Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
The Reverend Al Sharpton will join national union leaders in scheduled rallies today across New Jersey to draw attention to hardships facing working families. The adversities in question include budget cuts that squeeze the middle-class, according to labor leaders.
The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Lee Saunders, the international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, will join Sharpton.
The trio plan on leading a morning rally to protest the closing of a psychiatric facility in Vineland, followed by a panel discussion with state lawmakers at noon, culminating with an evening rally in Newark.
Governor Christie has proposed a 7 to 11 percent cut in the state’s general assistance program, while simultaneously vetoing 2010 legislation that would have temporarily raised taxes on those in the top income brackets. Overall, Christie slashed $820 million in state aid last year and $1 billion from school funding.
Christie is now being sued by the Education Law Center, which says the cuts violate the funding requirement set by courts. The governor’s education cuts were so deep they left New Jersey schools unable to provide “thorough and efficient” education to the state’s 1.4 million school children, according to a Superior Court judge.
The case is now being heard by the state Supreme Court, but Christie apparently believes the court’s ruling will be an adorable suggestion rather than official decree. During the “Ask the Governor” radio program on New Jersey 101.5, Christie said ignoring the Supreme Court ruling was “an option.”
During the hearing, Associate Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin asked twice about Christie’s decision not to renew a “millionaires tax” to raise revenue, according to NJ.com. Christie criticized this line of questioning, saying Albin was advocating to “put his hand in the pockets of the taxpayer of New Jersey, take money and determine himself how it should be spent.”
It was last year when Christie took a record two minutes to veto the extension of the millionaires tax certified by the state Senate. The move raised taxes on senior citizens while cutting them for the rich.
Christie and other conservatives argued that such a tax would stifle job growth and cause rich people to flee the state. Yet, that threat never manifested in reality after the tax’s implementation in 2004. A study by sociologists Cristobal Young at Stanford and Charles Varner at Princeton found the millionaire population actually grew over the period of the study, even through the recession.
The study found that the overall population of millionaires increased during the tax period. Some millionaires moved out, of course. But they were more than offset by the creation of new millionaires.
They found that the rate of out-migration among millionaires was in line with and [sic] rate of out-migration of submillionaires. The tax rate, they concluded, had no measurable impact.
This suggests that the policy effect is close to zero,” the study says.
The assault on education is but one of many complaints working families have against the governor. There’s also his attack of collective bargaining rights, women’s health care and issues of fair taxation.
Christie has made no secret of his intent to go to war on unions. One of his first acts in office last year was signing an executive order banning state worker unions from making political donations over $300 per campaign. Ultimately, an appeals court blocked that order from taking effect.
According to NJ.com, Christie mockingly says he “loves” collective bargaining, and yet he refuses to negotiate health or pension benefit reforms, and instead looks to reduce those programs through legislation.
The Central Islip School District recently decided to suspend students who participated in a peaceful protest against proposed budget cuts, a ruling that has drawn sharp condemnation from the New York American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
Hundreds of students from Ralph G. Reed Middle School walked out of their classes April 1 to protest in front of the district’s administration offices. Central Islip officials issues layoff notices to 154 teachers last month and warned budget cuts could mean the elimination of all sports, after-school clubs, and kindergarten. The district is losing a total of $5.7 million in state aid.
NYCLU sent a letter to Central Islip stating the students were simply exercising their constitutional rights and “should be praised for their idealism,” and further stresses the suspensions send the message that free speech isn't important.
Superintendent Craig Carr told Newsday he hasn’t received the letter and declined further comment.
New York unions are planning what they hope will be a massive rally May 12 against potential budget cuts, Wall Street, and Mayor Bloomberg. The protest is being billed as “The Day We Made Wall Street Stand Still,” and includes participants such as the United Federation of Teachers and 1199/SEIU.
"The big banks wrecked our economy and are back to making billions in profits and lavish bonuses, while the rest of us are still cleaning up the mess," said Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless.
She says the mayor should "ask Wall Street bankers to contribute their fair share to fixing New York City, rather than enacting devastating cuts."
Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg spokesman, countered with a familiar refrain when he griped that the protesters were nowhere to be found when Washington and Albany slashed billions in funding for New York City—an attack that is blatantly untrue.
Either Loesner and Company weren’t paying attention, the media failed to obsessively cover those protests as they did, say, the comparably smaller Tea Party movement, or Loesner knows there were protests, but scapegoating liberals is easier than taking the blame for cuts.
UFT chief Michael Mulgrew begs to differ: "We were up in Albany trying to get the millionaire's tax put back. It was a shame that City Hall would not join us."
He says the unions are saying, "Look, why are we being made to pay for what the financial institutions did?"
In California, a few hundred protesters rallied to counter a No-Tax focused Republican Party event in order to promote a fair budget. The crowd included students, children, seniors, people with disabilities, and public safety representatives.
The event was organized by California Partnership, a statewide coalition of community-based organizations that work together to protest and preserve health and human service programs and fight poverty.
The main purpose of the rally was to urge Republican Legislators to pass a "budget that includes sources of revenue" because "California can't live with an ‘all-cuts' budget," said Nancy Berlin, Director of California Partnership.
"We represent working families, seniors, students, and the working people of California" and by extending the existing taxes, "we keep our people at work, students in school, and seniors at home," she said.
Chris Agrella, a Montclair resident, said that "the purpose of [the] rally is to show them [Republican Legislators] that we don't want any tax raises, we just want to maintain the status quo of the taxes now" and to push California to generate "revenue from other sources, especially corporate loopholes."
Agrella is an in-home caretaker for his wife and is paid monthly by the In-Home Special Services program, which would likely be hurt by deep cuts without the tax extensions.
"California should find other ways to raise revenue besides attacking the needy," stated Agrella.
One of the more interesting battles being waged right now is between labor and Boeing, the aerospace and defense corporation. The National Labor Relations Board accuses the company of illegally retaliating against its largest union when it decided in 2009 to put a second 787 Dreamliner assembly line in a nonunion plant in South Carolina.
Originally, Boeing intended to construct the Dreamliner in Washington, but only if the state approved a twenty-year, $3.2 billion package of tax credits. Officials ultimately conceded, but Boeing took its toys and went to play elsewhere anyway when South Carolina lured it across state lines with the promise of a whopping $900 million subsidy package aka taxpayer dollars, and a non-union plant to set up shop in.
Boeing also happens to be one of the shining examples of government-subsidized businesses that pay meager amounts of state and local taxes. In 2010, Boeing received a net tax refund of $137 million from state and local governments despite earning more than $4 billion in pretax profits.
The company has always defended these kinds of practices by claiming it’s a great jobs generator. Of course, one need only glance at South Carolina’s jobless statistics, which are well above the national average, to see that claim stands on shaky legs. In a state that provides some of the least generous jobless benefits in the union, it’s difficult to see just how shelling out massive subsidies to an anti-union company like Boeing provides for a majority of South Carolinians.
Endless mini-bailouts that the state calls “subsidies”—some of them deemed illegal—and harsh austerity measures won’t pay off for citizens, or corporations, in the long run. South Carolina legislators plan to cut $700 million from the state budget by hacking away at Medicare and education programs. Meanwhile, the detrimental ripple effects of education cuts are likely to far outweigh any temporary benefits the state might have gained from luring Boeing into its borders. Citizens will obviously suffer, but so too will business. For example, Boeing isn’t going to be super-eager to hire the products of a failing South Carolinian educational system to work in its plants.
Conservatives constantly exalt the glories of the free market, except there’s nothing free about taxpayers subsidizing the anti-union behavior of companies like Boeing. This kind of corporate welfare system is rigged to force citizens to bankroll their own destruction. If every company followed the Boeing model, there would be no unions, no collective bargaining and no assurance for the majority of poor workers that they can have any protection from their corporate overlords.
Quite simply, Boeing wouldn’t be able to prosper without the state, and by default, its taxpayers. It’s time they show a little respect for the people assisting the company’s copious growth.
It appears the GOP plan for slashing budgets isn’t receiving the warmest of welcomes from its constituents. Earlier in the week, a town hall audience booed Representative Paul Ryan when he defended tax breaks for the rich.
That backlash was one of several town hall meeting eruptions that occurred across the country. Freshmen Representatives Robert Dold (R-IL) and Charlie Bass (R-NH) both received hostile greetings from citizens of their respective states. Dole caught flack for supporting corporate tax breaks and voting to end Medicare:
But Dold couldn’t even get to the end of the presentation before audience members began peppering him with questions about the Ryan budget, named after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin. It began with audience members telling Dold they don’t believe chopping 10 percentage points off the highest corporate tax rate will create jobs. A handful of people in the audience identified themselves as business owners and accountants who said their effective corporate income tax rate is already lower than the lowest rates proposed in the Ryan plan. They pointed to companies such as GE that pay almost no taxes despite billions in profits as evidence....
Some in the audience then told Dold they don’t like the idea in the Ryan budget plan of Medicare becoming a voucher program that makes senior citizens buy private health insurance about 10 years from now. Audience members said buying private insurance is a shell game where no one really knows what costs a company will cover or to what degree.
Bass received a similar response in Hillsborough, NH.
Representative Charlie Bass knew he was in for a rough night. The first question out of the gate during his Wednesday town hall in Hillsborough, NH was about his vote for Paul Ryan’s budget. And the second. And the third and the fourth, fifth and sixth questions. “I enjoyed the discourse,” he said, almost hopefully, afterward. “It’s important to speak with people who disagree with me. Of course there was going to be backlash.”
It’s no surprise that the residents of New Hampshire are up in arms over their state’s cuts. Hundreds of people protested at the Statehouse on Thursday in response to the state's plan to cut 48 percent or $4.5 million in grants to community health centers that employ a thousand individuals and care for 125,000 people.
Deb Drobysh of Nashua pleaded to restore $1 million in cuts to Medicaid in-home support services essential for Juliet, 11, who is blind, suffers from cerebral palsy and has global developmental delays.…
A wheelchair-bound, Anthony Dubois, 35, of Nashua, said as someone with muscular dystrophy, diabetes and assisted breathing apparatus, he could end up in a nursing home if cuts remain to Service Link Resource Centers, incontinence and durable medical equipment supplies.
However, the adverse receptions don’t end with state-level leadership. President Obama was greeted with protests when he arrived in Los Angeles Thursday afternoon for fund-raisers in connection with his re-election bid. The protests represented an eclectic blend of causes: advocating immigration-law reform and recognition of the Armenian genocide, and denouncing the US intervention in Libya and, of course, federal budget cuts.
Inside a $35,800-per-plate fund-raiser at the St. Regis hotel, the president was confronted with protesters singing, “Where’s Our Change?”
Meanwhile, in the very much still on fire state of Texas, the city of Houston is firing hundreds of firefighters. The budget crunch could result in the termination of 181 police officers and 445 civilian employees, as well.
Many people assume Americans are prone to apathy and oftentimes diffident to hit the streets in protest. To this, I reply that labeling US citizens as impassive requires completely overlooking the rich tradition of activism on campuses nationwide. Particularly, students in California could run clinics on how exactly civil disobedience should be done, so it’s no surprise that the students at California State University, Fullerton, spent a second night in the school’s administration building last night in protest over cuts to the university’s system budget.
The sit-in began Monday night after CSUP President Milton Gordon refused to sign a symbolic declaration in defense of public education. (Photos of the occupation can be viewed here). Cal State faces at least $500 million in cuts during the next fiscal year.
“That money should go towards education; you educate the mind so they don’t become criminals,” said Jackie Bebawi, a senior studying history at Cal State Fullerton, in an interview with OC Register.
Also in California, hundreds of disabled people and their supporters rallied at the Liberty Bell to protest Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget cuts on developmental services. The proposal includes $570 million to $1.1 billion in cuts from the Department of Developmental Services.
“This affects everybody. There’s over 90,000 people who will lose services and not have a place to be,” protester Myrna Mawrence told Kero 23.
Students in Pennsylvania also engaged in civil disobedience Wednesday afternoon when they, along with faculty members, participated in a walkout in protest of deep cuts to higher education in Governor Corbett’s budget.
“If the budget really goes through, a lot of the students won’t be able to come back here,” said Chris Carter, president of the Cheyney Student Government Cooperative Association and emcee for the event.
Corbett proposes cutting the budget for all fourteen schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in half, from $465.2 million to $236.6 million.
Carter said the walkout was intended to clearly communicate to students what the governor’s spending plan could mean for them and to encourage their participation in a protest Tuesday in Harrisburg.
Many Cheyney students are the first generation in their families to attend college, he said, and many receive scholarships, grants and loans to do so.
“It makes it a lot harder for students to even go here if you’re going to cut financial aid and increase tuition,” said Carter. “You’re just putting more students in a situation where they have to work or find other ways to live their lives, and really, with an education being the key to success that we’re all told as we grow up, it makes it next to impossible for us to succeed if you’re taking away our access to it.”
Cuts to education often result in tuition hikes, so these massive cuts will have a two-prong effect: they will price many students out of an education, and bury other students under a mountain of debt that could take them decades to pay off, if they can pay back the debt at all.
Many students already work multiple jobs in order to pay their tuition. Daily Local News interviewed Yasheaka Oakley, a communication arts major, who works three jobs to keep up with her debts.
“I’m looking at schools that want $500 per credit hour for graduate school work and if tuition increases, I’m sure it’s just going to go up all the more,” she said. “So I’m putting myself into more student loan debt to pursue a graduate degree and the hiring market is so horrible that they’re saying, ‘Well, a B.A. is nice, but we prefer you to have a master’s.’ So it’s just hard all around.”
Dr. Weldon McWilliams, a professor of African-American studies, wonders why the state doesn’t seem to have enough money for higher education, but is able to increase corrections spending by 11 percent, or $2 billion. McWilliams says there is a contradiction in politicians stumping for bringing jobs to the state while simultaneously making it impossible for students to acquire the skills to perform those jobs.
“I think that in order to have these jobs and these investments in technology, you have to continually invest in education and these…students who are going to find these innovative ways to bring us into the future,” he said. “So it seems almost contradictory that on one hand you say we’re going to move towards these jobs and different technologies, but on the other hand you see a slash in education.”
Michigan’s House first raised some eyebrows last month when it passed the “Emergency Financial Manager” bill, which states that in the case of an economic crisis, the governor has the authority to authorize “emergency managers” to reject, modify or terminate the terms of any existing contracts or collective bargaining agreements, and dissolve local governing bodies of schools and cities.
Naturally, unions and pro-democratic activists were up in arms when the “financial martial law bill,” as some called it, passed. Thousands turned out to protest what is widely viewed as an authoritarian power grab by Governor Snyder. But up until very recently, the effect of such a bill was largely speculative. The scope of Snyder’s new power couldn’t be fully understood until he decided to flex his muscle in an impoverished former industrial town called Benton Harbor.
The Michigan town is very much in economic crisis—as is, one could argue, most of the country. Crises are wonderful opportunities for the political and financial elites who are always searching for convenient excuses to exploit already chaotic situations for their own personal gains and ideologies. Author Naomi Klein dubbed this the “shock doctrine.”
First, one of Snyder’s state-appointed Emergency Managers, Robert Bobb, issued a layoff notice to all of Detroit’s 5,466 public school teachers. Soon after, another EM, Joe Harris, used his expanded powers granted by the new law to issue an order banning the city commission from taking any action without his written permission. Now, while it is unlikely that all of Detroit’s teachers will be fired, what is clear is that the EMs intend to exercise the maximum amount of authority granted to them under this new law.
“I fully intend to use the authority that was granted under Public Act 4,” Bobb said.
Benton Harbor City Commissioner Juanita Henry feels like her town is being used as a test case. “If they have disenfranchised the people so badly they just don’t respond to anything, they can do this all over the country,” she says.
What’s happening in Benton Harbor is raising great concern in other Michigan communities. The budget battles and cut protests are intimately linked to Snyder’s power grab because the former are usually used as an excuse to implement the latter. Snyder and the EMs first claim there is an economic crisis—an undeniable need to slash social spending and levy cruel austerity measures on the poor. Then, Snyder uses the inevitable chaos as an excuse to dissolve democratically elected bodies and appoint henchmen to further strangle the communities and force them to accept even more austerity.
Michigan activists are now working to repeal the law. A group called Heartland Revolution is planning to rally at the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce and march to City Hall on Wednesday, April 27, to protest the takeover. Also, a Facebook page called “A Referendum to Reject PA 4” has quadrupled in size in twenty-four hours, according to Traverse City activist Betsy Coffia.
In order to have a referendum on a newly enacted law, petitioners must gather signatures from 161,305 people, or 5 percent of the number that voted in the last gubernatorial election, the Michigan Messenger reports. The signatures must be submitted within ninety days of the end of the legislative session in which the bill was passed.
Thousands of young voters rallied at the White House this Tax Day to demand President Obama stand up to Big Polluters and make them pay their fair share. During the day of action, a flash mob, led by US Uncut’s Carl Gibson, successfully shut down a BP gas station in response to the company’s $9.9 billion tax credit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which nearly matches the EPA’s entire annual operating budget.
Polluters marched in the streets, chanting, “Make polluters pay, not the EPA.”
Author Nicholas Shaxson, whom I previously interviewed for this blog, also participated in some guerrilla activism with US Uncut at a Verizon store in the District. Verizon is a multibillion-dollar corporation that pays lower tax rates than you do, and the company is able to do this by creatively redirecting its profits to their foreign wireless partner, and favorite target of the UK Uncut movement, Vodafone.
US Uncut snuck Shaxson, who is on the tail end of his book tour, into a Verizon store and set up a table onto which they dumped copies of his book, Treasure Island, which details the nefarious tax dodging habits of the world’s elites and corporations. Shaxson started signing away.
Shaxson writes that he was struck by how forcefully the organizers stressed peaceful protest.
“These people are not your enemy” they kept saying, talking about the store employees, and then the police, who were bound to show up. “We are fighting to protect their (police) salaries too.”
I can add that this has also been my experience covering the NYC chapter of US Uncut. Nonviolence is always stressed by organizers at the top of each protest, and I’ve witnessed activists speaking directly to police officers to explain US Uncut is in the streets to fight for their salaries.
Shaxson came away from the experience feeling inspired. “I am not an activist or street protester by temperament or experience,” he writes, “and I would never have the, well, the balls, to stand up and shout in such surroundings. Hats off to them.”
The larger protest at the White House featured speakers such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Cherri Foytlin of Gulf Change, and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. The protest was a marriage of the environmental movement that demands the president and Congress stand up to Big Polluters and protect the Clean Air Act, and the anti–corporate tax-dodging movement that wants BP to pay its fair share to the society that helped facilitate its lavish profits.
Huge oil companies like BP and Exxon pay lobbyists millions of dollars to scare lawmakers into believing that ending their subsidies will tank the American economy. For example, BP North America donated at least $4.8 million in corporate contributions in the past seven years to political groups, partisan organizations and campaigns engaged in federal and state elections, the Washington Post reports.
Big oil always claims that its subsidies are for job creation and drilling costs, but there are actually nine different subsidies in the tax codes that the oil companies enjoy. Getting rid of those subsidies would save the US $45 billion over ten years.
For contrast, consider that the recent federal budget deal resulted in a $500 million cut to the Women, Infants and Children Program. WIC is one of many programs that could be fully funded simply by tweaking Big Oil subsidies.
In honor of tax day, US Uncut is launching nationwide actions in more than 100 separate cities. The group is calling upon Americans to resist an unfair taxation system that permits wealthy people and corporations to dodge paying their fair share while poor people are expected to suffer under cuts in their health services and educational systems.
US Uncut stresses the problem of tax dodging is systemic. According to the Government Accountability Office, eighty-three of the top 100 US companies use tax havens to dodge taxes.
“Why are we cutting $400 million from local law enforcement funding, while corporations like GE, Verizon, Bank of America, and FedEx continue to get away with not paying any taxes year after year?” asked Carl Gibson of US Uncut Mississippi, “If GE alone paid their fair share of taxes, then we could ‘uncut’ nearly $2 billion in job training programs. Do we want good jobs in America or do we want tax cheats?”
Today, on the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, Boston activists are planning a March for Common Sense with rallying cries such as: “The Cuts are coming! The Cuts are coming!”
Earl James, an unemployed veteran and US Uncut supporter, wants tax revenue invested in domestic programs rather than hidden in offshore bank accounts.
“I’m a veteran that’s been unemployed for over 99 months now, and on the same day I heard about GE’s tax evasion, I got a letter saying my VA benefits were being reduced…. Why not invest in jobs for veterans and VA benefits for those who served instead of letting tax cheats like GE’s Jeffrey Immelt get away with cheating our country?”
In Washington, DC, a Power Shift flash mob led by US Uncut’s Carl Gibson successfully shut down a BP gas station. The protest was in response to BP’s $9.9 billion tax credit from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which nearly matches the EPA’s entire annual operating budget.
Additionally, budget cut protests continue across the country. Rain couldn’t stop more than 150 protesters from participating in a show of solidarity outside the Mercer County Courthouse in Pennsylvania this weekend. The state is set for a cut of $1.2 billion to education under Governor Tom Corbett’s budget plan.
“You just can’t balance the budget on the backs of the working people in the country or in the state,” said Chaz Rice, Chair of the Mercer Democratic Committee.
Students in Katy, Texas have chosen a different approach to protesting. Following two days of protest last week at multiple campuses, the students are now engaging in a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers in Austin. Katy ISD faces a $50 million budget shortfall due to state budget cuts.
In New Jersey, union leaders have called for members to protest the firing of Paterson’s 125 police officers (a quarter of the city’s total force). The city has already eliminated 392 municipal workers. In the meantime, eighteen Guardian Angels (read: unarmed civilians) are patrolling the city. Mayor Jeffery Jones says the Angels can play a “significant role” in public safety. The group “keeps an eye on neighborhoods, breaks up fights, and makes citizen arrests.”
The effects of the budget cuts have already been manifesting in ugly ways. In Kentucky, job losses and foreclosures have resulted in a spike of homelessness. With the state unable (or unwilling) to fill the void, the homeless turn to shelters. Unfortunately, with so many in need, the shelters can’t keep up. The Salvation Army in Paducah has had to send families (married couples only) to go live in the woods, armed with nothing more than tents.
US Uncut launched another nationwide day of protest this week involving around forty participating chapters. The activism strategies again ranged from traditional protest to more creative forms of occupations such as San Francisco’s flash mob in a Bank of America.
This latest campaign follows a busy week for the fledgling organization. US Uncut, along with the Yes Men, have been at the center of the media’s attention following their successful pranktivist duping of the AP.
The anti–corporate tax dodging movement is growing momentum during a time when GOP leaders such as Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty propagate daily the lie that corporations are already overtaxed in America. While corporations claim they’re taxed at 35 percent, their actual effective tax rate is much, much lower after deductions, credits and write-offs.
During the 1950s, the decade in which more people joined the middle class than at any time in history—before or since—corporations paid 49 percent of their profits in taxes. Last year, it was about half that rate, a decidedly more modest 26 percent. In 2010, corporate tax collections totaled $191 billion—down 8 percent from $207 billion as recently as 2000.
Perhaps a more telling yardstick, corporate tax revenue in 2009 came to just 1 percent of gross domestic product—the lowest collection level since 1936, or three-quarters of a century ago. In 2010, it edged up to a puny 1.3 percent—the second-lowest since 1940. Even worse, the shriveled tax collections came at a time when corporations were registering an all-time high in profits. At the end of 2010, corporations posted an annualized profit of $1.65 trillion in the fourth quarter. In other words, the more they made, the less they paid.
America has a revenue problem because of a two-tier taxation system that steals from the poor and offers corporate welfare to the rich. While tax evasion has always been an American business tradition, the practice has now reached frenzied proportions where the government is no longer simply turning a blind eye to the practice but actively facilitating it.
The Fed gave hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to hedge funds and other investors with addresses in the Cayman Islands during the bailout. The addresses belong to companies with American affiliations like Pimco, Blackstone (Pete Peterson’s company that seeks to privatize Social Security) and Waterfall TALF Opportunity (a company owned by Christy Mack, wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley). The government is now actively subsidizing tax evasion by using citizen dollars to fund corporate stealing for companies like Blackstone that seek to privatize Social Security, which would rob poor Americans of one of their last great social protections.
The legend of welfare kings and queens is true, but these societal parasites don’t live in the ghettos. They live in the Hamptons and on Wall Street. Many Americans now realize this and are beginning to fight back.
Thousands turned out this week to protest Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget cuts in Michigan.
“The script Gov. Snyder has written for his Republican cronies is not the kind of Michigan we want to live in,” Herb Sanders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers told the crowd. “If the politicians won’t listen to us at the Capitol, then we’re prepared to take the fight to them in their home districts.”
Sarah Palin graced Wisconsin with her presence for the sole purpose of stating approval of Governor Scott Walker’s decision to strip unions of the right to collectively bargain. She was enthusiastically booed by a counter-protest, a response that so flustered right-wing mouthpiece Andrew Breitbart that he rushed the podium to scream “GO TO HELL!” at the crowd before encouraging a community that had organized the event to ironically applaud the death of community organizing.
Every week, there are more teacher and students protests opposing education cuts, labor protests demanding the right to collectively bargain (not the right to higher wages or safer working conditions, but the mere right to a seat at the table) and more citizens gather to oppose the two-tier America where the poor suffer while rich corporations raid the Treasury.
US Uncut doesn’t plan to relent with its resistance any time soon. Another larger wave of action is planned for April 18, and so far more than 100 protests have been announced.
Hundreds of protesters turned out to the “Sounds of Resistance” rally held in New York City’s Union Square Park today. Fifteen groups, including Veterans for Peace, ItsOurEconomy.us, and US Uncut, organized the rally in order to bring attention to the economy, housing, healthcare, social justice and opposition to war, previously stalwart issues of the left that have now slipped from President Obama’s radar, according to the protest’s organizers.
Kevin Zeese, director of ItsOurEconomy.us, says the groups gathered to make three demands: corporations must pay their fair share in taxes, home foreclosures should be stopped immediately and the big banks must be broken up. While President Obama has at least paid lip service to the idea of rich people paying their fair share in taxes, the issue of home foreclosures has appeared to slip onto the backburners.
I asked Zeese why he thought Obama had stopped talking about foreclosures. “The banks own the place,” he says. “Going into an election year, you don’t want to have big finance and big banks against you.” President Obama’s re-election campaign is expected to cost $1 billion, and the president has a long tradition of accepting lavish donations from Wall Street.
Zeese believes the solution to the foreclosures could be as easy to implement for Congress as it was for representatives to approve shelling out tens of billions of dollars accountability-free to banks and financial firms. First, refinance mortgages so homeowners can slowly pay off their mortgages instead of paying nothing and then becoming destitute. Second, reconsider the values of homes in order to properly reflect their value and eliminate the problem of mortgages that cost more than the house.
“We’re not going to have a stable economy until we have a housing market that’s not ripping apart neighborhoods.... Every time a house is foreclosed on...it pulls down the property values further. We’ve got to get a floor on the housing market and the way to do that is to face up to the foreclosure issue, but I don’t see President Obama or the Republicans and Democrats in Congress doing that because big finance is too powerful,” says Zeese.
Dave Petrovich, executive director of the Society For Preservation of Continued Homeownership, agrees with that sentiment. “The president, and most of our lapdog Congress, are employees of the banking industry, so they’re not going to really discuss this unless it’s in their own financial self-interest.”
Bank of America was once again a central target of the protest since the company hasn’t paid a nickel in federal income taxes in the past two years and received a “income tax refund from hell” of $666 million for 2010. The protesters demand to know why a company that received $45 billion in taxpayer money during the bailout now gets to play by a different set of tax rules, while simultaneously paying out obscene bonuses to its CEO and kicking hardworking Americans out of their homes.
John Bales, a homeowner struggling paying his mortgage, is the victim of a Kafkaesque nightmare ordeal involving Bank of America. “About eighteen months ago, we called them up and asked to start the HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program, process.” It took the bank over six months to get the paperwork to Bales. He called them every two weeks to check on the status of the papers, and Bank of America representatives kept telling he had been added to the program. Finally, when Bales received the paperwork (over 100 pages), he was told he had a month to fill out and return them to the bank by fax. He filled out the papers, returned them to the bank, and ten days later was told he’d have to fill out more because some paperwork “went missing.”
In May, he submitted the same paperwork again, and in June the bank contacted him to say all of his papers were in order and they’d get back to him no later than July of 2010. Bales never heard back from BoA. He called the bank, and was told his name was still in the system, and he continued calling BoA to check on his status until October 2010 when an official called his home and said, “We’ve lost the paperwork. You need to resubmit it.” With Zen-like patience, Bales resubmitted the 100+ pages of paperwork, and was told he’d have his answer by December.
In February, a man named Freddy called him who Bales claims, “clearly had no idea what he was talking about.” Freddy demanded more paperwork, and Bales obliged, although the more he started to question the process, the more he realized "[Freddy] didn’t even know what he was receiving. He couldn’t even interpret it.” Hiring inexperienced lackeys to kick people out of their homes is a thoroughly documented tradition of the big banks who have used hair stylists, teens and Wal-Mart workers as “robo-signers” to rush through thousands of home foreclosures since 2007.
Finally, eighteen excruciating months after the process began, Bank of America called Bales to let him know he’d been rejected from HAMP. He had until April 10 to get in touch with a BoA official by phone, and thirty days to launch an appeal. It was then that Bales found out BoA was basing their approval or decline on a gross amount of income for Bales that was almost half of what he actually earns. Not that such details seem to matter. The bank decided Bales needed to be kicked out of his home, and so he was doomed to that fate from the beginning.
“There’s no one who takes seriously that this is your house,” says Bales. “You’ve lived here for fifteen or sixteen, years.… No one has that capacity. Everyone is anonymous."
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges also spoke at the rally. Beforehand, I asked him if he thinks acts of civil disobedience such as the Wisconsin union protests are the only paths of recourse Americans have left to fight for change. “There’s a moral imperative to carry them out,” says Hedges. “[I]f we don’t begin to physically defend the civil society, all resistance will be ceded to very proto-fascist movements such as the Tea Party that celebrate the gun culture, the language of violence, seek scapegoats for their misery.”
He calls the state of America an “anemic democracy,” and says it’s time for citizens to get off the Internet and occupy the streets because their leaders no longer represent them. Politicians have spoken incessantly about the need for shared sacrifice, when in fact they’re guarding a plutocracy that levies the burden of budget cuts on the shoulders of the poor. This is a system in which Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan gets a $9 million bonus while one in four American children survives on food stamps.
Hedges calls the idea of shared sacrifice farcical. “[Bank of America] sends out home invasion teams to throw Americans out of their homes through bank repossessions or foreclosures, and of course many of these people were given loans that the lenders knew they could never repay often under fraudulent conditions…and yet there has been absolutely no investigation—no criminal charges—brought against these corporations.”
We live in a corporate state, Hedges stresses, both in our interview and later when he takes the stage. “Not only the money but the wages and retirement benefits, $17 trillion worth have been robbed by these financial institutions. It’s repugnant.”
And the one in six Americans without a job aren’t the ones going to raise money to get President Obama re-elected. The money, Hedges says, will come from the corporate state, what he calls the “predators.” Hedges says President Obama serves their—not our—interests.
Obama’s most recent budget speech, in which he adopted some of the populist rhetoric about raising taxes on the wealthy, didn’t impress Hedges. After all, it was Obama who extended the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy. “To watch him sort of talk out of both sides of his mouth is a little disconcerting,” says Hedges. “I fear, like most people, that not only are we going to see an extension of those cuts, but they’ll be cemented into place permanently.” Like many in the liberal class, Hedges says, Obama “speaks in the rhetoric of traditional liberalism, but every action he takes defies the core values of the liberal tradition.”