From the moment Amazon announced that it had chosen Long Island City, Queens for one half of their new corporate campus, Maritza Silva-Farrell says she knew the company was underestimating its grassroots opponents. She'd seen the same miscalculation just months earlier, when a nimble coalition of Western Queens progressive activists had propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into Congress. As executive director of ALIGN, she believed that a similar alliance of labor, community and immigrant groups could be galvanized to put pressure on Amazon and elected officials to challenge the closed-doors deal.
Few expected Amazon to back out after just three months. But Silva-Farrell was sure that a wave of community outcry — occasionally confrontational, but sustained through door-knocking and traditional collective organizing — would eventually come crashing down on Amazon, and on the deal negotiated by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to provide the company with roughly $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives. "That old model is done," she told Gothamist. "It's ground up now."
On Thursday night, hours after Amazon's stunning announcement that it was cancelling their move, Silva-Farrell and around 100 other activists gathered for their victory party—an elated celebration that brought a mariachi band, chants of "Bye Bezos," and a pinata depicting the Amazon CEO's face to Jackson Heights' Diversity Plaza.
"We just beat the richest man in the world to keep him out of our city," declared Fahd Ahmed of Desis Rising Up & Moving, standing in front of a hand-painted banner featuring illustrations of affordable housing, free college, and Medicare for All. "This is the start of an economic development plan that benefits us and our neighborhoods. It's a new day and the tide is turning—the city needs to watch out."
The banner reads: Neighbors Beyond Amazon pic.twitter.com/lboyz26zxg
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) February 14, 2019
Angeles Solis, director of workplace organizing with the Jackson Heights-based immigrant advocacy organization Make the Road New York, said she was eating soup with dozens of other activists in the group's office when she heard the news. "It's absolutely surreal and a massive relief," she told Gothamist. "But at the same time we know there's more work to be done."
Referencing Amazon's ongoing collaboration with ICE and vehemently anti-union ethos, she noted: "This is a pattern we're seeing across the country, where a corporation cuts all corners, refuses to invest in communities, and has predatory practices that hurt small businesses and the immigrant community."
Some in attendance were similarly forward-looking in their moment of victory. David Lee, an Elmhurst resident and field organizer with the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said he was eager to focus the group's energy on universal rent control, and supporting public defender Tiffany Caban, also at the party, in her race for Queens District Attorney later this year.
Others said they were hopeful that the momentum in Western Queens could be exported elsewhere in the city. "I'm looking to Queens in terms of an organizing model that we can apply to the Bronx," said Samelys Lopez, a co-coordinator with Bronx Progressives. "Seeing how they've been able to fight and organize has been incredibly inspiring to me."
Toward the edge of the crowd was State Senator Michael Gianaris, an outspoken critic of the Amazon proposal whose pending appointment to a state public authorities board with veto power over the deal is said to have helped Amazon change its mind. The governor had called him out directly earlier in the day, and his face was hours away from being splashed derisively across both of the city's tabloids.
Before leaving, he told Gothamist, "There's a lot of finger-pointing right now. It's something. It's really something."
Not everyone in Queens is happy to see #Amazon pull out of #LIC. Let’s just say this is the clean version. Local business owner Josh Bowen just shouted city officials right away from their own victory speech. Stay tuned. Such a bitter debate, on both sides. #LongIslandCity pic.twitter.com/lJKgBh2Uvu
— Stacey Sager (@staceysager7) February 14, 2019
It wasn't lost on advocates that outside of Diversity Plaza, disappointed New Yorkers were blaming them for a missed economic opportunity and the promise of 25,000 jobs. Real estate developers, many of whom had already bet big on Long Island City, are devastated, as are some business owners and nearby public housing residents.
"There was a lot that could've been brought to the neighborhood," April Andrews, an IT specialist and Queensbridge Houses tenant, told Gothamist/WNYC earlier in the day. "It's walking distance from here. There's jobs that could've been offered, education that could've been offered, a whole lot."
But activists said they heard a different refrain while canvassing the Queensbridge Houses this weekend, collecting nearly 500 signatures from tenants for a petition decrying Amazon's corporate greed.
Asked about the suggestion that scaring off the company was the work of out-of-touch progressives, some of them the same gentrifiers that Amazon's opponents railed against, Silva-Farrell stressed that "this fight was led by working-class women of color from the very beginning."
"People will look for any reason to undermine the work of communities of color," she added. "Those people are wrong." Indeed, the Times editorial board, which deemed the deal a "bad bargain" for the city just a few months ago, now blames the "anti-corporate activists" and their "bumper sticker slogans."
If there's anyone who should be worried about backlash, says Silva-Farrell, it's the architects of the deal, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, for failing to read the growing antagonism toward both corporate tax breaks in general and Amazon specifically. While the governor has directed most of his anger at the newly-Democratic State Senate, the mayor has abandoned any defense of the deal he helped orchestrate, releasing a statement yesterday noting that "you have to be tough to make it in New York City" and blaming Amazon for their greed.
"Those statements are a joke," said Silva-Farrell. "They're trying to cover their tracks because they got checked by the communities. They should take this very seriously because we're united right now, and people are realizing what we're capable of doing."
Additional reporting by Shumita Basu.
Listen to WNYC's Arun Venugopal explain how a diverse coalition of Queens residents came together to oppose the Amazon deal.