Grassroots vs. Segregation: The Ongoing Fight against Amazon HQ2 in Arlington

This is the shorter version of an article published in Build. The longer version includes the phases of the campaign and how the coalition formed; the shorter version here [June 18] focuses on lessons and the effects.

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.

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.

References/Further reading, annotated:

20 finalists announced on 2018-01-18:

Arlington and NYC announced as "winners" on 2018-12-03:

Virginia incentives vote for $550-$750 million took place on 2019-01-21:

Virginia incentives vote was 35-5 (Senate) and 83-16 (House), signed “without fanfare:"

Arlington incentives package was $23m over 15-year period:

Arlington incentives vote took place on 2019-03-16, after initial delays due to opposition, and was a 5-0 vote focused entirely on the needs of real estate developers over residents:

Arlington County lags behind its own plans regarding affordable housing:

More critical assessment of the impact of Amazon's HQ2, especially regarding affordable housing in the region:

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