The deal drew opposition even before it was officially announced.
The news that Amazon picked Queens as one of its coveted second headquarters in exchange for nearly $3 billion in tax subsidies broke the day before the 2018 midterm elections, and negative reactions from a newly energized left wing grew quickly in New York City.
The company, valued at $800 billion as of early February, hosted a beauty pageant of a search for what was believed to be a single headquarters, only to split its workforce and settle on two already-thriving East Coast cities. New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, out of favor with his party’s progressive wing, joked about changing his name to “Amazon,” a not-so-subtle wink and nod to selling out that sounded particularly tone-deaf to his Queens constituents. Most significantly, the deal was approved through a process that prevented city officials and residents from weighing in at all — let alone vetoing the plan.
A little more than three months later, Amazon pulled out of that deal on Thursday in a surprise to its opponents, who assumed their resistance would be a years-long struggle against a corporate powerhouse.
“This is a huge victory,” said Deborah Axt, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that works on development issues in Queens. “We are thrilled. This shows that even in today’s age, with corporations like Amazon amassing such incredible political power, people standing up together for our neighborhoods and neighbors can actually win.”
The decision is a show of force for the resurgent left wing in New York City, a constellation of newly elected lawmakers, activist groups and engaged citizens who collaborated to oppose the deal. And it is a sign of how deeply concerns about the rising cost of living, decaying infrastructure, and preferential treatment of corporations have permeated the political discussion in the city and beyond.
Fights against big developers, especially along the city’s waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens, had yielded little in the way of tangible results for years, but Axt said the activists’ victory was the result of a simple shift.
“We’re fed up,” she said. “We’re tired of watching [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos and his billionaire friends accumulate so much power that they dominate our economy and our democracy — and we’re standing up to reclaim it.”
Amazon had stepped into a political firestorm, a cauldron of progressive energy whipped up by simmering resentments both local and national that was cresting just as the plan came together.
“Here is a company that has concentrated so much power that they think they can dictate to states and cities what they’re allowed to tell their people, how much money of theirs they want to take, to grace us with their presence,” state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D) told reporters.
The fight ended much earlier than they expected, but after four months of campaigning, organizers — many of whom had full-time day jobs — were exhausted.
“We knew we had a big fight ahead of us,” said Anatole Ashraf, a Queens resident and founding member of one of the groups that formed to oppose the new Amazon site, PrimedOut NYC. “We thought it could drag on for years … We were settling in for the long haul.”
But that’s what made the movement successful, said Maritza Silva-Farrell, the executive director of the public interest group ALIGN, because the people who would be affected by rising rents and cost of living were the ones leading the campaign.
The formal announcement on Nov. 12 had kicked off more condemnation, as the deal’s details emerged, such as the nearly $3 billion in public subsidies and the helipad, presumably for Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) A buzzword emerged to describe the deal, a point of focus since Occupy Wall Street galvanized the left in 2011: corporate welfare.
Within two days there was a boisterous protest held in the Long Island City neighborhood where the headquarters was planned. One city councilman noted that it had been easier for Amazon to secure the deal than it would be for a sidewalk cafe to open in his neighborhood. People in the crowd yelled things like “the mayor is a sucker.” Some speakers noted Amazon’s connections with government agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Defense Department through a contentious facial-recognition software program it has developed.
The same week, the New York Post ran a front page that skewered Bezos, a photo illustration that showed him in a helicopter above queens with two bags of money. “QUEENS RANSOM,” the headline blared.
Many said that their initial opposition to the deal was rooted in its secrecy. The plan had been negotiated among Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Amazon without going through the traditional public approval process that normally governs development proposals in New York City. Local elected officials said they and community groups had been kept out of the process.
“I learned about the deal, along with all of my neighbors, the minute that it hit the press, which is not exactly how a community should first hear about a huge project that would impact nearly every aspect of their lives,” state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D), who represents a nearby district in Queens where Amazon planned to include a distribution center, said in an interview. “It’s about making sure public due process is respected. But also that there’s an understanding, especially from executive branches of government, that there are representatives for districts and neighborhoods exactly for this purpose — to ensure that community leaders have a seat at the table. This is a deal that wasn’t done with us and wasn’t for us.”
The opposition to the project united an array of advocacy groups, elected officials and activists rallying over concerns about affordable housing, infrastructure, environmental causes and labor. Among the opponents were officials such as Ramos and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), part of a crop of liberal lawmakers who unseated centrist Democrats during the primaries last summer.
The opposition also included local chapters of the progressive groups that have grown since President Trump’s election, such as Indivisible, True Blue and the Democratic Socialists of America, the same organizers who propelled Ocasio-Cortez to a surprise victory in her race for Congress. The group held a town hall in Astoria about the deal; hundreds of people packed the venue.
“Right away, we knew there was a lot of resistance,” said Jose Cabrera, a member of New York City’s DSA.
Activists canvassed neighborhoods in Queens and even subway cars to explain their opposition to the deal, while organizers urged residents to pressure their elected representatives. At a City Council meeting in December, the company’s executives were grilled by lawmakers in an unusually rowdy hearing. Protesters targeted an Amazon store in Manhattan on Cyber Monday after Thanksgiving, popularized the hashtag #Scamazon and stenciled “No Amazon” graffiti around Long Island City.
But the final nail in the coffin may have come on Feb. 4, when Gianaris, a vocal critic of the project, was selected by state Senate leaders to a board that had the power to veto the project, in a challenge to Cuomo’s leadership. Several days later, The Washington Post reported Amazon was considering pulling out of the deal.
And then Thursday’s news dropped with a thud, resonating beyond New York City’s five boroughs.
“This is a testament to the kind of victories that ordinary people, working people, can win when we get organized and fight back," said Kshama Sawant, a City Council member in Seattle, where Amazon is based, and a member of the Socialist Alternative party.
Axt, of Make the Road New York, said that her group had been in touch with organizers in Virginia, where the other half of Amazon’s expansion headquarters is planned, and Nashville, where the company has plans for an operations facility.
Silva-Farrell, of ALIGN, said that New York City will need to assess the parcel of land that would have housed Amazon’s headquarters.
“We have to figure out what we want to build there, how it’ll be sustainable and how to create jobs,” she said. “We have to decide what kind of country we want for ourselves.”
Gianaris, the state senator at the center of the opposition to the deal, said in an interview that he would not describe the effort as a victory.
“This is a state that stood up for itself and was not willing to allow a giant corporate behemoth to dictate the terms of engagement,” he said. “Everybody wants jobs. But not at any costs. And not when the public doesn’t get to have its opinion represented in the conversation."