How New Yorkers stood up to Amazon and won

Queens activists, unions, and political leaders worried about gentrification and opposed the $1.2 billion in tax breaks offered to the retail giant.

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Image credit: GMBunion@Amazon/Twitter

When Amazon announced in November it would establish another headquarters in Long Island City, in the Queens borough of New York, the reaction wasn’t all positive. A group of local activists, unions, and political leaders voiced their opposition to the $1.2 billion in tax breaks the city and state offered the retail giant. Many cities had actively courted the company in hopes of investment and jobs. But the Queens contingent also feared increased gentrification and displacement from the neighborhood and came together to fight the decision. In February, the resistance scored a victory when Amazon abandoned its plans in New York.

Josselyn Atahualpa was upset when Amazon announced its decision to establish a second headquarters in New York City, but she also fully believed her community would win the battle.

“I came in fierce,” she said of her involvement.

Atahualpa, an organizer for Queens Neighborhoods United, a group that works to find solutions to gentrification and displacement in its communities, said conceding the battle was not an option. She knew that companies like Amazon, not the communities in which they reside, reap the benefits of their development despite promises to the contrary.

Queens Neighborhoods was just one of several local organizations that didn’t support Amazon’s plan, joining with other neighborhood groups, organizations representing the area’s Latino and South Asian communities, and local politicians. Atahualpa says she is very optimistic for the future because she saw so many different groups coming together in a way she never had before.

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Jose Cabrera, a lifelong Queens native and co-chair on the organizing committee for the Queens branch of the New York City Democratic Socialists, said he was scared by the thought of the gentrification the company would bring to a city already in a housing crisis.

“People felt like this was the beginning of the end of their life in Queens,” he said.

Cabrera said it is crucial for politicians to collaborate with the communities they represent for change to happen, and that was the case for this action. Meetings, town halls, and phone calls were planned to make sure those on the New York City Council and in the state legislature heard their opposition to Amazon’s plans.

“You can’t put your future in Amazon’s hands,” he said.

Cabrera hopes this victory can be an inspiration to communities who are facing, or might face, similar situations. He said just because it’s a big corporation, it’s not impossible for communities to fight back.

Zack Lerner, senior labor organizing director for New York Communities for Change, a group that fights against wealth inequality, was unconvinced by Amazon’s promises of job opportunities and billion-dollar investments in the community even before the HQ2 deal was announced.

Lerner said he and his colleagues knew about the problems at Amazon, including its workplace practices and business relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When the deal was announced, New York Communities for Change was in shock, he said, but they did not let the news deter them. 

“We were able to mobilize quickly because we knew this was a bad deal,” Lerner said.

The defeat was a win for the group and others like it, but Lerner knows more work must be done. He said conversations about how to invest in communities, infrastructure, and education are necessary for cities to continue to flourish.

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