Amazon protesters in Manhattan say e-retailer must stop profiting from hateful products

A Prime Day protest outside the Javits Center, where Amazon Web Services was hosting a summit, in Manhattan on Tuesday saw the company's logo turned into a frown.
A Prime Day protest outside the Javits Center, where Amazon Web Services was hosting a summit, in Manhattan on Tuesday saw the company’s logo turned into a frown. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

As people walked into an Amazon summit at the Javits Center Tuesday, some stopped to watch protesters clustered behind cardboard boxes with the e-retailer’s logo contorted into a frown.

The boxes propped up images of products offered on the platform, including a fidget spinner decorated with a swastika and a noose-themed costume.

The roughly 50 protesters said they decided to act during Amazon’s annual Prime Day sales event because the e-retailer had not taken decisive steps to stop selling and spreading hateful material. A report published earlier this month detailed dozens of products and publications on Amazon that contain symbols or ideas deemed hateful or problematic by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies American hate groups and extremists.

Advocacy groups and a retail union demanded that Amazon destroy these items and better police publications. Attendees argued the government should not be subsidizing the company, and local leaders should not be so eager to attract its second headquarters.

The more than hourlong protest culminated with Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York, handing a security officer a petition signed by more than 40,000 and a letter addressed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

“We are here outside Javits Center to take action on Prime Day along with activists in cities from across the country to show that people must always come before profit,” said Malika Conner, lead organizer at the alliance, a group focused on creating a more just and sustainable city. “Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wants taxpayer dollars and community resources to bring HQ (headquarters) to here. But we are here to say no — we will not subsidize hate, and we will not stand idly by while a company that enables and profits from hate does business in our city.”

Conner and others said Amazon should have announced changes after the Action Center on Race & the Economy and the Partnership for Working Families released a 30-page report on July 6, which chronicled concerning items available on its platforms.

Currently, customers can purchase Lego figures dressed as Nazi soldiers, a “noosed costume,” and Confederate flag insignia on different products, the report said. People can also read books on Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace self-publishing platform with titles such as, “Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country” or “White Apocalypse,” according to the report.

Amazon also streams hate music and hosts websites for groups like ACT for America, the largest Islamophobic organization in the country, according to Mariah Montgomery, a campaign director at the Partnership for Working Families.

Amazon did not respond to questions about how it ensures its platforms are free from hateful material or how much of its staff is assigned to do that sort of work.

When asked about the protest, a company spokesman sent a statement, saying, “Third party sellers who use our Marketplace service must follow our guidelines and those who don’t are subject to swift action including potential removal of their account.”

The e-retailer has been expanding its New York City footprint, opening bookstores and other outposts in recent years. Its New York City facilities, which are collectively eligible to receive up to $45 million in state tax benefits, include a photo and video hub in Brooklyn, a forthcoming fulfillment center in Staten Island and administrative offices in Manhattan.

The city landed on Amazon’s short list of locations for its second headquarters, dubbed HQ2, in January. The company has said it will spend up to $5 billion on HQ2, where it could base up to 50,000 employees earning an average salary of more than $100,000. If the city succeeds in landing the deal, Amazon would become the largest private employer in the five boroughs, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Amazon has helped Bezos amass a net worth of more than $150 billion, making him the richest person in modern history, according to Bloomberg News. Bezos is not fulfilling the responsibilities involved with operating such a prominent and prosperous platform, according to Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“Amazon needs to stop delivering hate now,” Appelbaum said. “Companies that deliver hate to people’s doorsteps must be stopped, and we will stand in its path until it ends the shocking practice.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James joined the crowd, which periodically broke into chants of, “Amazon is not OK; don’t support the KKK.”

When asked if the problematic products should prompt the government to re-examine Amazon’s subsidies or withdraw its bid for HQ2, Stringer said those are steps that may later need to be considered.

“If Amazon is not willing to engage, then we have to start looking at the way we’re going to approach this,” Stringer said. “So I think everything is open. Right now, we are demanding that they get this hate speech off the website.”

James, who is running for state attorney general, also said the subsidies may become relevant, saying, “Every avenue should be looked at when it comes to Amazon.”

When asked whether the state tax benefits had provisions limiting the dissemination of allegedly hateful material, the state’s economic development arm said firms participating in its programs must abide by several labor, tax and environmental regulations.

“New York State strongly condemns hate speech and the sale of hateful materials of any kind. Bigotry has no place in our society, our economy, and our discourse,” said Amy Varghese, a spokeswoman for Empire State Development.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation said Amazon has not applied for any discretionary perks. Due to tax privacy policies, the city Department of Finance said it cannot detail whether Amazon is benefiting from any non-discretionary incentives, which any qualified company can receive.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration declined to comment.

Regardless of tax benefits, Amazon’s lack of action may make it a prime target among progressive shoppers, according to Kenia Perez, 22, a RWDSU intern.

“I personally have no business doing business with Amazon until they get better practices,” Perez said.