Today, in fifty cities across the country, US Uncut debuted as a serious, mobilized effort to fight corporate tax dodging. February 26 was the group’s big national Day Of Action—the first coordinated effort by the organization and its regional captains to educate the public and drum up support for the movement. [See Johann Hari’s "How to Build a Progressive Tea Party," the Nation article that inspiried US Uncut.]
At the rally in New York City, around ninety people ultimately showed up, which as one attendee pointed out, was about double the size of a Bahrain protest he’d attended earlier in the week in the city. The protesters handed out flyers and shouted to pedestrians: “Do you pay your taxes? Bank of America doesn’t!”
That was the simple message the group hoped to convey to the public, according to Alisa Harris, one of US Uncut’s New York organizers.
“Bank of America is a corporation that got a $45 billion bailout from US taxpayers, and yet they paid absolutely no income tax [in 2009],” she said, “And so this is just a great example of the problem of taxpayers pouring resources into these corporations, and the corporations are using our infrastructure, and yet they’re not giving back to the community.”
As I conducted interviews, I repeatedly heard protesters refer to America’s two-tier economy in which workers are expected to shoulder the burden of deficit while corporations continuously skirt liability.
Additionally, the protests in Wisconsin were fresh on everyone’s mind. I asked numerous people what they thought of the way in which the media and government have framed the deficit narrative: workers must sacrifice benefits and pensions, while the wealthy and corporations enjoy tax cuts.
Tom Adcock sees Bank of America’s tax dodging as a symptom of a much larger rot. “Not everyone caused this recession,” he said, “Banks and Wall Street caused it.”
All week, dramatic photos and video have been rolling in from Madison, showing workers engaged in a desperate struggle to cling onto their basic rights to organize, and the protesters at US Uncut drew parallels between their own struggles and those of the activists in Wisconsin. Again and again I heard protesters wondering aloud why Republicans were calling for austerity measures when a wealth of revenue lays just off the US coast.
“$100 billion [annually] is lost by corporations who are putting their money into offshore tax havens,” Harris told me, “and the House Republicans have proposed $60 billion in cuts, and so if we just collected that $100 billion, maybe we wouldn’t have to have that $60 billion in cuts.”
Others, like Scott Dumont, 20, who was at his first protest, offered a simpler message. I asked what about Bank of America motivated him to hit the streets. “It’s only fair. Corporations should have to pay taxes, too.”
Standing in front of Bank of America, an SEIU member led the crowd in a chant: “Don’t cut teachers, don’t cut cops, collect the taxes from the top!” The message is particularly timely in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg recently announced his own version of austerity cuts in plans to lay off nearly 4,600 teachers.
There definitely wasn’t a lot of love at the US Uncut protest for President Obama, who enjoyed support during his presidential campaign by using populist rhetoric against massive corporations like Bank of America.
During the 2008 debates, Obama made tax havens a prominent target for some of his better snark. “There’s a building in the Cayman Islands that houses supposedly 12,000 US-based corporations. That’s either the biggest building in the world or the biggest tax scam in the world, and we know which one it is.” This part of his speech was generally one of Obama’s biggest applause lines.
But as of his election, Obama has done little to address the problem of corporate tax theft. However, he is continuing to talk about the problem.
“He’s talking about it again,” said Harris. “He’s suggesting that we close some of those offshore tax havens, and I certainly hope that it actually happens, and maybe if people can actually mobilize around this cause and show public support for it, then hopefully something will actually happen—momentum will build.”
Homepage image courtesy of flickr user suzanneokeeffe