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Divisive Amazon HQ2 Meeting Draws Hundreds to City Hall

“Why do you need our money? We have 63,000 people who are sleeping in homeless shelters,” council speaker Corey Johnson told Amazon reps. “Don’t you think there’s a better way for us to spend $3 billion?”

Anti-Amazon protesters unfurl banners in City hall before being escorted outside by security guards (photo by author)

New York City councilmembers had many questions for Amazon officials about their plan for a headquarters in Long Island City (LIC), Queens, but received few answers during the second of three public hearings on the deal.

Outrage against the company’s HQ2 proposal was palpable on the steps of City Hall. Just minutes before visitors filed into the hearing, around 150 people from a coalition of community organizations lifted signs of dissent into the freezing cold air. “The MTA is crumbling,” one sign said; “NYCHA is without heat and water,” said another. Demonstrators represented the opinions of groups like Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), the Alliance of Greater New York (ALIGN), and Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM) — all of which characterize the Amazon HQ2 deal agreed to by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio as “corporate welfare.”

Anti-Amazon activists outside City Hall (photo by author)

Soon after activists dispersed from the steps, counter-protesters mounted their own campaign with glossy signs boasting that Amazon would bring jobs, opportunities, and infrastructure. The action was supported by the unions 32BJ and Local 638, which already have work agreements with TF Cornerstone, a developer for part of Amazon’s HQ2, and Plaxall, the landowner of the headquarters’ proposed site. Other supporters included the Long Island City Partnership BID, Queens Chamber of Commerce, and the NY State District Council of Ironworkers.

Pro-Amazon protesters outside City Hall (image courtesy CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities)

Entitled, “Amazon HQ2: Does the Amazon Deal Deliver for New York City Residents,” the hearing was convened by the council’s finance committee to conduct an in-depth review and evaluation of the economic incentives offered to the company at public cost. Top Amazon officials Holly Sullivan and Brian Huseman were on-hand to answer questions from the council, as was James Patchett, president and CEO of the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Noticeably absent was the Empire State Development (ESD), which the governor used alongside EDC to bypass the traditional steps of public approval like the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULUR). (The abilities and budgets of EDC and ESD are at the discretion of the mayor and the governor, respectively.)

“This deal was made backwards,” said council speaker Corey Johnson in his opening statement. “How could the state sign without understanding how [Amazon] would shape the city for decades?”

Johnson continued this line of questioning for much of the afternoon. Mainly, he wanted to know how Amazon and the city arrived at such an optimistic outlook for the company’s LIC takeover. Previously, the governor’s office has boasted that the public’s estimated $3 billion investment will see a 9-to-1 return at more than $27.5 billion over the next two decades. But without conducting a cost-benefit analysis — particularly one that’s independently reviewed — Johnson doubts Cuomo and De Blasio’s overtures about the deal.

Finance committee chair Daniel Dromm wanted to know what will happen to homegrown tech companies that will have to compete with a publicly subsidized behemoth. He quoted Joseph Parilla of the Brookings Institute, asking, “Will Amazon’s arrival actually benefit local residents, or exacerbate existing structural iniquities?”

That question loomed over the council as Amazon mounted its defense. At the hearing, the company announced that it has enrolled more than 130 NYC high schools in their self-funded computer science education program. Huseman said that the program will affect 1 in 6 high schools across the five boroughs, with 1 in 4 being in Queens. According to him, Amazon will not fully cater its headquarters, prompting workers to spend their lunch money within the community. “Amazon doesn’t make campuses, we make neighborhoods,” added Sullivan.

The company also made a point of highlighting its attempts at community outreach over the last few months. “Local businesses are excited,” said Huseman. He specifically pointed out Matted LLC owner Donna Drummer, whose store functions as an art gallery, gift shop, and framing store. “The truth of the matter is that I have been 110% behind this project,” Huseman quoted her as saying. “Hopefully [Amazon employees] will come into my shop and make purchases.”

Anti-Amazon protesters distributed orange fliers to hold up during the hearing (photo by author)

By far the tensest moments of the hearing came from interrogations led by Speaker Johnson and Councilmember Jimmy van Bramer that needled at two of Amazon’s largest controversies: its history of union busting and its collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Throughout the hearing, protestors in the crowd held up flyers featuring Amazon’s logo as a frowning face saying, “Caution: Amazon lies.” Demonstrators on the balcony also unfurled two large, black banners that read “Amazon delivers lies,” and “Amazon fuels ICE deportations.” Security officers escorted activists outside of the room and threatened to pull out anyone else caught distributing flyers and signs. Earlier in the day, a protester was forced to leave after he shouted at Huseman, “You’re against unionizing the damn facility. We can’t take this nonsense.”

Indeed, Huseman told the council that Amazon “was not comfortable with letting workers unionize.” When pressed further by Johnson and Dromm about whether or not the company would agree to neutrality on union bids, he responded, “No.”

A lifelong resident of Queens, whose district includes LIC, Councilmember van Bramer chastised the company. “Shame on you for coming to New York City,” he said. “You and the administration have made the distinction somehow that because it’s a headquarters that those people don’t need representation or deserve a union. All workers should have the right.”

Councilmember Jimmy van Bramer holds up an Amazon flier that his constituents have been receiving before the hearing. Councilmember Dromm also brought along 3 fliers that he himself had received from Amazon’s PR campaign.

Amazon similarly refused the council’s efforts to discuss the company’s contracts with ICE (despite numerous reports) but did make one stunning omission when Johnson pushed the issue with Huseman. The tech executive told the council that they would terminate any contract with a client if they found that their technology was being used to violate anyone’s civil or constitutional rights. (There are already multiple reports and rulings on ICE’s breaking of such laws.)

Still, some protesters at the hearing came away frustrated with Amazon’s strategy of non-disclosure. Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez is a QNU organizer who advocates for the Queens borough’s low-income and working-class families and found the tech giant’s willingness to work with City Council lacking. “Their defense is deflection,” she observed. “It’s about small business displacement and the cost of housing. A company that deliberately attacks small businesses is now displacing them.”

Councilmembers like Adrienne Adams also noted that the $3 billion in tax breaks given to Amazon could directly help the city, instead. The money could repair all the broken boilers and pipes across the city’s failing public housing system or even toward the MTA’s infrastructure repairs.

“Why do you need our money? We have 63,000 people who are sleeping in homeless shelters,” Johnson told Amazon at another point during the hearing. “Don’t you think there is a better way for us to spend $3 billion? This seems like vulture monopolistic capitalism at its worst.”

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