AMAZON WARRIORS: How a scrappy bunch of grassroots activists thwarted a retail giant.

AuthorGupta, Arun

It's a Friday night in early March, but spring is nowhere in sight as members of Queens Neighborhoods United bundle up against the cold and huddle near a folding table dispensing hot champurrado, a traditional Mexican drink made from milk, chocolate, and cornmeal. About twenty organizers and supporters of the immigrant-led community group have gathered in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights as part of a years-long campaign to prevent a Target department store from being built there. The site for the proposed Target has sat empty since 2017, when real-estate developers who had purchased the lot demolished the Jackson Heights Cinema, one of the few movie theaters in the city that had offered movies with Spanish subtitles.

The empty lot is near the 7 subway line, nicknamed the "International Express" for stitching the boroughs immigrant communities together. The block is lined with Mexican bakeries, 99-cent stores, Chinese restaurants, and South Asian jewelers. It's a microcosm of Queens, where 138 languages are spoken and which Guinness World Records has dubbed the "most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet." By itself, Queens would be the fifth-largest U.S. city with almost 2.3 million residents, nearly half of whom are foreign-born.

One of the co-founders of Queens Neighborhoods United, also known as QNU, is Tania Mattos, thirty-five. An undocumented immigrant from Bolivia who has provisional legal status as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she has a masters' degree in political science from CUNY. She says many people in the community oppose the new Target because "immigrant small businesses will suffer and it will lead to further gentrification and displacement."

Some of the most vulnerable immigrants are street vendors. "There are dozens of women selling food in this neighborhood on the street," Mattos says. "There is no other way for them to make money. They may not have work authorization. They may be the head of a household. It's easy for them to cook and buy a cart."

A Colombian woman walks by pushing a grocery cart. On top is a wooden board with a stack of thin wafers called obleas and squeeze bottles filled with jam and caramel sauce that she'll use to sandwich the treat together for customers. After being approached by Josselyn Atahualpa, twenty-seven, a native of Peru who is an organizer with QNU, the vendor writes out a statement opposing Target.

"She was so against the store," Atahualpa says. "Target comes, the rents are going to go up. A lot of the folks here have gotten to know us. Our community is highly politicized. They are low-income and are heavily impacted by issues such as policing."

This is the type of direct organizing--by unpaid activists against a corporation valued at $39 billion--that defines QNU. The group, Mattos says, was founded in 2013 to stop the creation of the city's largest Business Improvement District in Jackson Heights, which it believed would push up real-estate values and force out small businesses, low-income residents, and street vendors. The city dropped the plan in 2016.

QNU also banded together with scores of community groups, nonprofits, and labor unions to defeat Amazon's plan to build a new headquarters in Queens, a decision announced in February. It was the Target campaign that led members of QNU to meet in early 2018 with a then-unknown candidate running for Congress, who would be both incorrectly credited and...

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