On the morning of February 14, Maritza Silva-Farrell was on a call in her Lower Manhattan office with a fellow climate activist when she noticed a New York Times news alert pop up on her phone.
Amazon was pulling out of New York City. The tech behemoth had cancelled its plans to build a second headquarters, and create a reported 25,000 jobs, in Queens barely three months after choosing the city. The decision to select New York as one of the chosen cities – the Washington, D.C. suburb of Crystal City, Virginia was the other – had marked the end of the company’s two-year-long American-Idol style HQ2 contest where over 230 cities from across North America doled out major tax breaks and other corporate freebies to lure Amazon.
Immediately, Silva-Farrell was flooded with requests from journalists seeking comment on what was a stunning turn of events. She hastily convened a conference call with members of the anti-Amazon coalition she helped lead.
“We have successfully exposed Amazon’s predatory model and now they are running scared,” she told the call’s participants as they digested the news that sent tremors through Wall Street and corporate boardrooms across the US.
In the weeks since the Amazon deal’s collapse, the media narrative has centered on the role played by local politicians, particularly that of state Senator Michael Gianaris, in turning the tide against Amazon.
While Gianaris and New York City council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents the district in city hall, certainly played a pivotal role by publicly voicing their discontent with the agreement, it was a behind-the-scenes coalition of more than 15 community-based organizations from across New York City and a relentless campaign in schools, offices, homes, bodegas and on street corners throughout Queens, that played the crucial role in sending Amazon packing.
The efforts of the #NoAmazon coalition, as the group called itself, have largely gone unreported until now but their impact was significant. This is the inside account of how a disparate group of activists and organizers, with little by way of financial resources but with intimate knowledge of the communities they were a part of, came together to take on one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations.
‘The people would be leading this fight’
On a rainy, cold November day, journalists were summoned to a Manhattan news conference. There were rumors it had to do with Amazon, the tech giant reportedly considering New York City for its planned second headquarters.
A beaming mayor Bill DeBlasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo opened with their prepared remarks and enthusiastically confirmed the reports: Amazon was coming to New York.
“I was shocked,” said Silva-Farrell, a native of Ecuador who arrived in New York at the age of 20 to study journalism but later turned to activism, including taking part in a successful 2011 campaign to keep Walmart out of the city.
The Amazon deal, worked out in secret, highlighted a tract of land, partially publicly owned, along the East River, in the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City that faced directly across the water from Manhattan’s iconic Empire State building. It was a 10-minute ferry ride across the river, or a five-minute subway ride to Manhattan. And it was here that the massive Amazon HQ2 campus would be built.
“New Yorkers will get tens of thousands of new, good-paying jobs,” proclaimed DeBlasio.
Those promised 25,000 jobs over the course of 10 years came in exchange for more than $3bn in taxpayer-funded subsidies. This corporate giveaway enraged New Yorkers of all political stripes. Many took to social media asking how the city could find billions for one of the world’s richest companies – whose CEO Jeffrey Bezos is the world’s richest person – while public services around them were in a constant state of blight.
“They [Cuomo and DeBlasio] can’t find two nickels to put together to pay for our subways but somehow could promise a billion-dollar company a massive free handout paid for by New Yorkers,” Gianaris told the Guardian. “It was a slap in the face.”
Silva-Farrell’s phone soon buzzed with texts calling for a resistance.
As executive director of ALIGN, an organization committed to building coalitions to address income inequality and climate change, many looked to Silva-Farrell for guidance on how to oppose the deal. She sent out emails to ALIGN’s partner organizations to get their take. The responses flooded back.
“There was concern across the board about this company coming into their neighborhoods,” said Silva-Farrell. “There were no guarantees that the 25,000 jobs would go to New Yorkers and a real fear that this would usher in hyper gentrification and widespread displacement of longtime residents, not just in Long Island City but throughout Queens.” The most diverse of New York City’s five boroughs, Queens is home to an estimated 1.1 million immigrants, who speak an estimated 138 languages. By some estimates, it is the most diverse urban area in the world.
The groups collectively organized a first meeting on 1 November. The forum served as a brainstorming session for 150 plus activists, Queens residents, some of the city’s most well-known community organizations and even a handful of small business groups who feared Amazon would put them out of work.
In attendance were several elected officials, including congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic political star whose immediate opposition to HQ2 helped provide a national media platform for the coalition. That evening, though, Ocasio-Cortez largely stayed silent. She listened to the activists and constituents who one-by-one voiced concerns for why they opposed Amazon coming to Queens. They cited a series of ills associated with the company: a history of “forced gentrification” in its home city of Seattle, its union-busting tactics, and its relationship with US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (Ice).
That last issue struck a powerful chord. As that first meeting came to a close, Fahd Ahmed was taken aback by the degree to which it galvanized local activists and residents.
But they had their reasons. In addition to providing cloud storage service technology to Ice, Amazon licenses its facial-recognition surveillance technology, known as Rekognition, to Ice and other law enforcement agencies.
Critics say the technology has allowed Ice to more easily target undocumented immigrants in their communities and subsequently deport them: though Amazon will not confirm or deny it licenses the technology to Ice.
“That meeting made clear the people would be leading this fight,” said Ahmed, executive director of Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), a Queens-based social justice organization that organizes low-income south Asian and Indo-Caribbean immigrants.
Steering public attention
Nonetheless, the odds of overturning the Amazon deal looked slim, at best. At another larger town hall on 28 November in Woodside, a working-class, largely immigrant, neighborhood 15 minutes down the 7 subway line from the prospective Amazon campus, residents again debated the deal.
The town hall was long and, at times, chaotic providing little consensus on what to do next. The Amazon move felt inevitable.
Though the first public poll, and every subsequent poll, would show majority support for the Amazon deal among Queens residents – a point made often by Amazon – the #NoAmazon coalition still felt they had strong support in the neighborhoods that would be most affected by the Amazon campus.
They identified Queensbridge, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Astoria, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona as “frontline communities” that would see a spike in housing prices, rental displacement and traffic congestion. They felt if they reached residents in these communities, they could shift the public narrative being pushed by Amazon.
Meanwhile, Amazon sought to extinguish any opposition quickly. The company hired two lobbyists, one of whom was Mark S Weprin, a longtime Democratic member of the city council. Amazon’s strategy was typical for high-powered companies: hire insiders to convince elected officials in private to quietly whip support.
Silva-Farrell understood that the public’s attention could drift away from the issue. She created a steering committee, which would meet once a week at ALIGN and hash out strategy. The plans devised in these meetings would be known only to those in attendance so as to not tip off Amazon.
“We all understood that the only way we could win was to trust each other, work through our differences to be united to take on this massive corporation,” said Silva-Farrell. “This was the fight of our lives.”
Queensbridge: the battleground neighborhood
When Amazon announced its plans to build an HQ2 campus along the East River, the company identified the surrounding area as Long Island City. Nowhere in the news release was mention made of Queensbridge, which sat right next door to the proposed development.
Queensbridge was airbrushed out of the announcement, a surprise omission given that it’s hard to miss. It is the largest public housing development in the nation.
It covers a vast area, six city blocks, is home to 96 buildings and approximately 3,142 units. Officially, the complex houses roughly 15,000 residents but, unofficially, many suspect it to be far more. Erected in 1939, the Queensbridge Houses complex was for decades a gleaming example of how government could provide a dignified home to New Yorkers.
The fact that no mention was made of Queensbridge alarmed longtime resident Raymond Normandeau.
“If the city was willing to give Amazon partially publicly owned land for virtually nothing, what was to stop Amazon from coming back to tell the city after 10 years that it wanted to expand further?” said Normandeau, who has lived in the Queensbridge Houses complex since 1973. “In that scenario, at least part of the Queensbridge Houses would disappear.”
Normandeau is, in some respects, the unofficial mayor of the Houses. As he walks the complex chatting with neighbors, his deep voice commands a presence far larger than his small physique. He and his wife run the Queensbridge news website and he knows – and shares – the ups and downs of life in the Houses.
During the January polar vortex when temperatures in New York City plunged to well below zero, some residents had no heat and hot water. Desperate tenants solicited advice from Normandeau on how to heat their homes by using their kitchen oven.
“It pissed off people,” Normandeau said of the promise to give Amazon billions of dollars in tax subsidies. “They can find money for the world’s richest man and his company but they can’t find the money for heat and hot water for people in Queensbridge Houses.”
But within Queensbridge, there was support for HQ2. While Normandeau worked hard to spread the word to rally residents against the deal, the Queensbridge tenant association president, April Simpson, was strongly in favor.
Simpson, 57, has lived in Queensbridge for her entire life. Her father, a second world war veteran, moved the family to Queensbridge in 1949. Simpson, the youngest of seven, was the first child born in the Houses. “Queensbridge runs through my bones,” she quips.
For the last two decades, she had seen real estate developers build luxury towers and hotels in Long Island City and never reach out to Queensbridge residents for input, let alone hire anyone from the community. But Amazon created a community advisory council. “We had a seat at the table,” said Simpson.
Along with three other public housing presidents, Simpson welcomed the promise of jobs, job training and, she hoped, technology courses at local public schools that she said would transform the lives of Queensbridge residents.
In an interview with the Guardian, Simpson charged the #NoAmazon coalition of “spreading misinformation” to Queensbridge residents during an early February canvassing event where the coalition knocked on more than 2,000 doors to gather signatures in opposition.
Bishop Mitchell G Taylor, who runs the local non-profit Urban Upbound – which is committed to providing good-paying job opportunities for public housing residents throughout New York City – joined Simpson in supporting HQ2. Like Simpson, he also served on the community advisory council, as a chair of workforce development. Taylor told the Guardian that the deal had the potential to offer “limitless opportunities” to Queensbridge residents.
Others, though, remained skeptical. Hasra Rahman, who has lived in Queensbridge since 2010, said her neighbors, “always understood” many of Amazon’s promised jobs would not have gone to residents. In a city council hearing, Amazon only committed to providing 30 jobs to Queensbridge residents, at least in the first year. Rahman also pointed out that, if Amazon came, those local businesses that served low-income residents like her would likely be replaced by shops serving wealthier, mostly whiter Amazon workers.
“We’re not against creating jobs but we need jobs that will help us build,” said Rahman.
A flurry of secret meetings
Soon the #NoAmazon coalition notched its first win.
At the opening New York City council HQ2 hearing on 12 December, Amazon VP of public policy Brian Huseman took the stand to field questions. Councilmembers pushed him on the secretive HQ2 process and the company’s combative stance on unions.
He was asked directly about Amazon’s relationship with Ice and how that might be problematic in a borough as racially and ethically diverse as Queens.
“We believe the government should have the best available technology,” Huseman told the committee. His response, an implicit acknowledgment of the relationship, appeared to confirm activists’ suspicions – but it also gave them some powerful ammunition to use.
A clip of the comment soon appeared on Twitter, going viral. Lau Barrios, a fellow with MPower Change – a grassroots organization that organizes Muslim Americans – along with others in the coalition’s digital working group made a graphic of Huseman’s quote to make it easily shareable on social media while ALIGN edited a video of the full exchange.
“Our target was specifically to bring the Amazon and Ice relationship into public focus,” said Barrios. “Tech enables Ice to do their work, which makes Amazon complicit in Trump’s deportation machine.”
Journalists later asked DeBlasio whether he knew of the Amazon-Ice relationship. The mayor did not directly answer.
A spokesperson for the mayor declined to clarify DeBlasio’s stance to the Guardian.
‘They’re helping Ice target and deport us’
At the coalition’s first steering meeting, held on 11 January, a group of less than 20 gathered in a conference room in ALIGN’s 29th floor offices with views of the Hudson River. They agreed to complement the digital strategy used against Huseman with traditional canvassing in those frontline communities they had outlined.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose Queens chapter held a seat on the committee, would use its impressive canvassing infrastructure to lead the on-the-ground effort which started to rollout across the streets of the borough.
In a subsequent meeting, members reported back that many residents still knew little of the deal, except what they had seen in Amazon brochures mailed to their homes. So they decided to mimic Amazon’s own strategy: passing out similar leaflets, except with their own anti-Amazon messaging in bodegas, at halal food carts, among other public places.
Sadat Iqbal, a 31-year-old immigrant, passed out leaflets in Jackson Heights. He said most people he encountered worried about being forced from their homes through rent hikes. But Iqbal also highlighted the Ice connection. Iqbal, a native of Bangladesh, spoke to some residents in Bengali to share his personal story: his uncle was deported back to Bangladesh in 2018 after living in New Jersey for more than 25 years. Ice agents had apprehended him during a routine check-in with US immigration. He left behind a wife and two children.
“Folks initially had very little awareness of the Amazon-Ice connection,” said Iqbal. “That is when it really crystallized for them that we couldn’t let this company into our communities to displace us, while helping Ice target and deport us.”
The Ice connection is one that would persist throughout the campaign. While thousands in the “frontline communities” feared rent increases, ICE’s near weekly raids in these heavily immigrant neighborhoods during the Trump era have created a climate of fear. Amazon preferred this relationship not to be in the public eye.
The coalition saw the Ice issue as an opening to test Cathy Nolan, a local Democratic representative. The powerful longtime incumbent, who represents the state’s 37th district that includes Long Island City, was a strong critic of Washington’s immigration policies but also a supporter of the Amazon campus. She was not swayed.
That outraged the DSA. In one steering committee meeting, a handful of other groups joined DSA’s calls to field a candidate to challenge Nolan in a 2020 primary, according to two people present. The call was particularly notable given DSA’s role in urging Ocasio-Cortez to run against former Queens party boss and fellow Democrat Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory had created international headlines.
There was, however, one elected official who would be invaluable to the coalition and prove key to victory.
Gianaris lends his support
Outside of the coalition, Gianaris, the state senator, was also a constant presence at public protests against HQ2.
Notably, Gianaris had declined to join Amazon’s community advisory council. He saw where sentiment was heading in his district and, perhaps also mindful of the threat against Nolan, may have sought to avoid a primary challenge.
Cuomo accused him of siding with “extreme” socialists in the coalition over his constituents, targeting him because he knew the young senator could sink the deal. State Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, was considering nominating Gianaris to the Public Authorities Control board, an obscure state board with the power to stop major projects in the state.
The coalition worked behind the scenes to pressure allies in the Senate to nudge Stewart-Cousins in that direction. Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, two young progressives helped relay the message. A number of Long Island Democrats, who represent suburban districts, strongly supported Amazon and urged Stewart-Cousins not to appoint Gianaris.
On 4 February, Stewart-Cousins officially nominated Gianaris in a letter to the governor. If confirmed, he would be one of the board’s three voting members. According to the board’s rules, any voting member can veto a project.
Cuomo reacted furiously. Amazon was also paying attention. But the fallout from the move came quicker than any had expected. Four days later, a Washington Post report said that the company was reconsidering its HQ2 plans in New York.
Less than a week later, Amazon pulled the plug in a tersely worded statement. The coalition celebrated, while DeBlasio criticized Amazon for giving up and Cuomo turned his ire on his fellow Democrats in the State Senate.
And, while the coalition of activists celebrated, not all in Queens shared their delight.
Simpson sat in her office and cried when she saw the news. Just that morning, she had attended a meeting with an Amazon representative to discuss community job training programs at a local college she hoped the company would implement. The representative, Simpson said, offered no hint to her that the company was about to pull out. There was even a scheduled follow-up brunch meeting at noon, which was abruptly canceled.
“An opportunity of a lifetime was snatched from us. I plead with Mr. Bezos that he re-consider,” said Simpson.
But Silva-Farrell had no such regrets. For years she had imagined this sort of victory in her head, though she admits she just never expected it to happen in real life.
She believes the grassroots #NoAmazon coalition that took on Amazon and won paved the way for something larger than themselves.
“We proved that you can flip the formula all across this country,” said Silva-Farrell. “We can actually build our communities without corporations coming in to undo them.”