Roshan Abraham—a leader of the For Us, Not Amazon coalition in Arlington—has been organizing against the tech giant since Northern Virginia was named one of the HQ2 finalists last year. Now that his counterparts in New York have won, we wanted to know what it all means for the strategy to push back on Amazon here. His group will hold a community forum on Monday. But in the meantime, Abraham spoke with us about the path ahead.
First, why isn’t HQ2 right for Northern Virginia?
Amazon has been called the invisible backbone of ICE’s deportation agenda. Northern Virginia, and Arlington in particular, prides itself on being a welcoming community. There was a resolution passed a couple years ago that said we wouldn’t pass any anti-immigrant policies or plans. Amazon’s [labor practices] do not align with Arlington’s values—their fiercely anti-union positions, their very well documented practice of exploiting their workers, not putting air-conditioning in warehouses.
Does Amazon’s pull-out of New York change anything about your strategy to resist them in Northern Virginia?
I wish it would change things for Virginia politicians and our county board. This is something that should make them pause because what Amazon demonstrated is that what they want is control. That’s how they have been acting with this whole HQ2 bachelorette competition, in terms of things being negotiated behind closed doors—an utterly un-transparent, utterly opaque process. They saw they weren’t going to be in control in New York and they left. When Amazon comes here and they have 25,000 employees, or god forbid 37,000 employees, they’re going to be the largest employer in Arlington by far, and they’re not going to be afraid to use that and hold Arlington hostage with that. I wish the county would see the lesson in this. But instead I’m seeing them doubling down, saying that this changes nothing.
Do you worry that Amazon leaving New York because of the push-back there has made Arlington officials more fearful of pushing back on the company here?
That’s exactly my fear. When I heard about this, I was like oh no, Arlington County is going to be even less willing to vote down this [$23 million] incentive. Now that they’ve pulled out of New York, I’m not surprised the county is doubling down. But the opposite should be happening. They should look at this and say Amazon is not a good neighbor. Amazon doesn’t want to be part of the community. They want to control the community.
Do you see any scenario where this gives you more leverage? I mean, it wouldn’t look very good if Amazon pulled out of both HQ2 sites…
Yes, and I think we’ve had that leverage from the get-go. But the politicians or leaders haven’t been willing to acknowledge the real reason Amazon wants to be here. They keep talking about our workforce and our education. Maryland was a finalist, too. Is the workforce so different 20 minutes away that Amazon was willing to turn down $8 billion in incentives? What Virginia has is the lowest corporate tax rate in the region. Amazon already pays no sales-and-use tax at their data centers in Virginia. And we’re across the street from the federal government. Amazon spent about $10 million in lobbying last year. That’s more than the Koch brothers and the NRA.
Amazon has always wanted to be in this region because of the proximity to government. The biggest threat to Amazon is regulation and antitrust lawsuits. The best way to avoid that is to push its weight around in Washington. So if we would just be honest with that, we’re in a much stronger position. I think that the fact they pulled out of New York, it would be horrible PR for them if they also pulled out of NoVa.
Our area is a lot different than New York. We need to diversify our economy away from over-reliance on the government. Isn’t that a reason to welcome Amazon?
Amazon is not about diversifying the economy. They’re about being the economy. Look at what’s happening in Seattle. Everything is centered around Amazon. We’re replacing the government with another huge single employer.
So, what are your immediate goals now?
We know the immediate thing in front of the county is whether we give them that $23 million incentive. One of our concerns we’ve been expressing over and over again is that the communities most negatively impacted by this haven’t been included in these public conversations. We pointed out to the county board shortly after the finalists were named that there’s no information about Amazon on the [board’s] Spanish language website. And there still isn’t. And the fact that all of the information that’s coming from the county about Amazon is being offered digitally—all the listening sessions were only advertised digitally, all the learning sessions or whatever they’re called were done on YouTube. That excludes everybody on the other side of the digital divide.
We’re reaching out to those communities who have been excluded. We’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, and overwhelmingly, in the conversations we’re having, people are saying they don’t support this deal, they don’t support the $23 million incentive, and they’re scared about what’s going to happen to them. These are the people that are going to be displaced, they are the people that are already under water. So we’re trying to amplify those voices and do the outreach that the county hasn’t done.
Right now the immediate goal is getting the county to vote down that $23 million incentive. We should be using that money to provide services and protections for our communities that need it.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.