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If a Budding Socialist Movement Can Defeat Amazon, Imagine What Else It Can Do

Socialists in New York played a key role in coalition organizing that halted a corporate behemoth in its tracks.

Protesters unfurl anti-Amazon banners from the balcony of a hearing room during a New York City Council Finance Committee hearing titled "Amazon HQ2 Stage 2: Does the Amazon Deal Deliver for New York City Residents?" at New York City Hall, on January 30, 2019, in New York City.

For socialists, New York has been the site of the most important electoral campaign win yet: Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent run for the House in 2018. Her victory led to an explosion of membership in DSA nationally, the biggest jump in membership after the Sanders campaign and Donald Trump’s victory. It also led to a sea change in American politics, putting critical issues like a Green New Deal on the public agenda. Less examined, however, is how Ocasio-Cortez’s win was part of a massive shift in the politics of New York City and New York State.

Her victory, along with Julia Salazar’s in the New York State Senate, were, in the grand scheme of their respective legislative bodies, small — Salazar was the lone socialist in a body of sixty-three; Ocasio-Cortez, one of two with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan out of 435. Yet Ocasio-Cortez’s and Salazar’s victories, combined with the continued organizing efforts and electoral victories of the socialist and broader working-class movement that put them in office, quickly effected a massive shift in New York politics that produced huge victories against two of the most powerful capitalists in the world today: real estate developers and Amazon.

Ocasio-Cortez’s story is a true pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale: a bartender who had grown up in and around the Bronx went up against a major power broker in the Democratic Party who assumed he would be next in line for his party’s most important position in the House of Representatives. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez knocked him off and headed to Capitol Hill. Pandemonium ensued. Ocasio-Cortez was the subject of nonstop press coverage, her utterances and tweets regularly calling the tune of the day’s news cycle. She instantly became an icon of the rising US Left, and right-wing media became obsessed, hanging onto her every word.

Salazar’s path to victory wasn’t quite as straight. She campaigned as an unabashed democratic socialist, foregrounding her membership in the DSA and her opposition to capitalism, centering the need to fight the absurdly high rents and displacement in her rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn district and even suggesting she didn’t believe that the Democratic Party could ever be realigned in a more progressive direction. Salazar was dogged by questions about inconsistencies in her biography, leading to an incredible depth of media scrutiny, unprecedented in a state senate race. The intense hostility Salazar faced was undoubtedly provoked by her uncompromising left-wing stances, including her stance in favor of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which is seen as a major threat to the state of Israel and thus draws attacks against any politician who backs it, even at the city and state level. She was even involuntarily outed by a right-wing American media outlet, in a bizarre and cruel apparent attempt to discredit her as a candidate, as a victim of sexual assault in 2013 by an Israeli spokesperson for the prime minister.

And, yet, despite the vicious attacks, Salazar won. “This is a victory for workers,” she told her supporters on election night.

New York now had only two socialists in elected office: one in the House of Representatives, one in the state senate. But the presence of two of them, as part of a broader progressive upsurge in the state, would soon have massive consequences. Salazar’s election was part of a wave of state senate primary races that unseated the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of six state senators who were Democrats but voted with the Republican Party, often denying the Democrats in the state legislature a majority. The IDC senators’ losses were proof that “the progressive fervor sweeping national politics had hobbled New York’s once-mighty Democratic machine, at least on a local level,” the New York Times wrote the day after the election.

Of course, simply defeating one group of Democrats and replacing them with another wasn’t guaranteed to change politics in the state. That sea change came from Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar, and the clear message that DSA spread through its electoral work. As then NYC DSA co-chair Abdullah Younus put it, “We don’t want real estate money in our political system.” More broadly, New York voters were rejecting pro-corporate politics.

“Every elected official . . . was constantly looking over their shoulder for a left primary challenge, and was legislating from that perspective,” NYC DSA member Aaron Taube said about the period after the two victories. This spelled bad news for one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies, Amazon.

Sad Bezos

In September 2017, Amazon announced it was seeking a site for a new major headquarters. The “HQ2,” along with its jobs and office space lease payments, would go to whichever city could eat enough shit to please Amazon’s corporate overlords.

Soon after promising $2.5 billion in tax subsidies to lure the company to Chicago, neoliberal mayor extraordinaire Rahm Emanuel sent a bizarre email to an Amazon executive bragging about the package by asking, “Whose [sic] your daddy?” A business group from Tucson, Arizona, sent a twenty-one-foot cactus to the Amazon Seattle headquarters. And in New York City, the night before the deadline for bidding, Mayor Bill de Blasio “lit every light he could, from the roof-tops of One World Trade and the Empire State Building to all of the city’s wifi hotspots, in Amazon’s signature shade of orange,” Nicky Woolf wrote in the New Statesman.

The price tags, too, were massive: Maryland offered $8 billion; Pittsburgh, nearly $10 billion. If company CEO Jeff Bezos had told these leaders to strip naked and tear each other limb from limb in an Amazon-branded mud pit, they probably would’ve done that, too.

In recent decades, when American capitalists have wanted something, chances are they’ve gotten it. So when the company announced that it would choose Long Island City, Queens, as its location, most observers assumed that was that.

The corporate giveaways New York had offered amounted to a staggering $3 billion. And the announcement of the plan immediately sent housing prices in Long Island City through the roof, with ripple effects throughout Queens and all of New York City anticipated. But the plan was backed by both Mayor de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Who would expect anything else from establishment leaders? For them, as State Senator Ron Kim, who represents parts of Queens, explained to a reporter, “We’re living under feudalism of the Lord of Amazon.”

But in the midst of the Amazon HQ2 bidding process, Ocasio-Cortez won her primary challenge against Crowley. That victory changed the political terrain. For one thing, “you have this mobilized base of people who participate in left political fights in Queens now,” said Taube, who coordinated DSA’s portion of the field operation for Ocasio-Cortez.

DSA was far from the only group involved in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign: she was first recruited to run by the group Justice Democrats, and a broad coalition of left groups supported her campaign. But Taube believes that DSA provided more canvassers than any other group. After Ocasio- Cortez won, Queens DSA now had the mobilized base of left activists that Taube mentioned — which would soon be activated again for the Amazon fight.

Likewise, Salazar’s election had drawn a line in the sand for New York politicians: were you on the side of working- class renters, or New York’s wealthy real estate developers? Salazar’s district was in Brooklyn, not Queens. But in refusing real estate developer money and turning her election into a referendum on affordable housing in the city, Salazar’s campaign helped cohere a citywide narrative in opposition to those developers’ attempts to push working-class people out of the city — a narrative that then pulled other statewide politicians to the pro-tenant, anti-gentrification side, for fear of losing their reelection bids. Given that the Amazon HQ2 would accelerate the already rapid displacement of working-class New Yorkers from Queens, those elected officials — some of whom had even publicly expressed support for Amazon coming to New York in the past — would now take up the fight against HQ2.

In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez was, unsurprisingly, speaking out strongly against Amazon. But so was State Senator Michael Gianaris, the Senate’s new deputy majority leader — a position he was given because Joe Crowley, Queens political power broker, had just been defeated by Ocasio-Cortez. “If Joe Crowley was still in power as the head of [the] Queens County [Democratic machine], and people still thought the machine-backed electeds were invincible, I doubt that people would have come out against this deal,” Taube said.

Soon everyone was speaking out against the company — even de Blasio, now offering stern warnings against the company’s anti-union stances: “There’s gonna be tremendous pressure on Amazon to allow unionization, and I will be one of the people bringing that pressure.”

In February 2019, Senator Gianaris was nominated to the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), a body that Amazon would have to get through in order to get into Queens. The nomination was approved by the majority leader of the state senate — again, a nomination that wouldn’t have happened without the successful push to defeat the IDC as well as Ocasio-Cortez knocking out Crowley just a few months earlier. Before a PACB vote, however, Amazon dropped a bombshell: after announcing to the world that they would be going to Queens, they pulled out.

Andrew Cuomo soon called it the “greatest tragedy” of his entire political career. The grassroots groups that opposed the plan — including NYC DSA — shed no tears for him. The latter issued a statement on the day Amazon pulled out: “Today New York’s working class showed that big business and billionaires can’t buy our city. New York belongs to the many, not the few.”

The path from Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral victory to Amazon pulling out of Queens was a complicated one. It involved:

1) the election of democratic socialists to both the House of Representatives and the New York State Senate,

2) a consistently anti-corporate and anti-gentrification message that was at the center of those socialist campaigns,

3) New York socialists working alongside progressive community and labor unions (and opposing some others),

4) a broader wave of electoral wins in the state senate against the IDC, which DSA was not officially involved in but the electoral narrative was fundamentally shaped by DSA’s message, and

5) those electoral wins and the broader progressive upsurge they were a part of translating into pressure on key city and state leaders to come out against Amazon and its scheme to receive billions in public subsidies.

The story, in other words, is far more complicated than a group of socialists acting alone to halt a corporate behemoth in its tracks. DSA worked within a much broader coalition in these elections and in the Amazon fight that included community groups like CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and Desis Rising Up and Moving, and labor groups like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Working Families Party. Still, socialists played a key role in the victory.

“The coalition would have existed without DSA,” said Taube. “But we would not have won the campaign when we won it, if Mike Gianaris hadn’t gotten himself on the PACB and said he was going to veto the subsidies and the funding [for Amazon]. He would not have done that if it weren’t for this left electoral operation that existed in and around his district. He was afraid of a DSA-led field operation.”

In the end, Amazon decided to move to New York City anyway. Only the company did so without receiving $3 billion in public subsidies, money that would otherwise go to public programs and projects. And it opted to move to an already gentrified part of Manhattan, Hudson Yards, rather than Queens, limiting the likelihood of working-class displacement.

The coalition that mobilized against HQ2 has said from the beginning that Amazon did not need public assistance to move any city. The company simply wanted to see who would place the highest bid, and how much public money it could soak up. As Ocasio-Cortez surmised on Twitter after the announcement of Amazon’s move to Manhattan, “We were proven right.”

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