Grassroots Vs. Segregation: The Ongoing Fight Against Amazon HQ2 In Arlington

On a weekday morning in February, local activists from the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition interrupted a $200-per-ticket networking event between real estate developers, investors, Arlington County Board members, and Amazon representatives. The “business community” was taken off-guard, and after forcing out the protestors, the host claimed “they must have followed us here from New York”.

For months after the initial announcement that Arlington was a finalist for Amazon’s HQ2, the county made no information available in Spanish regarding the proposed deal. When pressed by members of La ColectiVA, the board first offered to use Google Translate, then told members to translate the materials themselves, and finally offered only a few details in Spanish shortly before the state and county voted on hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to Amazon.

At the Arlington County Board public hearing in March, the only public hearing with Amazon representatives present, a board member praised Amazon for its “engagement with the community”. The audience erupted into derisive laughter.

These are just a few examples of how the fight over Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington played out.

The fight began before Amazon announced Arlington as a finalist in early 2018. Various groups began to advocate against HQ2 separately before joining together in the For Us not Amazon coalition. The coalition brought together communities at risk of displacement and those ideologically opposed to the county board’s acquiescence to corporate interests. Together, we took the conflict to Richmond, multiple city council and county board meetings, and individual neighborhoods as we canvassed and held town halls to share information that the county failed to give.

Even though Virginia and Arlington County voted to give hundreds of millions of dollars to Amazon, we turned what was supposed to be a done deal into a contentious fight–and the fight isn’t over.

Background of the Campaign

Phase 1: Initial Announcement

The first phase of the campaign began once Amazon announced 20 cities as finalists for their second headquarters on January 18, 2018. At first, the groups that would eventually form the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition were working separately. During this phase, we:

  1. Worked with communities to understand the major issues worsened by Amazon HQ2: the loss of affordable housing, pressure on renters, transportation, and Amazon’s troubling relationship with ICE and CBP.

  2. Sent FOIA requests to Arlington, Alexandria, and other local governments to find out what incentives they were offering Amazon in exchange for HQ2. All used the excuse of non-disclosure agreements and “remaining competitive” to hide how they intended to divert tax revenues to Amazon.

  3. Spoke at public hearings before the Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County boards and councils, to demand disclosure of the incentives on the table and raise the issue of housing affordability and gentrification that would worsen with HQ2.

  4. Identified who supported HQ2, and why. Unsurprisingly, this included real estate developers, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the Crystal City Business Improvement District, and nearly every elected official. Most cited the typical excuse of “more jobs”, despite the county’s under-two-percent unemployment rate, and the county board also fell back on their need for more commercial real estate tax revenue.

  5. Identified who opposed HQ2, and united together under the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition. This brought together several groups, including: La ColectiVA, Tenants and Workers United, New Virginia Majority, Metro DC DSA, Our Revolution Arlington, Justice for Muslims Collective, and the Tech Workers Coalition.

Phase 2: Sights on Arlington

The next phase began once Amazon announced Arlington as the site of HQ2 on December 3, 2018. With the coalition built, we:

  1. Held forums and town halls to share information about Virginia and Arlington’s plans with the community (when the state and county failed to do so), and amplified the voices of residents at the greatest risk of displacement. We invited county officials to these events, though few ever came. We invited Amazon representatives to these events, and none ever came.

  2. Drove community turnout to events that the county put together to justify its decision to support Amazon. Unfortunately, these often consisted 90% of officials justifying the decision and 10% of taking a handful of questions from the community. Amazon representatives themselves were never present at these events.

  3. Continued to speak at public hearings before the Arlington County Board, Alexandria City Council, and Virginia General Assembly, to call out the egregiousness of the hundreds of millions of dollars being offered in incentives during an affordable housing crisis. At best, our concerns were dismissed. At worst, we were forcibly removed from the General Assembly at a public hearing because we spoke about Amazon’s terrible business and labor practices.

Phase 3: Votes

On January 21, 2019, the Virginia General Assembly voted to provide up to $750 million in incentives over the next 15 years in a combination of tax incentives and direct spending on education and infrastructure projects specifically designed for Amazon. The vote was 35-5 in the Senate and 83-16 in the House and was signed by Governor Northam in February. Arlington County was set to vote on a separate incentives package in March. This was the most contentious phase of the campaign, during which we:

  1. Stepped up our demands directly to the county board for public hearings, with Amazon representatives actually present, and a referendum before any vote would take place.

  2. Gathered more local media attention via the forums we held and direct interviews with local media outlets. Much credit is due to our coalition partners La ColectiVA, Tenants and Workers United, New Virginia Majority, and Our Revolution Arlington, for being visible and vocal public faces for a problem that the county had hoped to ignore.

  3. Canvassed different neighborhoods around the county, especially lower-income and Black and immigrant communities such as Green Valley (a.k.a. Nauck) and Columbia Pike in Arlington, and Chirilagua (a.k.a. Arlandria) in Alexandria. These were communities that the county had completely ignored, and we were fortunate that organizations that were a part of these communities were also in the coalition.

  4. Interrupted “HQ2-a-palooza”, a $200-per-ticket event custom-made for real estate developers and speculators to network with the Arlington County Board and Amazon representatives to figure out the best way to profit off of HQ2 (to note, this is exactly how the event was advertised). Excluded from this was any consideration of the people hurt most by the rising cost of living and loss of affordable housing. The coalition forced the “business community” to recognize, even if just for a moment, that not everyone in the county was on Amazon’s side.

  5. Packed the county board chambers the day of the vote. The coalition and other members in opposition gave 50 statements in opposition to the incentives. The county board meanwhile disregarded all comments and even praised Amazon for its “engagement with the community” – which was immediately met with laughter from the audience.

Next Phase

In the end, in March, the Arlington County Board voted 5-0 to offer $23 million in incentives to Amazon. The state and county showed little sympathy for our concerns, but we forced the issue and turned what was originally supposed to be an “easy win” for the state and county into a conflict.

The fight isn’t over. Communities in this region have fought against rising home prices and gentrification for decades, and the arrival of Amazon won’t deter us. Although we were unable to stop HQ2, we have more people and resources to increase pressure on both Arlington and Alexandria to offer real, dedicated solutions to the affordable housing crisis, and to hold officials who voted in favor accountable.

Building the Coalition

The “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition developed organically from the overlap in multiple groups’ efforts in the face of Amazon’s initial announcement, and the existing connections that individual members in these groups already had with one another. And the coalition was critical to everything that followed.

Narrowing the coalition’s formation down to a single series of events isn’t possible, but I can offer one view to at least illustrate. Shortly after the announcement of 20 finalists for HQ2 in early 2018, members of Metro DC DSA began sending FOIA requests to every municipal government in the region to demand transparency behind the incentives that were being offered to Amazon, and followed this up by speaking at several city council and county board meetings. Each government used the excuse of non-disclosure agreements to avoid answering questions, but by this point other groups had noticed our efforts. We also held a town hall in northern Virginia to discuss what HQ2 really meant for the region, and this led to Our Revolution Arlington reaching out to us and starting work on other town halls in other parts of northern Virginia. Meanwhile, LatinX-led advocacy groups like Tenants and Workers United (TWU) and La ColectiVA, and statewide organizations like New Virginia Majority (NVM), had also been working on this issue directly with the communities that were being impacted – and owing to our past work together on migrant justice and opposing ICE raids, and even overlap in membership, the natural next step was to begin working together.

The direct benefits of the coalition were clear. With more members, and notably more people directly in the communities at risk of displacement, harmed by Amazon’s collaboration with ICE, and overlooked by the county, we had an understanding of the real issues and harms brought on by Amazon’s HQ2 that the county never did. We were able to organize more town halls and canvassing, and drive greater turnout to public hearings or Amazon-centric events – whether or not they wanted us there. We were able to disseminate information much more rapidly, and hold bilingual forums while the county continued to make information available only in English and only online.

I want to call attention to the last point, because some of the best forums I’ve witnessed have been in this coalition, spearheaded by La ColectiVA and TWU. At Café Sazón in Arlington, a few weeks before the Arlington County Board incentives vote, we held a bilingual community forum where we spent the majority of the time on questions and concerns raised directly by the community, had several speakers talk about the county and Amazon’s plans, and provided real-time English and Spanish translation to everyone in attendance – meaning no one was left out of the conversation. Contrast this with the county board’s failure to provide any information in Spanish even in print for months, and similar forums where the board spent two hours justifying its acquiescence to Amazon with only ten minutes left for questions from the audience.

The indirect benefits of the coalition go much further, and will be critical to the next phase of the campaign. We now have an even broader community united by a concern for affordable housing, gentrification, the county board’s subservience to corporations, and the immigrant and low-income communities that have been in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax for decades. We have greater strength and collected experience to push on more direct needs for affordable housing and infrastructure, and greater numbers to push on related issues of migrant justice and ending the collaboration between various police and sheriff departments and ICE.

The County and the Campaign

The campaign brought to light many of the uncomfortable realities of northern Virginia and the DC area.

Foremost is how segregated the area is, along many dimensions. Real estate developers and property owners describe rising home prices as a good thing, with zero awareness of how much of the county can barely afford rent. People move into the county intending to stay only a few years, stick to the high-rises in Rosslyn and Pentagon City, and never interact with the communities that have been here for decades. Meanwhile, the county board routinely acts in the interests of the “business community”, at the expense of the many working-class, Black, and Latinx communities.

The divide isn’t conservative versus progressive, but those who have access to money and influence versus those who don’t. What this means is that those who live in the wealthier parts of the county not only generally supported Amazon, but also had no idea there was any opposition. And those who stand to be harmed by HQ2 – if they were even aware of the county’s plans – often felt isolated and ignored.

This segregation was a fundamental challenge for the coalition. Our greatest success was to bring together the opposition, amplify our message to the state and county, and force the Amazon supporters to recognize our existence. Thanks to front-line organizations like Tenants and Workers United and La ColectiVA, we forged connections between communities and bridged the information gap left by the county. Thanks to groups like Our Revolution, New Virginia Majority, Justice for Muslims Collective, and Metro DC DSA, we brought the message directly to seats of power. These successes remain, despite the initial loss, and show us a way forward.

More practically, we learned many more things throughout our campaign:

  • Every action is interrelated. Canvass to learn about communities’ concerns, hold forums to build support and take this energy into county board meetings, and pressure elected officials to attend the forums where these discussions are happening.

  • Elected officials will use progressive language to justify regressive actions. Board members would say the tax revenue would help the affordable housing crisis, and even claimed that Amazon being in the county would let them hold the company accountable. But talk is cheap: none of these were backed up in writing or in the budget.

  • Supporters will lie about the opposition. The county board went so far as to blame the Latinx community for the lack of Spanish-language information during one board meeting, and Amazon claimed to have sent representatives “into coffee shops and bars” to gauge support. But we had people willing to confront them and force a recognition of our existence.

  • The most difficult lesson was that our efforts weren’t enough to affect the state or county vote. True that we were a grassroots coalition confronting wealthy developers and investors. But, it’s also true that we didn’t work much with organized labor – who themselves had mixed reactions to HQ2, since Amazon floated the idea of union contracts for construction.

What Comes Next

Ultimately, Virginia voted to offer up to $750 million, and Arlington County voted to offer up to $23 million, in tax incentives to Amazon over the next 15 years. Meanwhile, we still have an affordable housing crisis, longstanding communities are ignored in favor of real estate developers, and Amazon’s complicity with ICE and CBP can only get worse with its HQ2 so close to federal government agencies.

But this wasn’t a complete loss. The county vote was expected to be a done deal when Arlington was first announced as a finalist, but by the end it was “breaking news” that it still passed, and far more people in the county – residents and elected officials alike – are aware of the extent of the opposition and why we are concerned.

What’s next for the “For Us, Not Amazon” Coalition is to refocus around the issues we learned were the foremost concerns in the community: rising rents and home prices, general lack of affordability, inadequate transportation and other infrastructure, and Amazon’s role in deportation, detention, and mass surveillance. The coalition is still here, and our communities have been fighting against gentrification and oppression for decades. None of us intend on giving up.

Written by Kaiser F. To learn more about Metro DC DSA, visit their website and follow them on Twitter. To learn more about Northern Virginia DSA, follow them on Twitter.