“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
On Valentine's Day, Amazon pulled out of its plan to build a second headquarters in Queens, citing the efforts of citizen protestors and politicians who opposed its imminent arrival.
The moment Amazon announced that it would be building its second headquarters in NYC's Long Island City, people took to the streets.
On November 26th, a coalition of immigrant advocates and anti-HQ2 groups gathered to protest Amazon's involvement with ICE, Paladir, and other organizations responsible for deportations. Citizens marched again on Cyber Monday, launching a " day of action" and flooding an Amazon Bookstore in Manhattan, holding signs aloft and chanting sing-song rhymes about Jeff Bezos. Together, over two dozen community groups organized these protests, including local unions and nonprofits. Following the protests in Manhattan, Amazon workers employed in warehouses in Staten Island made the decision to unionize, citing low pay and impossible performance quotas, and leveraging Amazon's impending move to Queens to draw attention to their case.
Image via The New York Times
Their protests attracted the attention of some of New York City's political officials, such as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who initially supported Amazon's entry but denounced it after learning more about the circumstances surrounding the deal. He began to stand with the protestors, complaining that a general lack of transparency and the fact that Amazon bypassed NYC's standard review process mandated further investigation.
In December, a public hearing was held at City Hall, and protestors gathered outside while council members grilled economists and officials who had been instrumental in making the deal with the world's most profitable corporation. "We are not in the business of corporate welfare here at city council," said Johnson.
It was this so-called corporate welfare—the $3 billion in government and tax incentives that Amazon was promised, in exchange for the 25,000 jobs it promised to create—that became the foundations of the anger stewing around the sales conglomerate's impending arrival, anger which resulted in Amazon's decision to pull out of its promise to develop a huge corporate campus in Queens.
Image via Vox.com
The people's anger came from different places, and their protests were haphazard efforts, but their rage had been brewing for a long time, and Amazon's imminent arrival fed a variety of fears about corporate greed and pervasive gentrification, which opponents feared would tear apart places like Long Island City, sucking it clean of culture and community. Amazon's arrival was predicted to catalyze a wave of homelessness; the announcement that it was setting up shop in Long Island City was instantly followed by dizzying spikes in rent—chilling lower-income residents in a city already plagued by stretches of empty storefronts.
Long Island CityImage via AM NY
Protestors cited Amazon's effects on Seattle, Amazon's first home city, as reasons why the conglomerate shouldn't move on with its plan. Some people argue that Amazon made Seattle into a hull, a kind of paper city that existed only to facilitate its metallic corporate heart; and Seattle's homeless corporation did rise in tandem with rising housing prices, making it home to the
third-highest number of homeless people in the country, after New York and Los Angeles.
HQ2 opposition united a great deal of unlikely allies—including an unlikely ally in the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board, who argued that the deal was "crony capitalism at its worst." Their article continued, "Amazon's case is aboveboard, but it still amounts to a company with a market capitalization of nearly $800 billion getting paid to create jobs it would have created somewhere anyway."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the most visible face of a group of politicians who protested Amazon's HQ2 establishment, and her resistance might have been one of the central reasons for its decision to abandon ship. "It was that the environment over the course of the past three months had not got any better," said Joni Seth, Amazon's head of policy communications. "There were some local and state elected officials who refused to meet with Amazon and criticized us day in and day out about the plan."
This deal wasn’t a simple tax break. It was $3 BILLION dollars. When the community wanted to negotiate, Amazon said… https://t.co/Q9E8zF3tZZ— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) 1550243136.0
Ocasio-Cortez had long denounced Amazon's plans to move into Queens, and she celebrated Amazon's retraction on Twitter. So did other political figures, including Cynthia Nixon. Following the company's Valentine's Day breakup announcement, the actress-turned politician triumphantly tweeted, "The fight against Amazon laid bare their union-busting, corporate welfare, ICE-abetting practices and shows why we need to break up monopolies like Amazon."
In addition to its ties to law enforcement giants, Amazon had also been accused of developing facial recognition technologies to gain information about customers without them knowing; and many protests have cropped up among its warehouse workers, especially in Europe, where employees have staged walkouts against low wages and poor working conditions.
A protestor stops an Amazon truck in Spain.Image via apnews.com
Despite Amazon's shady ethics, many people were not as enthusiastic about the company's foiled New York City dreams, arguing that the demise of HQ2 will compromise what could've been an economic boom for the city, criticizing Ocasio-Cortez's decision to favor ideology over economics. Amazon may have hiked up rents, but rents are high anyway; and its arrival would have created thousands of jobs, including consistent positions for lower-level staff members and service workers.
Plus polls showed that 56% of New Yorkers approved Amazon's arrival, which was initially billed as a triumph by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo—both central players in the deal's initial success who believed that the arrival would help NYC solidify its position as a worldwide hub of tech and industry. Bill DeBlasio's tweets following Amazon's decision resembled those of a spurned ex. He also lashed out at Ocasio-Cortez, stating that "a small group of politicians put their own narrow political interests above their community—which poll after poll showed overwhelmingly supported bringing Amazon to Long Island City—the state's economic future and the best interests of the people of this state," the governor said in a statement.
But even so, a great deal of major political figures opposed the deal, including Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who initially supported Amazon's arrival but, like Johnson, changed his mind after learning about its policies. Still, Amazon in Long Island City's demise all started with those first street protests, which erupted directly after De Blasio's announcement as politicians remained silent. Ultimately, community members and citizen organizers catalyzed the start of the resistance that led to the downfall of Amazon's Queens campus.
Image via Marketwatch
There's something deeply satisfying about the image of the world's richest man and his behemothic corporation getting kicked out of New York by impassioned Queens residents, ready to unite and fight for the integrity of their home borough. Still, Amazon's departure won't stop gentrification, won't fill up empty stores, and won't bring back the days when young artists could gallivant around Greenwich Village with pennies in their pockets and working-class families could call Manhattan home.
In a way, Amazon's departure is a symbolic victory for its opposition, a tantalizing promise that the people can triumph over corporations. Of course, this move will not deter Amazon from building its global empire, and America's supermassive wealth gap will remain. It just won't be as tangibly visible in New York.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.