Almost immediately after Amazon announced on November 13 that it would build a new corporate campus in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, critics of the company—and of the multibillion dollar package that helped woo Jeff Bezos to the neighborhood—loudly began making themselves themselves heard.
The anti-Amazon contingent is a combination of longtime anti-gentrification activists, organizers fresh off a campaign season that remade state politics, and elected officials embracing the city’s emerging left, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And while the options to stop the up to $3 billion in incentives Amazon could wind up collecting are limited, the forces opposed to the deal have been working nonstop to convince the public that not only does New York not need to give incentives to Amazon, but that the city doesn’t need Amazon at all.
While Governor Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Amazon itself have relied on their power and the promise of 25,000 jobs, organizers have hit the streets, going door to door to rally opposition against the subsidies and connect Amazon’s looming presence to issues such as the affordable housing crisis, New York’s sanctuary city status, and the city’s crumbling infrastructure—whether it’s the subways or the chronically underfunded public housing system. The particulars of the deal are complex, but the opposition to it comes down to a very simple set of questions: who is New York City supposed to be for? Who is it supposed to work for, to throw money at, to barrel over critics for, to champion?
“No deals are enough if we don’t have a place to live,” Mauricio Piratova of Queens Neighborhoods United told an anti-Amazon community forum at Astoria’s Redeemer Episcopal Church last Monday.
QNU, a local group that’s organized against street vendor harassment, successfully fought a proposed Business Improvement District and continues to organize against a proposed Target in Jackson Heights, was one of a collection of community groups like Desis Rising Up & Moving (a South Asian economic and civil rights group) and the Queens Democratic Socialists of America that put the forum together. The meeting was a culmination of the first wave of activism that had gripped New York since the Amazon announcement was made, and was an opportunity for speakers to blast everything from Amazon’s interest in working with ICE to its labor practices and the warping effect the company could have on Queens real estate. Displacement and gentrification have been at the forefront of concerns for organizers and activists throughout the campaign against Amazon, one that’s taken the form of a series of rallies, street protests, community board appearances and door knocking campaigns around the borough.
Rent, and its potential to get even higher, was a central focus of a Queens DSA canvas in Long Island City in late November. As Aaron Taube, an organizer with the group, knocked on doors in a rent-stabilized building, he made sure to bring up the ongoing campaign for universal rent control (a series of reforms to rent laws statewide including things like a right to lease renewal and caps on rent hikes) and found people sympathetic to the message.
“It’s a big concern,” one building resident told Taube. “This is a family community. There’s nowhere to go that’s affordable. It’s semi-affordable, this neighborhood, where it’s not Manhattan and you can have a second bedroom, or enough room to have a kid in a one or something, there’s nowhere to go.”
People shared similar sentiments at a Black Friday protest through midtown Manhattan the day after Thanksgiving.
“Queens is not a dead space into which tech can drop itself in and displace all of these people,” KC Trommer, a Jackson Heights resident, told Splinter. “And to ask the people who are going to be displaced to fund it with tax breaks is offensive. It’s craven, really.” Days after that event, a coalition of activists occupied Midtown’s Amazon book store.
While stopping Amazon remains the larger talking point of the opposition, organizers are seeing some people grapple with the larger question of the what the city is becoming and whether they fit into those plans.
“I think people are angry about the fact that the government just completely disregarded...that we have record levels of homelessness, we have a need for more schools in our communities, we have a need for for immigration to not detain people, arrest people in our communities,” Tania Mattos, an organizer with Queens Neighborhood United, told Splinter. “That this is something that’s been a year in the making is horrifying. And it’s our tax money, including undocumented people’s tax money, that’s going to go to this company that is one of the richest in the world is just mind-boggling and completely unacceptable.”
New York is, of course, no stranger to activist activity. But alongside organizations like QNU and DRUM, a new crop of activists with their eyes on local concerns emerged in a post-2016 election world. New York’s DSA chapter has grown more active in electoral work and powered the incumbent-toppling wins of both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Congress and Julia Salazar in the state Senate. Activists looking to make New York a more progressive place in a world with a hostile federal government first dismantled the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of state Senate Democrats who helped Republicans control the chamber despite a numerical disadvantage, in September’s primaries. Then, they helped power Democrats to a 40-23 advantage in the state Senate after decades of almost uninterrupted Republican control of the chamber.
“I think that a lot of people started making connections beyond their group, perhaps as a result of the IDC and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other sort of efforts in what I’d call the broader New York City resistance groups,” Susan Kang, a Queens DSA member who was also active with the organization No IDC, said. “So, for example, I met a lot of the organizers from Queens Neighborhoods United when we were able to demand a town hall from [recently deceased former New York state senator] Jose Peralta after he defected to the IDC.”
The opposition has also been buoyed by loud and sustained criticism from a host of elected officials, although those politicians themselves have been criticized for what the mayor’s team has called fickle behavior, since just about all of them signed letters supporting the city’s effort to woo Amazon.
The City Council’s first oversight hearing, held two days after the community forum in Astoria, was a tense affair, as representatives from Amazon and the city’s Economic Development Corporation argued over the relative openness of the process that brought Amazon to Queens and whether New Yorkers actually supported it, all while audience members dropped an anti-Amazon banner and heckled. Substantively though, the hearing had a heavy focus on the choice to move the Amazon project through something called the General Project Plan (GPP), a state-led process that cuts community boards and the City Council out of land use decisions they traditionally have a hand in. (This practice is known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, also known by its unwieldy acronym ULURP). While the focus on the process, and Amazon’s refusal to go along with it, didn’t help the company look like a good neighbor in the eyes of its critics, the message of “go through a different process” isn’t the same thing as what on-the-ground organizers have been pushing.
“Even if Amazon magically decided they wanted to go through ULURP, they would still be collaborating and being very proud of the fact that they collaborate with ICE,” Mattos told Splinter. “ULURP doesn’t demand they stop doing that, and for us that’s very high in our priority [of] why we want Amazon out of New York City.”
Still, organizers and elected officials appear to be mostly on the same page for now. City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City and Sunnyside, called the subsidy deal “illegitimate” because it bypassed ULURP and said his focus is on stopping the deal that brought the company to New York, not tweaking it. “I think right now a number of people oppose [this deal] and are trying to find ways to stop it,” Van Bramer told Splinter. “And while we’re still exhausting all of those options, I think it doesn’t make sense to engage in a discussion of ‘What does a better deal look like?’”
The force of the opposition seems to have taken Cuomo, de Blasio, and Amazon somewhat by surprise. Instead of the hosannas that have greeted Cuomo’s other statewide tax credit-driven economic development ideas, the weeks of sustained criticism have rattled Amazon enough to hire a pair of the city’s most effective lobbyists to help sell the deal. Elsewhere, the governor wrote a LiveJournal-quality op-ed in which he suggested the reporters who’ve written critically about the incentive package are hypocrites since their employers took similar deals, and de Blasio’s most recent appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show ended with an aggrieved monologue in which he defended his progressive values on everything from police accountability to Amazon’s place in New York.
Yet while some fear of an ascendant left can explain some of the reaction from the governor and the mayor, their hard-sell approach is somewhat at odds with the tough fight facing the opposition. While last week’s City Council hearing was contentious, the Council itself doesn’t have the power to stop either the incentives Amazon is getting, or the overall GPP process.
The incentives that Amazon is looking to take advantage of, a combination of location and job creation-based tax abatements, haven’t been uniquely offered to the company and have been baked in to state law in one form or another for decades. Opponents are hoping that a relatively obscure entity, the Public Authorities Control Board, can stop either a piece of the project or even the entire thing, as it did 13 years ago when the New York Jets sought to build a new stadium on Manhattan’s west side. State Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents the area where Amazon’s campus is slated to be built, said the question of the PACB’s role in the deal is still unsettled.
“I believe that the $500 million capital grants needs PACB approval, but there are statements from the state that they do not believe they need to do that,” Gianaris said. “And there’s discussion about whether the entirety of the General Project Plan has to go before the PACB, but the state has been less than clear about that. Our lawyers are evaluating what we believe is required and will insist the required process is followed. If the state doesn’t want to present it, it may end up in litigation.”
There’s also another legislative pressure point that lawmakers are looking at. The Excelsior Jobs Credit tax breaks, which potentially add up to $1.15 billion in tax breaks for Amazon over ten years, has a cap on the amount of money it can hand out and it also slated to sunset by 2024. It’s an issue that would require a legislative fix, and lawmakers don’t all sound ready to bend over backwards to make that fix. Assemblymember Ron Kim and state Senator Jessica Ramos, both from Queens, have introduced what they’re calling the People Over Corporations (POC) Agenda, a package of bills that includes the phaseout of corporate subsidies in favor of buying and cancelling student debt.
And if the state can find billions of dollars to give to Amazon, there are people suggesting they just take the money and directly invest it in the city’s physical being, rather than private companies. “We certainly want more state funding to do infrastructure projects,” DSA NYC co-chair Abdullah Younus told Splinter, “because those are definitely accessible, good union jobs for a lot of folks in communities like Western Queens, big areas with immigrant populations that definitely need that kind of security and who would benefit from that greatly.” (This is also not some wild-eyed leftist idea; government reform mavens Reinvent Albany also recently challenged the governor to take the capital grant earmarked for Amazon and spend it directly on the subway system).
And so even as the specific fight against Amazon rages on, it fits neatly into the larger argument New York continues to reckon with over who gets to uphold the mantle of progressive politics, and who the city is made for.
“This moment right here is calling out what it really means to be progressive, versus using progressive language and taking actions that are the exact opposite,” Roksana Mun, the Director of Strategy at DRUM told Splinter. “What is the point of bringing in a company that union busts, that treats their workers so badly they pee in bottles, that doesn’t respect what communities actually want but steamrolls existing communities that have been here for decades and generations? That is a faux progressive. So this is a moment for all of us as communities to stake a claim for what it means to be progressive.”
Dave Colon is a freelance reporter and the second-best dressed man in the New York City press corps.