In a grassy triangle down the block from the newly proposed site for Amazon's Long Island City HQ2, nearly 100 protesters gathered on Wednesday to fight the aid package that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised Amazon—which, by some counts, comes to $2.5 billion in tax breaks, construction grants, and other subsidies.
For the majority of the demonstration, organized by local City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer and State Senator Michael Gianaris, the crowd of union members, City University of New York students, local politicians, and other community members strained to hear the unamplified voices of the speakers over passing trucks and an interminable car alarm in the distance. One frustrated crowd member remarked, if you wanted to hear anything, "you had to get here early."
The demonstration's speakers, though, had come quite late to the resistance against Amazon in Queens. Van Bramer, Gianaris, and many of the other elected officials who spoke in opposition to Amazon this morning all signed a letter sent to Jeff Bezos last fall, urging him to choose New York City for Amazon's next headquarters, over the other 238 cities that also applied.
Still, bolstered by palpable community outrage, on Wednesday these speakers denounced not just the tax breaks and other subsidies promised to Amazon, but also any Amazon presence in Queens. "What's so special about Amazon?" Gianaris asked the crowd, drawing a vigorous response of "Nothing!" "Just this morning I took out my phone and I deleted the Amazon app," he continued. "I'm boycotting Amazon, and I encourage you to join me."
Speaker after speaker emphasized that Amazon—one of the largest corporations in the world, headed by the planet's richest man—should not receive subsidies and tax breaks from the state, when that money could be used to fund housing and education for the city's most vulnerable communities. "We are pushed to the side because education is not a priority for our leaders," said Kenny Peña, a Queens College student originally from Peru. "We are told there is not enough money for CUNY, and yet Amazon will get almost $3 billion."
Newly elected Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar echoed the point. "There are schools all over this state that are owed billions of dollars in aid," she said. "This process tells us what our priorities are in New York State."
Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim has also proposed that the Amazon subsides be used retroactively to fund education. Splinter reports that Kim is introducing legislation that would end New York's subsides for economic development, including what's been promised to Amazon. According to Kim, New York gave out $8 billion in corporate aid in 2015, which he says would pay off 84 percent of New Yorkers' student debt. (Cuomo's largest previous corporate aid project, the $750 million "Buffalo Billion," is largely considered a failure.)
Speaking at the rally on Wednesday, Kim emphasized the anti-democratic nature of Cuomo's Amazon deal: "Let me ask you, whose money is it anyway? Is it the governor's money? Or our money?" Cuomo is reportedly planning to use an unusual tool called a General Project Plan in order to re-zone the proposed site without the approval of the city council and local community board.
Another popular grievance among the speakers at the rally was the state-funded helipad in Queens that New York has promised Bezos. "He's going to have a helicopter pad. It's like a Bond villain," Councilmember Ben Kallos said. Kallos' district includes Roosevelt Island, which sits adjacent to Long Island City, just one subway stop away. "Residents on Roosevelt Island are scared to death about what Amazon will bring," he said.
Neither Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio have announced plans to mitigate the gentrification that Amazon's arrival is likely to accelerate in the neighborhood and across the city—a point that came up repeatedly. "We are going to see ripple effects across the city, and across Long Island," Brooklyn City Councilmember Steve Levin said. "We've seen no information on how they will deal with that."
"Today is a great day to be a real estate broker in Long Island City. Today is a horrible day to be a tenant," Kim said. "And this is not only going to affect Long Island City. Look at neighborhoods like Jackson Heights. What happens when Amazon builds a ferry to the Bronx?"
Gentrification would raise costs for the 6,000 current residents of Long Island City who live in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the nation. "Just this morning, several Queensbridge residents called my office to say that they don't have heat and they don't have hot water," Van Bramer said, his cheeks reddened by the near-freezing weather. Queensbridge residents are plagued by mold and broken doors and elevators, in a public housing system where lead paint is common. Amazon has committed to offering technology and resume workshops for Queensbridge residents, but little else. Multiple speakers also brought up Amazon's heavy hand in Seattle, its current headquarters, in the repeal of a local tax intended to alleviate homelessness earlier this year.
Despite all the solidarity and loud disapproval on display, it remained unclear what—if anything—could be done to stop Amazon from soon taking up permanent residence on the nearby riverbank. Gianaris issued a vague promise that "some legislative and land use efforts" were underway.
But according to local activist Ernie Brooks, local politicians aren't going to be able to stop Amazon. "It's going to have to be people chaining themselves to the fences," he said. Brooks' comment was followed by a chant in Spanish from the crowd that overwhelmed the speakers several times throughout the rally. "Aquí estamos, y no nos vamos." We're here, and we're not leaving.