immigrants. Activists and other opponents of the deal flew an anti-Amazon banner — which said “Amazon delivers LIES” — in the hearing hall and openly heckled and jeered Amazon representatives.

It’s likely that Democratic leaders like Cuomo and de Blasio did not expect such a forthcoming progressive resistance to the Amazon deal — or a larger political shift on the left since the deal was originally negotiated.

“The midterm elections suggest that progressives are on the march, and Democratic Party politicians are still playing catch up,” said William Sites, a professor at the University of Chicago who has researched gentrification, urban political economy, and social movements.

After the backlash reached a fervor, numerous politicians took up the cause — even some who previously supported Amazon coming to New York, such as Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. Van Bramer eventually became one of the Council’s most outspoken opponents of the deal, largely because it was negotiated behind closed doors. Anti-gentrification activists have claimed that Van Bramer took up the mantle only when community backlash made that position politically advantageous.

On a more grand scale, the likes of 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, noted Amazon adversary Bernie Sanders, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the Bronx and Queens in the House, condemned Amazon’s plans to come to Long Island City because of the threats it posed to the community. Ocasio-Cortez pointed to community organizers — not politicians — for bringing enough heat to stop Amazon.

“Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world,” she tweeted Thursday.

Cover image: New York City Councillor Jimmy Van Bramer, center, speaks during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in the New York neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens, Wednesday Nov. 14, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)