The Anti-Amazon Ground Game

How New York City socialists and their allies combined electoral muscle with front-stoop politicking to keep Amazon’s headquarters out of the city.

Protestors unfurl anti-Amazon banners from the balcony of a hearing room during a New York City Council Finance Committee hearing titled 'Amazon HQ2 Stage 2: Does the Amazon Deal Deliver for New York City Residents?' at New York City Hall, January 30, 2019 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty

Interview by
Meagan Day

Last week, the Left in New York City won a stunning victory over the long-reigning corporate elite.

In late 2018 Amazon, enticed by a $3 billion sweetheart tax deal, selected the city as the site of its second headquarters, known colloquially as HQ2. The city’s powerful real estate interests were overjoyed, as tech hubs tend to bring white-collar workers and opportunities for lucrative speculative development. They welcomed the influx of well-heeled techies: there’s only so much money you can wring from people who make $40,000 a year, after all.

But working-class residents and local left activists surprised everyone by rising up in protest. They rejected the official line that the deal would bring jobs their way, reasoning instead that the jobs would be reserved for people wealthier than them, and they in turn would be subject to displacement.

The public outcry put New York politicians, fearful of their reelection prospects in the era of ascendant progressivism, in a difficult position. They responded by asking Amazon for concessions. Amazon scoffed and called off the deal. Good riddance, said the opponents.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with two New York City residents and members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Karen Narefsky and Susan Kang, about how it all went down.

Meagan Day

How did Amazon decide to come to New York City, and why did the company change its mind?

Susan Kang

This deal was made in the fall of 2017, which was a very different time politically than in late 2018, when the deal was announced.

The deal was agreed upon in a backroom by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. It would be one of these crowning achievements in Cuomo’s economic development strategy of trying to make New York attractive to private investment through subsidies. It would also be good for de Blasio, but in general Cuomo has been the lead on this. He’s been talking about creating tech hubs and that kind of thing throughout New York City for a while now, trying to make New York City another San Francisco or Seattle.

When the initial bid between cities for Amazon HQ2 was happening, there was a public letter that nobody really paid attention to that a whole bunch of New York elected official signed. It basically stated that New York welcomes Amazon, that New York City has all the infrastructure and the talent needed to really make Amazon HQ2 be functional and really shine. It really did reflect politics as usual in New York in 2017.

The Bronx and Queens Democratic Party machines and real estate interests had unified around a single person, Corey Johnson, and real estate donations basically ensured that he would become the speaker of the New York City Council. And so even though 2017 was one of the first years where public financing was made available — and there was an idea that that would make grassroots and progressive City Council candidates more viable and thus create a more representative body in diverse city council — what actually happened was that a white male from Manhattan, rather than like a progressive or a PoC or a woman, became speaker. That shows you how influential real estate and private developer interests were in city politics in 2017.

That was a very different time. I think none of the people who had signed onto the letter could have predicted the sea change that would happen by the time the deal got announced in late 2018. And that’s why they didn’t predict a significant popular backlash.

Meagan Day

But there was a backlash. Can you tell me what that looked like?

Karen Narefsky

There was a backlash for a number of reasons. There was a huge reaction to the tax incentives. People reacted very negatively to the idea that cities basically had to get on their knees and throw money at Amazon. When people saw how much money Amazon would be able to take advantage of in New York City, especially given the unbelievable wealth that Amazon already has, they were taken aback.

And additionally, displacement became a major concern. Immediately there was a huge reaction of joy from the real estate community about being able to turn the city into a tech hub. But there’s a huge immigrant community in Western Queens that’s at risk of displacement because of that.

There were a couple other factors too, like Amazon developing a facial recognition technology that they are sharing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And there was also a backlash from unions. There was some disagreement within labor, with the building service workers having worked out a deal where they would be able to [represent] people on the Amazon campus. But retail workers were very against it. They wanted Amazon to commit to union neutrality, which the company was not willing to do.  

So labor issues, immigration issues, displacement issues, and people’s strong feelings about inequality in general all came together to spark the backlash. And politicians who had previously been on board with Amazon coming to New York City found themselves in a position where they had to respond.

Susan Kang

And Queens, of course, is where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected. People there have shown that they are really upset about income inequality and are willing to take action about it.

Add to that the fact that Queens actually has a pretty established history of organizing to stop development that is perceived to be hurting the community and displacing existing residents to the benefit of private business and big corporations. A coalition of activists, many of whom are people of color, has some practice coming together to stop these kinds of developments, so they kicked into action.

It was this perfect storm, really. Queens has a strong network of PoC community organizers, and DSA was able to turn out in huge numbers to knock on doors. We were able to get together in a coalition really quickly when Amazon HQ was announced.

Meagan Day

Speaking of DSA, a handful of real estate agents bemoaned the deal’s unraveling and actually blamed socialists for it. Bernie Sanders has antagonized Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and helped turn popular opinion against him, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out strong against HQ2, DSA mobilized quickly. Seems like it’s a pretty fair characterization, no?

Karen Narefsky

Definitely the discussions that Bernie has started around not just Amazon but also Walmart and other large corporations has brought a lot of attention to the disparity between how much someone like Jeff Bezos makes and how much Amazon warehouse workers make and the way that they’re treated. I think that definitely contributed, along with how Bernie is sort of channeling a feeling that income inequality is not the way that it has to be.

There’s an attitude among a lot of politicians, especially people who have been in politics and been looking at urban development for a long time, that it’s like still the nineties and we need to just chase investment wherever we can find it. But increasingly, voters don’t think that way. Bernie is definitely channeling that, which has been helpful.

Susan Kang

As for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she made public statements about both subsidies and the way that Amazon mistreats its workers, how Jeff Bezos is not a very socially responsible CEO. I think those statements really had an effect in the new cycle, and helped activists feel energized.

But more importantly, it’s the fact that she won. Her race really changed the tenor of New York politics, and particularly in Queens. It set into motion a bunch of processes that opened up possibilities that weren’t there before. Taking on the political machine, affirming the value of movements, that had a huge impact.

Ocasio-Cortez’s district overlaps heavily with that of Mike Gianaris, who is the deputy majority leader in the State Senate. He’s a very conventional politician, but seeing the way Ocasio-Cortez’s victory played out, he has definitely started to understand that the winds are changing. So as soon as the Amazon deal got announced, even though his name was on the original letter, he put himself out there as being against Amazon.

Senator Gianaris actually announced at an event where DSA was present that he wouldn’t take any money from real estate developers ever again. He’s trying to align himself with Ocasio-Cortez and DSA. And he even ended up sending all of these glossy mailers to his own constituents, as if he were running for office, talking about how he didn’t support Amazon and all the things he was going to do to challenge Amazon.

Karen Narefsky

And when it comes to DSA itself, I think what is really notable about New York City DSA is how it’s made a major effort to work in coalition with other local groups, whether it’s around universal rent control or police accountability or working with labor groups. When it came to Amazon, DSA was able to mobilize the Queens branch and the citywide membership pretty quickly to actions organized by other groups. DSA just has so many people, and it was very important to be working as part of that coalition and sending those people to amplify existing organizing wherever possible.

DSA also sponsored a big town hall in response to the Amazon announcement, and it was a packed event. DSA also held its own canvasses, and other groups brought out their people to be part of it. And additionally, Amazon had a really weak response to all the criticisms, and DSA has a huge social media reach and was able to really publicize how insufficient that response was.

DSA being willing to work in coalition with other groups, and also having massive people-power and canvassing presence, it made a difference. Elected officials are also nervous that DSA could credibly primary them, which helps. But the main thing is just getting people out on the ground and really being able to spread a message about what economic development should look like in our neighborhoods and what kinds of jobs we should be creating.

Meagan Day

Some polls came out early on claiming that more New Yorkers were in favor of the deal than against it. Amazon supporters leaned on them very hard. What’s your take on that?

Susan Kang

Those polls didn’t matter. They were used to discredit a movement that was actually seeking to change the debate and engage with people, as opposed to a poll, which is like a thirty-second conversation and tells you very little about the controversy at hand. 

By contrast, we would hit every building in a community. We didn’t care if they were likely Democrats, we didn’t care if they were voters or even citizens, we just spoke to people. And we didn’t say, “Hi we’re DSA and we’re against Amazon.” We would say, “Here’s the deal. Here’s exactly what the city is going to get. How do you feel about it?”

We had deep canvassing conversations, and we had wonderful responses from people, including those who initially felt like they were in support of the deal. There was much more preexisting support for a critical position than a survey might capture. 

And I think people understood that our position was sincere, because it’s not like the pro-Amazon side was sending volunteers out in the cold, freezing rain. They were just sending glossy mailers. I got some of these glossy mailers because I live in Western Queens, and you know, they were asking us to lobby our electeds. They were asking us to do work for Amazon, as opposed to us actually going to people and meeting them in their homes and chatting with them about affordability in this community and the worries that they have. That made an impact.

Meagan Day

This is a pretty significant accomplishment. How victorious are you feeling?

Karen Narefsky

On the one hand it is a really important victory. I particularly think it’s incredible that people were were willing to push for outright rejecting the deal, rather than trying to get additional concessions from Amazon or push for more local hiring or whatever. It’s amazing that people felt confident to say, “No, this is not a good deal, we reject it altogether.” And it’s a remarkable victory for the Queens community and for New York as a whole in changing the way people think about how to shape development.

I will say, as a follow-up, that I hope people keep an eye on what Amazon and other companies are doing. Those subsidies that Amazon was slated to get are provided for in New York state law. Any developer can come along and get them. We have to pressure people like Mike Gianaris to get rid of these economic incentives, which started in the seventies and have been such a huge feature of the New York’s development landscape for decades.

And additionally, nothing prevents Amazon itself from continuing to buy property in New York and build up a presence here without all the fanfare. That’s essentially what Google has done. I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon tries to do that, because there are a lot of advantages to them in being in New York, which they learned all about in the process of brokering this deal.

Susan Kang

That said, there’s a lot of galvanizing of energy and a lot of optimism right now, especially in Queens. People tend to think that the nexus of the future of left politics in New York City is in Brooklyn, but in fact a lot of it is going to be based out of Queens.