The Bezos Horizon

Fifty years ago, black mayors ascended to power with transformative change in mind. Today, the most radical thought many have is how to court Amazon.

Newark mayor Ras Baraka attends a unity rally on the steps of City Hall in downtown Newark in support of immigrants on January 18, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. Spencer Platt / Getty

Recently, Amazon — in search of a second North American headquarters — released its list of city finalists. New York City, Atlanta, and Newark (among others) made the cut. Baltimore and Detroit did not — even though Maryland dangled in front of the company the biggest set of tax subsidies it’s ever offered.

Much has been written about the troubling dynamics between cities and corporations like Amazon. What has been less explored is the relationship between cities’ feverish attempts to lure Amazon and the changing landscape of urban black politics.

Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act — arguably the Civil Rights Movement’s most powerful victory — there was a sharp increase in black elected officials in general and black mayors most specifically. For a brief moment in the seventies, when city governments exerted a significant amount of political power not just locally but at the state and national level, these elections mattered.

Radical activists like James and Grace Lee Boggs called on black people to take over — and remake — the nation’s cities. The pair recognized, before most, that automation and deindustrialization were transforming places like Detroit in ways that would soon make labor “socially unnecessary.” But they also believed that black urban power could still stoke the engine of revolutionary change.

That moment didn’t last long. For a few years, black mayors and city councilpersons worked with white progressives in Rust Belt cities to enact a range of progressive policies designed to increase their working-class constituencies’ political power. But demographic shifts and changes in the national and global economy — pushed along by public policy and Ronald Reagan’s election — significantly limited their transformative capacity. As a result, the political imaginations of both black elected officials and their constituencies narrowed, and black mayors across the country began to work with, and sometimes at the behest of, capital.

This wasn’t a matter of politicians simply selling out. Elected officials were often thrust into circumstances that forced them to collaborate. They were torn between two visions: one, of black empowerment, centered on providing goods and services to the working-class black constituencies that elected them and, two, of economic development, centered on providing the best climate for business development.

Many, if not most, black politicians tried to split the difference. They offered material goods — in the form of contracts, political appointments, and aggressive affirmative action programs — to black middle- and upper-income constituencies while providing symbolic goods — street names, some public sector employment — to black working-class constituencies. Meanwhile, their corporate partners pocketed the bulk of resources in the form of tax subsidies and development priorities. And the benefits promised to working-class black communities never trickled down.

It’s through this lens that we can view the ongoing Amazon bidding process, especially in majority-black cities like Newark.

In many ways, Newark was the poster child for black power. It held one of the first black power conferences, just days after the 1967 uprisings, and three years later, Amiri Baraka and his Committee for Unified Newark helped put Kenneth Gibson in the mayor’s office. The Boggses may have been the first to issue the call for urban black empowerment, but Newark was arguably the first city where black power activists both planned and organized a successful electoral drive. Unfortunately, governing the city proved much more difficult than simply taking it. Though workers and the poor saw some improvements, most material benefits went to the top.

By 1986, working-class residents were locked out of power. They turned first to Sharpe James, who eventually embodied the stereotypical corrupt, big city mayor, then to Cory Booker, who embodied the technocratic, neoliberal mayor. In 2014, with the city still in decline, they elected someone with a different pedigree: Ras Baraka, Newark native and son of Amiri Baraka.

Baraka departs from his predecessors in important ways. But whatever the dissimilarities, the city he’s building still places corporate power at the center. Working with Governor Chris Christie, Baraka pieced together a package for Amazon that contains some $7 billion in subsidies.

To put that into perspective, Baraka’s entire proposed budget is $666 million — less than one-tenth of the Amazon offering. Since 1996 the state has given corporations approximately $10.7 billion in subsidies — just a few billion less than the entire Amazon deal.

Or look at it another way: $5 billion of the subsidies pot would likely come from the state, with the city picking up the remaining 2 billion. Amazon says its headquarters would bring some 50,000 jobs carrying an average salary of $100,000. The state benefits alone — which are so extensive they had to be voted on by the state legislature because they violated existing law — would amount to a subsidy of $100,000 per job.

At the city level, the carrots include both a $1 billion property tax abatement and a $1 billion city wage-tax waiver that would allow Amazon employees who live in the city to dodge most city taxes. And as Samantha Marcus notes, if the tax credits Amazon receives are larger than its corporate income tax liability, the behemoth has the right to either roll the credits forward (for fifty years) or sell them to other corporations.

None of this profligacy fazed Baraka. After learning that Newark had made the finalists’ list, he was ecstatic. He claimed that Amazon would revive the city, bringing it out of the ashes of postindustrial ruin:

It’s a story that Amazon could tell about how they were a part of expediting a city’s growth, a city that is like a phoenix in the fire, moving forward consistently despite all the obstacles. . . . Amazon gets to come here and expedite that and be a part of fashioning and forming that American story of a Newark city that has been fifty years in the making.

If Newark does land Amazon, it likely won’t lift the city out of the ashes so much as make it inhospitable to the average resident — median single-family homes in Seattle (the site of Amazon’s current headquarters) go for $750,000, over $500,000 more than in Newark.

Newark residents elected Baraka in part because they hoped he represented a progressive alternative to Booker’s neoliberal rule. But Baraka wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into the Amazon deal: he put himself at the front of the negotiations.

Like other mayors, Baraka gushed about the possibility of winning the new headquarters as a radical shift. The idea that their city could house HQ2 seemed, to them, incredibly ambitious.

This is what passes for political imagination today. This is what passes for radical political imagination today. Mayors will race to the bottom in order to open up their tax coffers for a pie-in-the-sky corporate project.

But extending that political imagination in another direction? Using tax dollars to build public housing or heat public schools or feed hungry children? That’s crazy talk. Expecting fifty thousand jobs at Amazon HQ2 to lift the entire city out of poverty, when the benefits would only go to a thin slice of the city’s residents? That’s completely sane.

Some might ask, what are cities supposed to do? What choice do they have but to ingratiate themselves to Jeff Bezos? Admittedly, several different factors hamstring even the most ambitious of local officials. Perhaps the most important is the simple logic of capitalism: because businesses won’t invest if they don’t expect to make a profit, government policies are always at least partially devised with their interests in mind. The fall-off in federal funding for cities in recent decades has heightened local officials’ need to placate business.

On top of that, laws designed to encourage capital mobility make it harder for local governments to pass tax increases: corporations can just cross state or national lines to avoid paying into the public fund. And some cities are essentially barred from passing tax hikes at all — look at Detroit, which post-bankruptcy, is severely limited in its taxing powers (even as it uses public subsidies to build new stadiums, expand Dan Gilbert’s growing empire, and bid on Amazon). Finally, progressive representatives at the city council level often find themselves unable to make substantive change because their cities pair weak councils with strong mayors.

Even with these constraints, however, it bears noting that alternatives do exist. That there are other models, within the United States and across cities. Chokwe Antar Lumumba, in Jackson, Mississippi, for example, shares Ras Baraka’s favorite son status — Lumumba’s father (black radical activist Chokwe Lumumba) was elected mayor in 2015 only to die tragically one month later. Yet unlike Baraka, Lumumba came to power not just in a groundswell of activism, but as part of a broader grassroots movement. Its platform promotes worker-owned co-ops as a way to place economic control in the hands of Jackson’s predominantly working-class black citizens. And because Lumumba’s administration has striven to democratize city government — through Peoples Assemblies and other means — a sudden embrace of Newark-style development is less tenable. His project is too anchored to his base to quickly pivot to capital-friendly policies.

The Jackson movement, while still fledgling, is an antidote to the cynicism that leads one to see bidding for Amazon as the most radical of political horizons. Another way — more just, more democratic — is in fact possible. But it requires not only political will, but political mobilization and new political institutions.