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Opinion

Why The Amazon Deal is In Trouble


amazon protest via nycchange

Amazon protest (photo: @nycchange)


Amazon, Mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo have recently gotten a first taste of how deep the backlash against the deal to bring the company to Queens is in New York City. They should be worried. First,Queens Neighborhoods United held an anti-Amazon rally in Astoria that drew hundreds of community members, another in a series of key actions against the deal. Then, members of the New York City Council peppered underprepared executives from Amazon while a raucous crowd booed and threw up signs. More actions are coming.

There is plenty of cynicism running through all three parties to the deal, so weathering some political grandstanding and protests was baked into the process. It’s why they went through a General Project Plan to bypass any public involvement or City Council review (which meant that the hearing was largely political theater — for the moment). No one seriously worried about the deal getting derailed.

But they are wrong and must know it by now. It seems clear that collectively they miscalculated on three factors:

One, Amazon’s terrible reputation as a neighbor and employer is more widely known than they expected.

Two, Americans, including New Yorkers, no longer buy that corporate giveaways are good for them

Three, New York City’s crumbling infrastructure has cost the mayor and the governor any credibility with New Yorkers.

These points are obvious to most people who don’t work for Amazon, the mayor, or the governor, but since no one outside of those three groups were involved in the deal, they were underestimated.

That’s easier to understand given the PR strategy, which became clear at the Council hearing. All three parties are banking on Amazon’s popularity with customers to see the deal through.

That’s potentially a sound, if deeply cynical, strategy. Amazon is really cheap and fast. Over 50% of Americans have an Amazon Prime account. Amazon is trusted more than Congress.

They have early evidence to support that in New York City. At the hearing, Amazon representatives and the city’s president of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), James Patchett, cited a recent Quinnipiac poll saying that New Yorkers “overwhelmingly support” Amazon locating a second headquarters in Queens: 57% support it, while only 26% oppose it.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the result isn’t as strong as it seems. The primary question includes the statement “Amazon locating one of its new headquarters in Long Island City in Queens.” That’s innocuous language, but only 57% supported that?

It’s also a lot different than the reality of the deal. More accurate wording would be “Amazon, a $1 trillion company, getting $3 billion of public money as well as public and private land to build a new campus.”

Not surprisingly, when the poll referenced the “incentives” included, it tells a very different story: 46% of voters said they support the deal, while 44% was opposed.

While Quinnipiac has a sterling reputation and should, framing the $3 billion as “incentives” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. That may be technically accurate, but it is also accurate to call it “subsidies” or a “transfer of public funds” which would likely impact a respondent’s answer differently. Quinnipiac is using the language offered by the city and state, a choice that does involve accepting an ideological framing, which has consequences to the public discourse.

Since Amazon, the de Blasio administration, and the Cuomo administration are relying on the poll as vindication, it’s fair to say that they should be worried. Aside from the slightly generous wording of the poll, the simple fact is that most New Yorkers aren’t all that jazzed about HQ2, and the deal and company have barely seen the type of local scrutiny that is already starting.

Most New Yorkers can’t possibly be closely familiar with details of the deal. Even the City Council just found out about it — the MOU was only made public when the deal was announced.

The details around the $3 billion are worth examining (see a lot more about the incentives here and here), but the key points are troubling. All parties stress that the “incentives” are performance-based which is half-true, but how Amazon’s performance is measured is still intentionally vague. A lot of pubic money will be guaranteed, but Amazon has not made similarly detailed promises.

As more of this and other information about Amazon comes to light, I have a hard time believing that New Yorkers will support the deal. Community groups, the Democratic Socialists of America, elected officials, labor unions, and others are making sure more people hear about those details, through door-to-door canvassing, community meetings, and other efforts. Amazon will counter and spend a lot of money on consultants and hide behind the rushed-to-life community advisory board, but the deal stinks and people will see that for what it is.

The biggest question that Amazon, the mayor, and the governor have to answer is the most obvious: why does Amazon even need help to move to Long Island City?

The Amazon executives were shockingly flat-footed when they were asked this at the hearing. They claimed that talent was the main driver but that subsidies “mattered,” which more or less reveals the obvious: they were coming here anyway. They also tried to repeatedly say that the incentives are performance-based, but that does not answer why the company needs them. And, they had no good answer when directly asked if they would give the incentives for public use, but indicated the company would not.

Holding hundreds of cities over the barrel just to make sure that New York and Virginia (Crystal City) came up with incentives shows you how unethical Amazon is. Holding a gun to the city’s and state’s heads before moving in doesn’t make you a good neighbor. They aren’t and never will be, and that’s even before touching on their anti-union labor practices and what they do to local retail.

None of this is surprising to people who pay attention to Amazon’s history. They have bullied Seattle and small businesses and startups on their platform. They have exploited warehouse workers, third-party delivery services, and even white-collar employees. They have worked with ICE and the DOD. In the City Council hearing company representatives fell over themselves trying to say they aren’t a monopoly, but how else do you have the chutzpah to ask New York for $3 billion while insisting on a completely secretive process including non-disclosure agreements?

Maybe the mayor and the governor couldn’t “stop” Amazon from coming, but they could and should have done everything in their power to protect the many communities of New Yorkers who will be negatively impacted by Amazon (and already are). This deal doesn’t do that. Instead, they put aside their mutual disgust and saw “HQ2” as a legacy-defining victory.

But the political landscape in New York City and across the United States is changing. “Job creation” used to be enough for politicians to support a corporate giveaway, but people know those jobs aren’t good-paying or union-protected. “Spillover effect” used to be enough for technocrats to justify public wealth transfers, but people look around at crumbling subways, crowded schools, and overflowing sewers and wonder why there isn’t enough money to fix those directly.

Amazon, the mayor, and the governor are left hoping that people’s love of cheap goods delivered to their door quickly will save the “HQ2” deal. They think people are lazy and stupid, basically. The reality is, people are overworked and poor. Corporations like Amazon getting billions of what should be public money from politicians are a big reason why. Community groups and the DSA plan to keep knocking on doors throughout the city sharing that message.  Let’s see what the polls look like after that.

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Peter Harrison is a member of NYC-DSA and CEO/Co-founder of homeBody, a public benefit startup. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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Imagining an ‘Asset Light’ Sanitation Department


sanitation truck snow plow

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Recent news that the New York City Department of Sanitation had its trucks evicted from a Chelsea garage on West 30th Street and will now park them on a side street near Manhattan’s Bellevue South Park should raise a question: why does Sanitation need to garage its trucks in the first place? It's not as if sanitation trucks are Lamborghinis requiring careful protection or 1970s era Jaguars that spent more time in the shop than on the road.  

Since Sanitation is street-parking the trucks now, and has for several years over near the West Side railyards, why are any garaged overnight at all?

Sanitation, and thus the City, could realize substantial efficiencies, capital and operating cost reductions in its garage operations by using an "asset light" strategy with a much smaller footprint for its structures.

Some of the city’s 2,100 garbage collection trucks have been maintained for years outdoors in various locations throughout New York City.

What if Sanitation used small fueling and washing facilities around the city where, say, a half-dozen trucks could be power-washed and fueled at a time, every so often, in a "roll-in, roll-out" facility, and then parked at a location near the start of their routes?

According to press reports, the Sanitation workers union rules require its trucks to be parked near Sanitation facilities that house lunchrooms, showers, and locker rooms. But what if that were not the case? What if the City were to negotiate with the sanitation union so as to use existing facilities in police precincts, hospitals, firehouses, or in some of the smaller footprint Sanitation fueling and washing facilities, and park its trucks near those facilities?

Why couldn't workers, who are actually first responders to some of New York City’s worst weather events, be reimbursed for parking their personal vehicles in commercial parking lots and garages or at reserved parking spots near where the trucks they operate are parked, along with the 1,000 or so cars and light-duty trucks sanitation department operates?

Certainly, there are some department vehicles that would still need to be garaged.  Mechanical brooms, front-end loaders, and snow-melters don’t really lend themselves to outdoor parking. But there are less than 800 of those vehicles -- of the total 3,400 Sanitation vehicles -- and they could be spread among smaller facilities throughout the city.  

Going asset light would allow Sanitation to sell off massive garages that occupy huge footprints, some on prime real estate, in Manhattan and the four other boroughs, and instead operate from smaller ready and repair shops where trucks could be cleaned, fueled, and serviced on a fixed schedule and prepared for snow removal service. Equipment for maintenance, repair, and snow-plow service could be trucked to these smaller footprint satellites from central locations in industrial areas of the five boroughs on an as-needed basis.

All of this would,  of course, require a radical rethinking of the way the Department of Sanitation currently operates. The unions would have to buy in and members compensated by some means, perhaps by a shorter workday as routes would be accessed more quickly. But re-thinking how Sanitation functions would reduce its operating costs and allow existing facilities to be sold off for development -- as warehouses for UPS, Amazon, FedEx, or other commercial businesses; to ameliorate a dearth of active park play space in Manhattan and other boroughs; or to develop into affordable housing.

“Amazing Grace” Hopper, the pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Reserve admiral who laid the groundwork for COBOL, UNIVAC, and other world-changing computer technology, once said that “The most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’”  

The Department of Sanitation and civic leaders should take the admiral’s words under advisement and re-think the means by which the city operates the department.

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J.G. Collins is the managing director at The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, an advisory and consulting firm. On Twitter @StuySquare.

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The High Stakes of Shopping Hyper Local


nyc sbs 2

(photo: @NYC_SBS)


This holiday shopping season has been marked by the ninth annual Small Business Saturday, an initiative intended to encourage people to buy holiday gifts at small, independent brick-and-mortar shops instead of large chain outlets or online vendors. With the retail madness now in full swing, many small and independent businesses must wonder: can “shopping small” be an everyday experience rather than just an annual promotion?

Small businesses are at the center of an emotional debate about the economic and cultural vibrancy of our neighborhoods. But do their contributions justify the attention?

In new research with colleagues at the NYU Furman Center, we measure the importance of local patronage—the steady stream of customers that small and independently-owned businesses rely on to keep their doors open. Neighborhoods count on these businesses for services, personal goods, food, and keeping the streets dynamic and safe. Our results suggest that these benefits are at risk when external factors reduce support for local businesses.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy produced a large and unexpected economic shock that devastated a number of waterfront communities in New York City. There were also neighborhoods in the flood zone that were untouched, and we use this disparate impact to understand how an extreme interruption to local demand affects the viability of commercial businesses that rely on a nearby consumer base, like grocery stores or hardware stores. Data show that the storm had a larger negative effect on these neighborhood-based establishments than it did on businesses that draw on broader markets that are less location-specific, like financial services or building supply companies.

Among all classes of businesses we examined, only neighborhood-based establishments suffered meaningful and persistent losses. Moreover, losses were borne almost entirely by the smallest, independent enterprises. Retail operations were nearly 50 percent more likely to close in areas with more severe flooding. They also lost on average nine jobs per city block and experienced a 14 percent drop in sales revenues for a surprisingly long period following the storm – revenues and employment still had not rebounded as of late 2016. Establishments with broader consumer bases – the bankers and builders – also declined on severely flooded blocks. But unlike their neighborhood-based counterparts, this was largely due to fewer new openings rather than more closures. Businesses with broader customer bases also avoided the economic hit that shuttered so many neighborhood establishments.

These findings put numbers on the visceral losses felt by New Yorkers—fewer services and more empty storefronts, essentially the disappearance of a vibrant streetscape that is the lifeblood of urban neighborhoods. There are also fiscal implications for the city overall. Across the city those blocks with severe flooding experienced a net loss of 540 establishments, 3,700 jobs, and $2 million in sales revenue. Even if some of that is regained in other, less affected parts of the city (an outcome not apparent in our data), these are potentially millions of dollars lost in tax revenues.

While our focus was the response to a natural disaster shock, these results also have implications for the economic forces reshaping cities. E-commerce, for example, has dramatically changed how people shop for goods and services in their neighborhoods. There are growing calls for government policies to protect local businesses from such shocks, such as commercial vacancy taxes and rent protections, or for Internet sales taxes that can rein in online competition.

However, our data imply that much of the solution is in the hands of everyday consumers, in their decisions to walk to a nearby retailer rather than to order something from a far away distribution center. Though the price might be a few dollars higher, the benefits that you and your neighbors receive from having vital local businesses are well worth the cost. And even same-day shipping can’t compete with the instant gratification of a quick stroll to the store.

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Rachel Meltzer chairs the Public and Urban Policy M.S. Program at the New School’s Milano School of Policy, Management, and the Environment. On Twitter @ProfRachelM.

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My Vision for the Role of Public Advocate: Ron Kim


rk city hll

Ron Kim (via Kim campaign)


I’m running for New York City Public Advocate to put people over corporations.

In six years representing parts of Queens in the state Assembly, I’ve watched politicians at all levels of government bend over backwards to prioritize the needs of the largest companies in the world. Whether it’s bailing out predatory financial institutions after they send the world economy into a tailspin, giving away the store to corporations like Amazon to lure them into a city they wanted to come to anyway, or handing tax breaks to big developers who turn profits on the backs of working people; our government is too often beholden to corporate interests.

Meanwhile, subways are crumbling, children in NYCHA housing are poisoned by lead, and economic disparity is skyrocketing due to the crushing debt burden that millions of New Yorkers struggle to manage. The twisted prioritization of corporations has starved our communities of badly-needed resources and created an environment where it’s virtually impossible for 99% of people to make better lives for themselves and their families.

But government doesn’t exist to serve corporations. It exists to improve the lives of people. We need a new and bold agenda to shift the paradigm in favor of everyday New Yorkers and a leader who is determined to execute it. That’s why I am running for New York City Public Advocate and why I am proposing “The People’s Deal.”

Cancel Student Debt
The first step in “The People’s Deal” is to cancel student debt. New Yorkers have $35 billion of student debt alone and hundreds of thousands will never be able to pay that back. This prevents them from buying homes, starting businesses, and providing for their families. My vision for the Public Advocate is to transform the position into the first elected office dedicated to eliminating student debt for New Yorkers. We can do so by using eminent domain to seize outstanding loans from the predatory banks that control them and cancel them starting with the most distressed. We will pay for this by fighting to end corporate subsidies to companies like Amazon. This bold step is 100% doable and it would have a measurable and immediate impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.  

End Corporate Subsidies
The next step is to fight to end those corporate subsidies. Something is desperately wrong when elected officials give $3 billion of taxpayer money to Amazon, one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and millions in tax breaks to wealthy developers. While lead paint poisons children in NYCHA housing, it’s clear the priorities need to change. If we end the taxpayer giveaways, we can reinvest that money into the people of this great city. This action will have a direct and positive impact on working New York families and simultaneously spur economic growth.

Bust the Trusts
The final step is to bust the trusts. In the old days, the trusts were Standard Oil and US Steel. Now it’s Amazon, Uber, and Facebook and these companies arguably have more control over our daily lives, more personal information about us, and more ability to violate our privacy than Standard Oil or US Steel ever did. At the same time, small businesses are getting pushed out of our communities due to prohibitive costs and harmful government policies. My plan is to lead a push to break up the modern-day monopolies and use the bully pulpit of the Public Advocate to establish a new era of community and small-business empowerment. Studies show that dollars spent in local communities have a stronger multiplier effect than handing subsidies to mega-corporations who distribute them to shareholders.

The People’s Deal is bold. The millionaires, billionaires, and corporations won’t like it because the system works for them. But New York is a place where big ideas with an eye towards fairness can be realized. We are the home of FDR and the New Deal, which lifted millions out of poverty during one of the worst crises in our history. The people of New York deserve leaders who are committed to empowering them and to putting their interests first. That’s why I am running for Public Advocate.

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Ron Kim is a member of the state Assembly representing part of Queens. On Twitter @rontkim.

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The Governor's Right to Call for a New York Green New Deal, But Here’s What It Should Look Like


cuomo action on climate nyu

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s draft resolution for a Green New Deal has sparked new momentum for climate action among progressives and young people across New York and beyond. Not only is her federal proposal spreading like wildfire on social media, but group after group — from the Sunrise Movement to Moveon to Indivisible to 32BJ SEIU — is mobilizing thousands of activists in support of the message. Four members of New York’s congressional delegation have already endorsed Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, thanks to constituent pressure: Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jose Serrano, Adriano Espaillat, and Nydia Velazquez.

And now even Governor Cuomo is on the Green New Deal train. Just Monday, in his speech outlining his 2019 legislative agenda, he declared his own intention to enact a so-called “Green New Deal” in New York.

Cuomo is right that here in New York we don’t have to wait on the federal government for our own Green New Deal. We must take immediate action to cut carbon emissions and shift to renewable energy, while creating green jobs. What he failed to mention, however, is that the New York State Assembly has already passed what is essentially a Green New Deal for New York several years in a row. And that version is better than what Cuomo sketched on Monday, which he said would “make New York's electricity 100% carbon neutral by 2040 and ultimately eliminate the state’s entire carbon footprint,” though he gave no timetable for that.

The Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) would compel the state to invest in green jobs, renewable energy, and community development while setting meaningful, enforceable targets for reducing carbon emissions for all energy sectors to zero by 2050. This is the Green New Deal we need for New York.

Like Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, the CCPA is a visionary climate justice bill: it ensures that our transition to renewable energy will protect society’s most vulnerable, and treats climate action as an opportunity to create fair-paying union jobs and grow the economy. And unlike the electricity-focused vision outlined in Cuomo’s speech, the CCPA would cut emissions to zero for all sectors and prioritize investing in communities that suffer most from climate consequences.

Up until now, the CCPA has failed to come to the floor for a vote in the State Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans. So too it has been mostly ignored by Governor Cuomo while it languished. But in 2019, with an overwhelming Democratic majority in both the Assembly and Senate and early indications from the governor that he wants to capitalize on the Green New Deal’s momentum, New York leaders can and should make the Climate and Community Protection Act state law. Not all Green New Deals are created equal.

As with federal level climate action, the CCPA has broad support among voters. The CCPA and its companion bill, the Climate and Community Investment Act — an “upstream” tax on corporate polluters that would fund the CCPA’s just transition — are supported by NY Renews, a growing coalition of nearly 150 grassroots organizations and labor unions across New York. These are the same groups that propelled Democrats to victory and a new Senate majority, and who will be able to collectively mobilize hundreds of thousands of people across the state for what comes next.

As this year’s federal report on the economic cost of climate inaction illustrates, we cannot afford to wait any longer to pursue transformational climate action. According to the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just ten years to drastically reduce carbon emissions in order to avoid climate catastrophe. With a pro-polluter President and a divided Congress, it is life-or-death essential for blue states, especially states with large economies like New York, to take the lead on eliminating emissions, shifting to renewables, and investing in climate resiliency now, in 2019.

In just a few weeks, Cuomo and legislators will have a chance to immediately pass the Climate and Community Protection Act. It is not just about reducing emissions or reaching “carbon neutrality,” it’s about justice and the bold comprehensive change needed to successfully protect humanity from climate crisis. It’s been ready and waiting in the wings and now it’s ready for the spotlight. Legislators and Governor Cuomo should follow through on their promises and pass the Climate and Community Protection Act this year and make a true Green New Deal for New York a reality.

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Liat Olenick is a public school science teacher, union leader, and co-president of non-profit Indivisible Nation BK. On Twitter @Liat_RO.

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As We Close Rikers, Criminal Justice Reformers are Ready for Full Partnership in Albany


guards rikers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Riding high on the crest of a Democratic blue wave powered by grassroots progressives, New York Democrats finally took back the state Senate for the first time in nearly a decade. With this accomplishment comes a responsibility to finally act upon a long list of priorities that have been stymied by the Republican-controlled upper chamber of the Legislature in Albany.  

Chief among these priorities is criminal justice reform, a topic that the New York City Council has been tackling aggressively for some time. Perhaps the Council’s most ambitious effort in this sphere has been to close all jails on Rikers Island. The decrepit jails on this island embody human misery and tragedy and it is our moral imperative to close them forever.

Any realistic effort to close these jails requires reducing the pretrial detention population, as close to 90 percent of those housed on Rikers are merely accused and not convicted of crimes. While the city has managed to take several bold steps in this area, state action will be required to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality. Over the past few years, our efforts at state reform have been hamstrung by an uncooperative state Senate. Throughout the process, our progressive allies in the Assembly majority and Senate minority voiced support for progressive criminal justice reform but were unable to move key bills to fruition.

Their inability to move legislation through the Senate did not stop some state elected officials from crafting bills that would greatly improve our criminal justice system. This legislation now stands a strong chance of passing once the new Democratic majority sits for the 2019 legislative session.

agenda19v2 aFirst and foremost, bail and speedy trial reform must be prioritized. Both efforts would go a long way towards a more equitable criminal justice system writ large, while lowering the detainee population on Rikers Island. While we here on the City Council have done much to make our bail system fairer, only Albany can implement the deep and systemic reform necessary to make our pretrial detention system truly fair and just. There are a number of bills in the Assembly and Senate that either significantly restrict or eliminate cash bail, encourage the use of monitored release in lieu of detention, and help ensure that pretrial detention is reserved for only the most severe cases. Any of this legislation would go a long way towards fixing what is a fundamentally broken and unfair bail system.

Meanwhile, speedy trial reform is arguably even more important in reducing pretrial detention. Given that close to 90 percent of the jail population is pretrial detainees, cutting the speed with which cases are resolved has a direct and massive impact on the jail population: a 25 percent faster system would mean close to a 25 percent reduction in the jail population. Much like our state’s bail laws, our speedy trial laws are outdated and ineffective, lagging far behind the federal system and other states. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied, so resolving criminal prosecutions faster not only reduces our jail population, it also helps our criminal justice system as a whole. While Senate Democrats tried to push for some minor reforms to our broken speedy trial laws in recent years, our new Senate leaders must be aggressive in tackling this issue.

There are also lesser-discussed issues that could be enormously transformative, such as parole reform. Approximately 16 percent of the population of Rikers Island jails is incarcerated for parole violations, and the state controls this issue in its entirety. According to a report issued by Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the state parolee population is the only jail group that saw an increase in its size over the past four years. Thankfully, Albany is aware of the issue, evident in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State speech, in which he touched on the importance of parole reform. When the new state Legislature convenes in January, it can move to shorten parole terms, incentivize good behavior, and require speedier hearings on these issues.

Though its impact on our jail population may not immediately be apparent, discovery reform should also prove critical in helping the city to run a more just criminal justice system and to close Rikers Island jails. Discovery is the process by which the prosecution provides its evidence to the defense. New York State has among the most restrictive discovery laws in the country. While the issue may seem complex, it is actually fairly simple: since well over 95 percent of criminal prosecutions result in a plea or dismissal, the faster the defense is able to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case, the faster a plea or dismissal can be reached. Luckily, there is already legislation in Albany to ameliorate the situation, and our new leaders should embrace these progressive reforms.  

Over the past several years, we here at the City Council worked hard to bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century. However, there has always been a limit to what we can accomplish without willing partners in Albany. In early January, when our fellow Democrats in the state Senate take their seats as the new majority and work with the Democratic majority in the Assembly, the possibilities for progressive criminal justice reform will widen tremendously.

The progressive activists who helped make Democratic victories a reality in November will be watching the new Legislature closely. It is imperative that our state elected officials finally act to create a criminal justice system in New York that reflects our values as a state and a city.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Diana Ayala, Margaret Chin, and Stephen Levin are members of the New York City Council, representing parts of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Their districts are all slated to be home to new or larger jails as Rikers Island facilities are closed. On Twitter @DianaAyalaNYC & @CM_MargaretChin & @StephenLevin33.

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Building the School Girls Deserve in New York City


building school girl

Brittany Brathwaite, the author (photo: Girls for Gender Equity)


What does the school girls deserve look like? At Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), we know cis and trans girls - and gender non-conforming youth - should go to schools that are safe places to learn, grow, and thrive. Yet, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) continues to let us down, and doing so at a time where the current presidential administration is diligently working against what needs to be done to create those institutions.

In a participatory action research project we conducted in 2017, one in three students in New York City schools reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment. Further, one in two students shared with us that they felt their gender expression and identity was being unfairly restricted by their schools.

Both of these issues can have a tremendous impact on student outcomes, with certain populations being more vulnerable than others. As Dr. Monique Morris documented in Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, black girls across the country face disproportionate and often overlooked barriers to their education and they “have become the fastest growing population to experience school suspensions and expulsions, establishing them as clear targets of punitive school discipline.”

Among those being punished? Victims of sexual violence at home and/or at school that are disciplined for ‘acting out’ in the classroom instead of receiving the support that they need to heal and young women who are punished for dress code violations due to their body type.

School is far too often a hostile space for youth that so urgently need to be welcomed and affirmed there; hostility that leads to suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and even imprisonment for some of our most vulnerable young people.

In 2016, GGE organizers, youth development experts, and young people themselves contributed to a participatory action research project focused on the disproportionate impact of gender and racially biased policies on cis and trans girls and gender non-conforming youth of color in the DOE, which is the country’s largest school district.

This work resulted in The School Girls Deserve (SGD) report, depicting the unique ways school pushout and discipline disproportionately impacts girls and TGNC youth of color. This report included 45 recommendations for New York City to improve its policies, addressing gender-specific realities that young people experience rooted in a racial and gender justice lens. We are calling on the city to take action on two of those recommendations.

First, we’re looking to the DOE to ensure equal protection for young people in public schools through the enhancement of Title IX, the civil rights law designed to prohibit sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The New York City DOE operates 1,800 public schools with a total student population of 1.1 million -- but employs just one Title IX Coordinator to support them. GGE is calling for trained Title IX Coordinators in each of the 7 DOE Field Support Offices.

Second, we’re calling for a citywide dress code that celebrates diverse cultures, body diversity, and gender expression. Girls of color and TGNC youth are disproportionately disciplined for what they wear to school. Yet, the DOE does not currently have a universal dress code policy. Girls and TGNC youth report missing out on class time because of discriminatory dress codes and unfair enforcement. Both informal and formal classroom removals cause girls and TGNC youth to lose out on opportunity to learn. GGE will work with the DOE to develop an affirming, inclusive school dress code, ensuring that schools are supportive and welcoming for all young people.

As we are fighting to see Title IX used more effectively, federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is looking to limit its ability to protect survivors of sexual violence. She recently unveiled a series of devastating proposed regulations that would remove Title IX protections from off-campus and online sexual harassment, as well as incidents of harassment that do not result in a student missing classes or dropping out entirely, give schools the ability to claim religious exemption from adhering to anti-sex discrimination policy, and limit investigations of abuse or harassment to cases that are reported to a Title IX official -- again, remember that New York City has just one person in such a position serving 1.1 million students and their families. Earlier this year, DeVos announced plans to remove protections for transgender students from Title IX.

This isn’t the first time - at the federal level, this administration has repeatedly demonstrated its blatant disregard for girls, women, and TGNC people. The leader of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Candace Jackson, has said that in her view, “[90% of accusations] fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ we broke up, six months later, I found myself under Title IX investigation because she decided our last sleeping together was not quite right.”  

When leadership of an agency designed to protect students’ civil rights tries to discredit the courageous people that come forward with their experiences of sexual assault, it sends a message to young people that they shouldn’t come forward and get the support that they need.  

While we are lucky to have strong protections for women and TGNC folks in New York City, our schools do not reflect that. We must make it clear to our youth that there are adults who are committed to believing and supporting students who experience sexual violence in schools. We need staff and leadership in the DOE who have the skills to shift school climate, and to ensure that schools are not reinforcing harmful messaging that is now, sadly, coming from the highest office in the land.

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Brittany Brathwaite is Organizing & Innovation Manager, Girls for Gender Equity. On Twitter @urbintelligence & @ggenyc.

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Instead of Taking Responsibility for Its Failures, The MTA is Targeting People of Color


MTA fare beating

(photo: MTA)


The MTA seems determined to blame New Yorkers for the mess it’s in.

The authority’s latest excuse is that poor people who jump turnstiles are responsible for the MTA’s financial woes. The MTA and the politicians and bureaucrats who control it should take responsibility for their own actions -- and inactions -- that have led to the city’s mass transit decline. Instead, the MTA seems to want to pit New Yorkers against each other.

The MTA and NYPD pledged last week to crack down on fare evaders. The MTA’s plan is to send agency executives and NYPD officers to subway stations and bus stops across the city. The executives will stand at subway turnstiles and on busses to create body blockades to bar anyone trying to get in without a Metrocard. More armed police officers at subway stations make an already harrowing commute for New Yorkers even more intolerable, and for many, will serve to add unnecessary fear into the way they start or end their day.

New York City Transit President Andy Byford also criticized Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s decision earlier this year to stop prosecuting subway turnstile jumpers.

The billions of dollars at the MTA’s and the city’s disposal must be spent on fixing the actual causes of the crisis -- aging infrastructure -- not tangential issues like fare evasion, a distraction in the pursuit of solutions.

The MTA claims that fare evasion is robbing the agency of $215 million a year, though how it actually reached that number is lacking in clarity and validity. The transit authority appears determined to pin the blame for its precarious financial position on poor black and Latinx people who, history tells us, will suffer the most from any increase in fare evasion arrests.

And another population that both our mayor and governor have spoken passionately about protecting would stand to suffer greatly as a result of a new enforcement policy: immigrants. Immigrants who have even minor contact with the criminal justice system face far more drastic consequences. Under the Trump administration, an arrest for jumping a turnstile or even a criminal summons could result in deportation, family separation, and destroyed lives.

An analysis of New York Division of Criminal Justice Services data from the last four years by the Marshall Project shows that nearly 90 percent of people arrested for turnstile jumping were black or Hispanic. Given the NYPD’s history of targeting people of color for arrests and summonses for low-level offenses, let’s call the new proposal to crack down on fare evasion what it is: a plan that would funnel thousands more black and brown New Yorkers into the criminal justice system, and to scapegoat people of color for the decades of underfunding and mismanagement that are responsible for the MTA’s current problems.

Police resources must be spent on working with the community and identifying the types of behaviors that cause the most harm—not physically harmless fare evasion.

Years of grappling with the ripple effects of Broken Windows policing have shown us that arrests are not the way to deal with minor offenses, like riding your bike on the sidewalk, having an open container of alcohol, smoking marijuana, or jumping a turnstile. An uptick in enforcement would reverse the recent positive trend of fewer fare evasion arrests. Through October, police have made 5,236 arrests for fare evasion. That is still 5,236 arrests too many, but it represents a 66 percent drop compared to the same period last year.

DA Vance’s policy of not prosecuting turnstile jumpers represents real progress away from the dangerous and discredited Broken Windows theory of policing, which posits that if minor crimes are allowed to happen, then they will lead to more disorder and eventually to serious crime. In practice in New York, the theory is used as cover for discriminatory policing and harassment of communities of color, with no measurable impact on crime.

Poor black and brown people should not take the fall for the sins of politicians who have allowed the MTA to become a laughing stock. Arrests won’t solve the MTA’s problems, but they could devastate New Yorkers.

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Donna Lieberman is Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Marco Conner is Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @JustAskDonna with @NYCLU & @marco_conner with @TransAlt.

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Secretive Amazon Deal Should Have Us Rethinking Subsidy Programs and More


Stringer de Blasio press conference

Comptroller Stringer, the author, at a press conference (photo: NYCHA)


What if I told you that moving your business to New York City could land you $3 billion in subsidies? Even better, what if getting those billions didn’t even require publicly disclosing key information required to qualify for the money in the first place?

If that sounds like a great deal to you, you’re in good company because Amazon is taking advantage of secrecy and subsidies baked into our outdated system of tax incentives. We all know the Amazon deal to place a “headquarters” in Long Island City was negotiated in the dark, circumventing a comprehensive public review process and leaving an entire community with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, as residents grapple with strained infrastructure and skyrocketing home prices, one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world will receive nothing short of a taxpayer-funded entitlement program.

The total package could approach nearly $3 billion when state and city benefits are included -- with an unprecedented $1.3 billion in city incentives alone. The Amazon deal has made it abundantly clear that many aspects of our current tax incentive programs – two in particular – need to be more closely scrutinized, changed or eliminated.

First, let’s take a look at the city’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program, or REAP, which was originally designed to help attract employment outside of Manhattan’s business core. Amazon stands to receive some $900 million in tax credits for bringing its employees to Long Island City under REAP. To put this into perspective, REAP benefits totaled $32 million last year to 205 firms – but because there’s no cap on the program, Amazon alone stands to gain an unprecedented $75 million per year. In fact, REAP doesn’t just lower Amazon’s tax bill – because it’s a refundable tax credit, the city might actually have to cut a substantial refund check to Amazon.

Also, because REAP doesn’t require recipients to meet performance goals, Amazon can still receive benefits regardless of whether it eventually hires the 25,000 it promised, or just 25; or pays its employees an average of $150,000 as promised, or just $30,000.

Lost in the discussion is that our economy is already doing the work of REAP. Indeed, from 2007 to 2017, 83 percent of new jobs in New York City were outside of Manhattan, raising the question of whether the REAP program is needed in a city where businesses are already spreading across the five boroughs on their own.

Second, we need to pay close attention to the other benefit offered to Amazon, the Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program, or ICAP, which offers tax subsidies to companies that renovate or build on properties in boroughs outside of Manhattan to spur economic development. That may have sounded like a great idea when ICAP’s predecessor was originally launched in 1984, but today, at a time when Long Island City is booming, Amazon could benefit from nearly $400 million in property tax abatements for constructing its new “headquarters” in the neighborhood.

What’s worse, programs like REAP and ICAP are “as-of-right,” which means there’s no discretion in determining eligibility. If you check the boxes, you get the benefit – whether you’re a startup in need of help or Amazon, which is valued at $1 trillion.

The final insult in all of this is that there is little to no publicly available information on the particulars of these deals. In the absence of real detail, it’s impossible to do any serious evaluation of the effectiveness of these programs in the neighborhoods they are supposed to lift up. How can we determine if future incentives are a responsible investment if we do not know who received the benefit, how much they received, or if the subsidy even helped create new jobs? It’s a fiscal black hole.

We need legislation that answers these questions by requiring companies to waive their rights to privacy regarding the terms of deals in exchange for receiving benefits. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s not without precedent – the city’s Industrial Development Authority, which provides low-cost financing and other benefits, already requires this of its beneficiaries. And like those agreements, the details of REAP and ICAP deals should be reported annually.

Would Amazon have come to New York without the benefit of REAP and ICAP? Clearly, New York City was at the top of Amazon’s list, regardless of the subsidies. But we cannot allow Amazon to be the only winner amid such great need, whether it’s the residents of Queensbridge Houses, seniors struggling to stay in the neighborhood, or local kids yearning to gain the skills that Amazon professes to value.

It’s time we re-evaluate these programs and stop doling out billions of tax dollars without knowing what we’re getting in return. Instead we should focus our resources in ways that actually serve to improve the lives of the New Yorkers and not as a handout for wealthy corporations. Above all, New York City taxpayers deserve transparency and accountability for the use of their money, and it’s a price any employer – including Amazon – should be willing to pay to do business in New York.

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Scott Stringer is the New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @NYCComptroller.

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For the Future of Our Communities, Labor Support for The Green New Deal


green new deal via sunrise movement

(photo: @sunrisemvmt)


Four years ago, the New York climate march brought 300,000 people to the streets of Manhattan to demand action from national and world leaders. Marching in New York City with my family, we witnessed how thousands of people from all walks of life filled the streets with energy, passion, and hope for a better future for our children and grandchildren. 32BJ SEIU, the labor union I am honored to lead, played a vital part in the People’s Climate March because our members live and work in communities that are affected by climate change.

We reside in coastal cities that have been flooded by storms like Hurricane Sandy. Our urban areas suffer with skyrocketing asthma rates. Many of us have families in the global south that have been devastated by climate change. We march and organize to bring attention to this existential crisis and demand action now. And we know that solutions can be found that both generate jobs and deliver sustainable energy.

As the new crop of progressive legislators in Congress is showing us all, the time to be bold on issues like climate change, the economy, and immigration is now. Last week Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the introduction of the Green New Deal, a plan to make climate change, clean air, clean water, and reductions in pollution a priority for the new Congress when its members take office in January.

As a union representing 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers up and down the east coast, we support this bold vision to reduce greenhouse gasses, switch to renewable energies, and create good jobs. It’s both doable and indispensable.

For labor unions like ours, climate change is an environmental issue, an economic opportunity, and a political challenge that can destabilize our societies. We need to be ambitious and that requires us to think on a large scale and allocate the appropriate finances to fully address the climate threats that our planet is facing.

These threats are environmental and economic, and they will require investments in the communities historically dependent on fossil fuel extraction and production so the transition to renewable energy doesn’t leave “coal country” out in the cold. This is an opportunity to re-industrialize America with a green economy, with jobs that, with the right training, can provide career ladders for many low-wage workers who struggle to afford the high cost of living.

32BJ has a Green Buildings Program that serves as a good example and learning experience. The program, which trains existing building superintendents how to make residential buildings in New York more energy efficient, was meant to reduce the 77% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by residential buildings. It has taught us that investing in long-term training and education programs for current employees can help them transition into the green economy and even become leaders in these efforts.

When these jobs are well paid, with benefits and union representation, green initiatives can further support local communities already dealing with the impacts of climate change. Initiatives like the Climate Jobs New York Program, which includes legislative requirements for labor standards in the creation of new wind and solar energy jobs across the state, show us that it is possible and deeply impactful when good union jobs are a central tenet of green job initiatives.

Directly impacted communities, those who have done the least to cause climate change—the poor, people of color, immigrants—and are suffering the most also need good jobs, affordable modernized public transportation, and big investments in renewable and solar energy in order to survive and thrive through the projected climate threats to come.

As Congress weighs the viability of a Green New Deal, we urge elected officials, labor unions, environmental groups, and community organizations to support its vision and to be smart, compassionate, and bold.

While there is much going on around the globe today that is disturbing and disheartening, it is also a time for hope. Let’s keep moving, marching, organizing, voting, and winning.

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Hector Figueroa is president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, representing 175,000 property-service workers up and down the east coast. On Twitter @figue32bj & @32BJSEIU.

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New York’s Opportunity to Become a Model for Effective Civics Education


govcuomo andrew elementary

(photo via the Governor's Office)


Could New York be the next state to catch the civics bug and modernize its civics education standards? Hopefully, state legislators and policymakers are watching Massachusetts, which just took a big step forward by creating a national model for effective civics education.

Two short days after the November 6 election, Massachusetts adopted cutting-edge legislation (S-2631) that, when implemented, will ensure that every Massachusetts student receives a project-based civics education, equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy. This legislation, the most substantive civics education bill passed in the country in recent history, may show New York the way forward.

Like many states nationwide that are proposing reforms to their civics education standards, Massachusetts may have felt the need to respond to the current civic reckoning. It seems like policymakers may finally realize that one of the potential consequences of deprioritizing civics education in schools is an electorate that does not understand how democracy works or have the civic skills to advocate for systemic change to issues impacting themselves and their community.

The lack of civic knowledge and skills has resulted in an electorate that does not actively participate in politics or believe that government is relevant to their daily lives. In one fell swoop, Massachusetts has positioned itself as a model state for effective civics education. New York, which prides itself on being a state that sets national legislative and policy trends, should take note.

To contextualize the current state of New York’s democracy and why civics education is needed “now more than ever,” the state has historically ranked at the bottom of the national voter turnout list. That’s why it’s so impressive that almost 50 percent of registered New York voters cast a ballot on November 6. According to the Journal News, this year was the “highest turnout for a midterm election in almost a quarter-century.” Compare that to turnout in 2014 when only 33 percent of New Yorkers cast a ballot in the midterms.

Part of the reason for our state’s historic, low voter turnout is our antiquated voting laws. New York requires voters to register 25 days before the election, they cannot register to vote online unless they have a DMV-issued identification, 16- and 17-year-olds are not allowed to pre-register to vote when they obtain said DMV-issued identification, and New Yorkers cannot vote early - unlike voters in 37 states. One can only hope that the new leadership in the state Legislature can bring our voting laws into the 21st century to address some of the root causes of our participation problem.

But another root cause for New York’s low voter turnout is that the state isn’t effectively educating young people for civic participation.

To be fair, New York already mandates that all students take Participation in Government (also known as PIG), a one-semester civics education course, before graduating from high school. On its face PIG should do the trick as the course is intended to provide students with “opportunities to become engaged in the political process by acquiring the knowledge and practicing the skills necessary for active citizenship.” The reality is that while PIG is aligned with principles of Action Civics on paper, PIG as implemented falls short.

Action Civics is a 21st-century civics education pedagogy that is a student-centered, project-based approach to develop the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st-century democratic practice. As implemented, PIG does not educate students about local democratic structure, help them learn about processes by engaging in those processes, or how to research, analyze, propose, debate, and advocate for their collectively determined solution(s). By and large, PIG as implemented is civics as usual, a largely passive form of learning that is often a senior year after-thought based on rote memorization of random government facts.

Teaching civics well requires robust professional development and curricular resources from the state. Even if teachers wanted to teach PIG as intended, many are not provided the resources or training necessary to do so effectively. There are very few resources or professional development courses designed to equip educators to navigate the discussion and debate of community issues or local democratic structures, and implement nonpartisan, student-led project-based learning in the classroom.

There’s also no accountability system in place to ensure teachers measure student learning and ensure that their students develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy.

The takeaway is that PIG is being implemented haphazardly and inconsistently statewide. The fact that PIG is being implemented inconsistently only further widens the Civic Engagement Gap plaguing underserved school districts statewide. The reality is that students from rural and low socioeconomic urban communities are 50 percent less likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes.

Fortunately, all is not lost. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) made a commitment to modernizing New York’s civics standards when they added the College, Career and Civic Readiness Index (CCCRI) and created a graduation “seal of civic engagement” in the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the CCCRI establishes a baseline for holding schools accountable for ensuring students’ civic readiness, NYSED has yet to define “civic readiness.” NYSED also needs to define the criteria for how students can earn the seal of civic engagement and then ensure that every student is granted meaningful opportunities to achieve it.

As a member of a task force NYSED recently established to propose recommendations about how to define civic readiness and the criteria for the seal of civic engagement, I will advocate for a robust civics education for every student in New York.

It is incumbent upon us as a state to follow the lead of Massachusetts and others in adopting a rigorous definition of civic readiness and investing in professional development to prepare educators to teach modernized civics standards. Most importantly, NYSED must distribute funding equitably to districts, prioritizing those with greatest need to help them implement new mandates. Doing so would help strengthen New York’s democracy by ensuring that more New Yorkers have the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st-century democracy; and hopefully vote in all elections. Anything less would only widen the Civic Engagement Gap.

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DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen. On Twitter @DeNoraGetachew & @GenCitizen.

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