New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Curbed Opponents of Amazon’s ‘unconscionable’ HQ2 deal rally in Queens by Dave Colon

Opponents of Amazon’s ‘unconscionable’ HQ2 deal rally in Queens

Backed by members of labor unions and progressive grassroots organizations, a bevy of elected officials on the city and state level gathered at Gordon Triangle, a pocket park in the shadow of Long Island City’s tall towers, and blasted the $3 billion in subsidies handed to Amazon to put a corporate campus in the neighborhood. The speakers at the rally, equally focused on anger over the process of how Amazon came to New York and the company’s future presence in Queens, all vowed ongoing action to disrupt the subsidy deal for the tech giant.

“When Jeff Bezos needed $3 billion, the governor and the mayor found it sure damn quick,” Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said, blasting Gov. Amazon Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for giving tax breaks to Amazon while the city has ongoing infrastructure funding needs. “The governor and the mayor conspired secretly to cut a deal with Jeff Bezos to the exclusion of everyone else. This is the ultimate case of ‘three men in a room.’”

As members of the crowd yelled things like “the mayor is a sucker” and “Cuomo wants to run for mayor?,” speaker after speaker blasted the two executives for finally working together for the sake of making Bezos happy. Objections to the deal ran the gamut from Amazon and online shopping’s deleterious effect on local brick and mortar businesses, to the company’s hostility to unions, to the way legislators were cut out of the planning process, to Amazon’s work to sell its facial recognition software to ICE.

“What should have been a vigorous City Council process, what should have been a ULURP process is now Jack and the Beanstalk, where we’ve got a bunch of magic beans, we don’t know what it is,” Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides said about the contents of the deal. Council Member Stephen Levin blasted the way the deal was made, saying it had less oversight than an attempt to open a sidewalk cafe in his district in Greenpoint.

“I’m here because I abhor corporate welfare,” newly elected Queens state Senator Jessica Ramos said at the beginning of her statement. “It is unconscionable that we—in the middle of the housing crisis, in the middle of the public transportation crisis—have to dole out so many handouts to the richest company in the world. We have to stop this deal and we need to make sure they come to the table to make real gains for New York.”

“They are not a good actor in our economy or democracy,” said Deborah Axt, the co-executive director of immigrant and labor organization Make the Road New York. “Boarded up storefronts, jobs killed, small business destroyed.… Let’s not be distracted by the promises of new jobs by the guy who has killed our jobs to date. Not to mention his active partnerships with ICE and the Department of Defense. Amazon is partnering to deport our community members and destroy our jobs.”

Assemblymember Ron Kim of Queens cast the fight in stark terms, connecting it to previous instances where the government found money to help out wealthy entities while others struggled. “It’s our money that [Cuomo]’s giving away,” Kim said. “This is a gut-check moment for our city and our state and for our democracy. This is a litmus test, are we an oligarchy or a democracy? Ten years ago we bailed out the ‘too big to fail’ banks, last year Trump gave $2 trillion to the wealthiest members of the country. Now in the progressive state of New York we have a governor who gave away $3 billion to the richest man on the planet?”

Numerous speakers also blasted the inclusion of a helipad in the construction of the campus, which was held up as a totem of what they saw as Bezos’ elite attitude, refusal to ride the subway, or spend a second longer in Queens than he might have to. City Council Member Ben Kallos of the Upper East Side went as far as comparing Bezos to a Bond villain.

Kallos was also the only speaker of the bunch to bring up a letter that he and many other lawmakers (including rally leader Van Bramer and Queens state Senator Mike Gianaris) signed last year asking Amazon to explore moving to New York City, an awkward juxtaposition with the day’s anti-Amazon sentiment. “A lot of us did sign a letter saying we wanted to have a conversation with Amazon, and I’ll be the first to say talking to tech companies is a good thing,” Kallos explained. “But we didn’t sign on the dotted line that we were signing away our tax dollars. They’re taking $3 billion out of your pockets and none of us get a say in that.”

Gianaris said that the letter’s signatories “never contemplated that public dollars would secretly be given to Amazon to get them here.” Asked by Curbed whether the goal of the rally was to stop the Amazon deal in particular, or to keep Amazon from coming to New York at all, Gianaris said that the company should have been more open about talking with Long Island City leaders. “If Amazon wants to come here, they should be talking about subsidizing Long Island City,” he said, “not squeezing subsidies out of New York state or New York City.”

What exactly lawmakers can do to stop the deal is somewhat hazier than the promises to take action at all costs. Cuomo has expansive powers to make these sorts of decisions through his control of economic development corporations and authorities in the state, and he can also keep the details from public view.

The announcement has spurred Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander, who called the way the deal was made “appalling,” to announce he will introduce a bill to keep the city out of similar processes in the future, noting that officials from every finalist city in the HQ2 process had to sign NDAs regarding their bids.

“We would only be able to submit bids in such processes in which they were made public,” Lander said about future development deals. “What possible argument could there be [for this process] other than ‘We would like to enable a mega-corporation to bid us against other cities, eroding our tax base and our democracy’?”

Van Bramer also said the Council would be looking at any ways where they could get involved in clawing back money or reviewing the deal. He also did not rule out potentially capping the amount of money Amazon could take in from the Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP), a per-employee tax break meant to fuel development in the outer-boroughs that could cost the city close to $1 billion dollars in taxes. “I think the City Council, working with Speaker Johnson, can and will look at every available lever to curtail what’s been promised and deliver accountability to this process,” he noted.

While the afternoon’s rally was filled with opposition to the incoming Amazon campus, two men on the scene were there to show support for the corporate giant, with a homemade ‘WELCOME AMAZON! AND I LIVE IN L.I.C.!” sign in tow. “We think it’s great Amazon comes here, that they pick Queens,” George Bruno, one of the supporters, told Curbed. Bruno, who hopes to open some kind of food business or restaurant near Amazon’s campus, did agree with the criticism about the tax breaks the company was getting to move here.

“They gave them a lot of money, I mean a real lot of money,” he said with a laugh. “[The city] shouldn’t pay that much to have them. They’re one of the richest companies in the world, why should they get that much?”

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