Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
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.”
It seems GE isn’t laughing about the hoax implemented by the Yes Men and US Uncut. Yesterday, the activist groups posted a fake press release allegedly from GE stating the company intended to donate its entire $3.2 billion tax refund to the US Treasury. The website, genewscenters.com, is a fake website hosted by BlueHost (the real GE-owned website is genewscenter.com).
GE immediately demanded the hoax website be taken down, which US Uncut views as an attack on their freedom of speech. Bryan Fansler, GE’s deputy chief information security officer, contacted Bluehost and, according to US Uncut, “waved some scary sounding legal phrases,” and successfully got Bluehost to take down the site for “a combination of Phishing, Copyright and Trademark infringement.”
Duncan Meisel, a US Uncut representative, calls this a violation of the group’s First Amendment rights. “[Fansler] isn’t a lawyer,” says Meisel. “This is a case of straight-up intimidation to silence criticism of one of America’s largest and most important corporations.”
Furthermore, Meisel believes there is precedent to use GE’s likeness in a satirical fashion. “Our right to fair use of their logo, copyright and trademarks is far more well established than their shady tax strategy,” says Meisel, adding US Uncut intends to fight the removal of the website.
In other budgetary news, thousands rallied at Michigan’s Capitol in opposition to educations cuts and pension taxes, and support the rights of workers to collectively bargain.
The rally, which was estimated as the biggest one of the year, drew 4,500 people who are angry at Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed cuts, which they say unfairly target lower- and middle-income citizens.
Jackson, a member of Laborers Local 499, said he was concerned about cuts to education and the tax on pensions.
“I have an 8-year-old. What about her future?” he said.
Many in the crowd wore shirts and jackets identifying themselves as union members, and several unions set up tents on the lawn.
One protester wore a Grim Reaper costume with “Reaper Rick” on the front and a sign overhead predicting “a grim future for Michigan.” Another man in a dress shirt held a sign that said “I honor my dad, a bricklayer, and all working class people.”
Snyder’s radical education austerity could cut as much as $500 per student, according to some estimates, but that number might jump up to more than $1,000 per student once certain programs like dropout prevention, rural school grants and declining-enrollment funding are forced to end.
Hundreds of faculty, students, and staff at San Diego University joined statewide protests opposing their state’s budget cuts and tuition hikes. More than 800 faculty, staff and students joined a seventy-five-minute midday protest that had already attracted a crowd of 400 to 500 people outside President Stephen Weber’s office. Similar protests are scheduled at all of the twenty-three California State University campuses.
Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget plans, UC and CSU would face $500 million in cuts.
In Syracuse, teachers rallied outside the city school district headquarters to protest against state education cuts. Though the district will receive an addition $5 million once their budget is finalized, officials still plan on cutting 500 teaching jobs. Thus far, 370 people, about half of those teachers, have already been laid off. Another 100 employees are set to retire and their positions won’t be filled.
The Yes Men, a culture-jamming activist duo, and the anti–tax dodging group US Uncut were the players behind a widely circulated (and false) AP report stating GE would be returning its entire 2010 tax refund of $3.2 billion to the US Treasury.
The groups told ABC News they are forced to impersonate public figures and companies in order to break into a media space that is oversaturated with the loudest voices and those with the best public relations departments.
“Corporations spend billions of dollars a year shoving lies down that pipeline, so we have to impersonate them just to get information out,” Yes Men spokesman Michael Bonanno told ABC News. “Our lies are designed to be recognized as lies almost instantly. But we have to impersonate these companies that already have a voice to say something, otherwise nobody would listen.”
US Uncut followed up the publishing of the AP story by posting a press released titled, “US Uncut Welcomes GE’s Change of Heart,” complete with a fabricated interview with US Uncut spokesman Carl Gibson.
And while the prank might have disappointed activists eager to see a corporation that paid no federal income taxes while raking in $14 billion in worldwide profits last year finally pay its fair share, the false report did have a dramatic effect on GE’s stocks. The “tiny guerilla team” managed to knock $3.5 billion off GE’s market value in a matter of hours. “Obviously, GE can’t possibly be expected to do the right thing voluntarily; their stock would keep plunging,” says Gibson. “That’s why we must change the law.”
This certainly isn’t the first time the media has been hoodwinked by the Yes Men. The group has performed other “identity correction” stunts such as Andy Bichlbaum’s legendary appearance as “Jude Finisterra,” a Dow Chemical spokesman, during a 2004 BBC World appearance in which he announced that Dow planned to liquidate Union Carbide, the company responsible for the chemical disaster in Bhopal, and use the resulting $12 billion to pay for medical care and clean up.
And again in 2009, the group staged a news conference to falsely announce that the US Chamber of Commerce had reversed its stance on climate change legislation.
The idea behind the Yes Men’s activism, of course, isn’t to raise the hopes of victims only to crush their spirits in the last hour. The real purpose is to force companies like GE to defend their wildly unethical behavior, which GE ultimately did today. Deirdre Latour, a GE spokeswoman, said, “It’s a hoax and GE did not receive a refund,” a statement that conflicts with reports GE did indeed claim a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
The lesson here is that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably the work of the Yes Men.
The Grammy-nominated recording artist Moby has joined forces with MoveOn.org to put together a video about the nationwide budget fast in which activists present their reasons for fasting in brief sentences adhered to empty plates.
Thus far, 30,000 people have announced their intentions to participate in the rolling fast to protest what they call the immoral budget cuts. The movement’s official website HungerFast.org recaps how Congressman Tony Hall fasted for 22 days back in 1993 in response to budget cuts that would have devastated poor people at home and abroad. Now, Hall is fasting again in solidarity with the vulnerable who will once again be negatively impacted by austerity.
Among the cuts are a $500 million slashing of WIC, the federal health and nutrition programs for women, infants, and children. The program was estimated to serve 9.3 million people this year, according to Reuters. Over a billion dollars will be cut from HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, STD and TB prevention in addition to a $600 million reduction in the funds for community health centers. Transportation and housing and urban development also suffered a 20 percent cut, and another $194 million was cut from foreign food assistance, including food aid donations and a global meals program.
All of which is a lengthy way to say in the era of “shared sacrifice,” the poor are the ones who will suffer. The House Appropriations Committee reports that cuts to the Agriculture Department totaling $2.6 billion will be extremely detrimental to impoverished families who rely on the USDA to provide food stamps and school lunches.
In the midst of talk about the need for tough choices, certain programs managed to avoid Congress’s scalpel. Washington has allocated $205 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, a program that has been criticized for its high cost and questionable effectiveness.
While some Pentagon programs were cut, there will be a $5 billion increase in several defense accounts that will bring more business to defense contractors like Raytheon, BAE Systems, Electric Boat, and General Dynamics. The budget also includes $157.8 billion for “overseas contingency operations to advance US military missions abroad,” so the Forever Wars will remain well-funded.
As I’ve written throughout the week, the support for this kind of peaceful resistance is growing, and prominent individuals are joining or expressing solidarity with the movement. Several DC leaders, including Mayor Vincent Gray, were recently arrested during a budget cut protest, twenty-eight members of Congress have joined the fast, and last week Congressman Jim McGovern stated his support for the cause.
Fasting participants are posting moving testimonies on HungerFast.org’s front page. Here is Sharon Thornberry, Community Food Systems Manager at the Oregon Food Bank, explaining that she was hesitant to participate in the hunger strike—not out of apathy—but out of wariness of returning to hunger.
Thornberry’s first husband was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. Their family was extremely short on money and soon they were in serious trouble.
We were far from family and friends, living in a remote location without a car. I had been poor a lot of my life, but I had never been hungry. I still cannot find words three decades later to describe how I felt when there was nothing to feed my children. I had been rationing food for days, only eating a little each day myself, and then the day came when there was nothing. My children were two and five.
Thornberry eventually dressed her children in their best clean clothes (“to prove I was a good mother”) and walked to a neighbor, a nurse, who Thornberry hoped would help them. Thankfully, the neighbor fed them and informed the family about a program called food stamps. With WIC and school lunch programs, Thornberry and her family were able to survive, and now she sees those very same programs are under assault.
It is inconceivable to me that Congress can so casually and in many ways maliciously write off these programs as wasteful and out of control. Why is it that the most vulnerable in our population are seemingly blamed and punished for circumstances far beyond their control?
Several DC leaders, including Mayor Vincent Gray, were arrested during a budget cut protest outside the Capitol on Monday. Dressed in business attire, Gray and his Council members sat down in the street outside a Senate office building. The police soon arrived, cuffed their hands with plastic loops, and loaded them into police wagons to cheers from the crowd, according to the AP. Gray and six Council members were among forty-one people arrested in total.
The group was released from jail seven hours later. “We needed to make a statement,” Gray said. He is the second DC mayor to go to jail while advocating for statehood. The district is not considered an autonomous state, and is instead directly overseen by the federal government. Many in DC view this system of governance as taxation without representation, since citizens are expected to pay taxes even though they don’t have representation in the Senate or House. Yet, despite this reality, DC was used as a bargaining chip during the budget negotiations, says Gray.
The city will likely be unable to spend its own tax dollars on abortions for low-income women. It may also be banned from spending city money on needle exchange programs believed vital to curbing the spread of HIV in the district, where the disease is considered an epidemic. Also back: a school voucher program favored by Republicans.…
“If this isn’t taxation without representation, I don’t know what is,” said the mayor before he was arrested.…
"It would be nothing short of disastrous," said Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS, an organization that works with sex workers and drug users and is currently exchanging about 8,000 needles a month. "I don't understand why they're doing this to us."
Meanwhile, hundreds of students in Texas’s Keller Independent School District walked five miles to the district’s administration building in protest over $38 million in proposed cuts.
Students at Timber Creek High School in Fort Worth also participated in civil disobedience by gathering in front of their school Monday morning for a peaceful sit-in. Timber Creek’s principal explained the motives behind the protest.
"Getting a ticket or getting suspended for three days is a small price to pay for keeping somebody like Coach Sammons at our school," junior Jordan Hennen said.
Kyle Sammons is one of 17 teachers at Timber Creek who have been told they will be laid off after the school year ends.
Administrators are threatening each student who participated by skipping class with anything from a parent-teacher meeting to a suspension.
In New Hampshire, a rally will be held today to protest the drastic cuts proposed in the state’s budget, in addition to the repeal of collective bargaining, the proposed Right to Work legislation and pension changes protesters say will be harmful for the state. The planned demonstration follows the NH House of Representatives approval of a $10.2 billion budget that includes cuts to substance abuse programs, services for mental health and the elderly, education, programs for the poor and vulnerable and changes to bargaining rights for public workers.
Hampton resident Gary Patton describes the right to collectively bargain as a basic American right. "It's not something that should be awarded or given," says Patton. "It's something that is much a right as freedom of speech. When that is threatened I become very concerned."
While twenty-eight members of Congress fast to oppose the federal budget cuts, local lawmakers in New York have also joined the anti-austerity fever sweeping the country. Today, representatives plan to gather in order to protest the spending cuts approved in Friday night’s eleventh-hour budget deal. Some of the programs at risk of losing funding include community development grants for low- and moderate-income families, the Workforce Investment Act (which provides job training) and Head Start, the program that offers free childcare.
When New York lawmakers rushed to finalize the state budget on time, they ultimately slashed New York City school aid by hundreds of millions ($271 million to be exact), though Mayor Bloomberg’s administration says the cuts may end up being much deeper.
In order to prepare for the inevitable backlash from teachers’ unions and furious parents, security was tightened at the Capitol, complete with an increased presence of “taser-toting state troopers.”
On Saturday, thousands of city resident came out to support workers’ rights in Time Square. The rally, organized by the New York City Central Labor Council, was in response to Governor Cuomo’s radical budget cuts. The state’s austerity plan could result in as many as 75,000 public-sector jobs being cut.
In Phoenix, protesters gathered to oppose Arizona’s cuts to education and healthcare. The Arizona Children’s Action Alliance and the Arizona Parent Teacher Association believe the state budget is being balanced at the expense of society’s most vulnerable. In order to balance Arizona’s budget, 138,000 people will be denied state medical coverage, and three state universities will double their tuitions, pricing many students out of an education. When compared with other states, Arizona’s funding for education was already subpar, but following this year’s $150 million cut, the state is sure to secure a bottom rung.
Teachers, students, and education advocates also rallied to protest Nevada’s education cuts. Governor Brian Sandoval proposed cuts to K-12 education that are described as “by far the largest in modern history” by the economics research firm Applied Analysis. Sandoval has proposed a whopping 20 percent cuts to education, which might include closing entire campuses, restricting access for Nevada’s undereducated citizenry and laying off staff. What immediately erupted following the announced budget was one of the largest demonstrations in Carson City’s history.
As the Las Vegas Sun points out, two-thirds of the sixty-three legislators have earned four-year degrees. Additionally, Nevada’s 13.6 percent unemployment rate is well above the national average of 8.8 percent. Lawmakers sabotage citizens with education cuts while failing to invest adequately in jobs programs. Underfunding and a lack of opportunity literally give the underprivileged nowhere to go, while the ruling elite, who enjoy careers that are the fruit of university educations, catalyze the majority’s destruction. Of course, if things get out of hand, there’s always the option of tasering the miffed masses.
Earlier in the week, I reported on a new movement of citizens who are fasting in order to protest the Congressional budget cuts. The group includes New York Times foodie Mark Bittman, prominent progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis, David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World, and members of MoveOn.org and the SEIU.
Now, Congressional representatives have joined the ranks of anti-austerity activists, including US Representative Jan Schakowsky, who has announced she too will be fasting to protesting the draconian budget cuts. Schakowsky will be taking the place of Representative Barbara Lee, who had been fasting since Thursday (drinking “water only,” according to an aide,) and Keith Ellison announced he would also go without food in protest.
Other representatives participating include Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Rosa DeLauro (D-OH), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Jim McGovern (D-MA). In total, twenty-eight members of Congress (all Democrats) will be going without food. Each representative has agreed to fast for at least a day, and thus far the “fasting schedule” appears to be set up like a relay where each person fills the slot of the fasting representative who came before.
Of course, these representatives don’t imagine their, in some cases, day-long hunger strikes come anywhere close to accurately replicating the strife felt by America’s working poor. Rather, members of Congress want to draw attention to the cruelty of the proposed cuts, which Schakowsky describes as “draconian, reckless and meanspirited.”
The entire fasting movement has now grown to 30,000 participants, according to Wallis, ranging from Christian groups like World Vision and Opportunity International to secular groups such as Women Thrive Worldwide and the ONE campaign. For Wallis, who is currently in his eleventh day of the fast, the outpouring of support from both sides of the political spectrum, and now Congressional representatives, has been enormously heartening. He shares some inspiring messages of solidarity.
[A] doctor friend, calling with concerns about my health, said, “Well, I walked into church today and our youth group announced a 30-hour fast for the poor and a moral budget, and said they were inspired by your fast.” Also, a Jewish activist joining our water fast told me he was re-reading the biblical story of Esther, who called the people to a public fast to change the king’s mind. He spoke about the emotions he felt when he imagined his 2-year-old daughter having the hunger pangs he was now experiencing. Low-income workers from my hometown of Detroit, Michigan came to one of our Congressional events to thank us for fasting, and to say they were joining us.
Nationwide, local figures have also joined the fast, including Bronx leader Heidi Hynes, who says to describe the impact cuts have on people in her community would be impossible, and adds that the community center she runs will likely have to terminate half its services over the next year. “It would be unconscionable under any circumstances to abdicate our civic responsibility to maintain a social safety net for those most in need,” says Hynes.
In St. Louis, an area food bank’s staff is also fasting. The forty-six staff members will adopt a similar relay strategy to take turns going without food until April 24. The group is joining a national campaign launched by Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that consists of 200 food banks and food rescue organizations.
Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, says the organization provides for more than 37 million people who come to its food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters every year, and the group struggles to keep up with the 46 percent increase in food assistance it’s seen since 2006. “We have enormous help from our corporate partners and individual donors, but charity alone cannot provide enough food to ensure that everyone who needs help gets three square meals a day—federal nutrition programs must be safeguarded from cuts,” says Escarra.
To Bill Shore, the executive director and founder of Share Our Strength, a group also participating in the fast, this movement is about using the microcosm act of a hunger strike to draw attention to the pandemic of poverty which harms the most vulnerable members of our society.
“Fasting is a personal decision, but the real power of a fast is that it brings urgency to an issue that is often overlooked,” said Shore. “Whether individuals choose to fast or to spread the word to friends and colleagues or contact elected officials, we can stand together to say we can do better for America’s children.”
Following a remarkable display of civil disobedience, seventeen protesters were arrested Thursday outside Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire’s office. In the footage below, you can see the troopers physically carry one of the activists out of the gallery.
About 400 citizens were in the building, and the overall protest was reportedly orderly and civil, but these arrests highlight the growing desperation in the anti-cut movements, and in the population at large.
As Glenda Faatoafe, a home care provider protesting healthcare cuts puts it, austerity measures are truly a matter of life and death. “They are killing our clients,” says Faatoafe, “I have a client that has to be turned every hour. He’s going to die. Do you want that on your conscience? Apparently, [lawmakers] do.”
House lawmakers will vote this week on Washington’s version of austerity, a $4.4 billion slashing frenzy for the 2011–13 budget cycle.
These are not the first, nor are they likely to be the last, protesters willing to go to jail in order to oppose the dramatic cuts disseminating from nationwide Capitols. Thirty-three demonstrators were arrested outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office last month, and were charged with “disorderly conduct” for refusing to move away from the stairway in front of Cuomo’s office.
In the now legendary and overwhelmingly peaceful Wisconsin protests, authorities did still arrest nine demonstrators, some of whom the police claim were trying to charge into the state Assembly.
Internationally, this kind of brave display of civil disobedience is more prevalent. The risk of imprisonment wasn’t enough to stop over 10,000 people in Hong Kong from taking to the streets to oppose their government’s cruel treatment of the poor. In that protest, 113 activists went to jail, and in the UK, 200 people of the more than 250,000 people occupying London’s streets were arrested.
For these people—this poor majority—going to jail is literally their last line of recourse. As Chris Hedges stated outside the White House while protesting the Afghanistan war, this course of action is “all we have left at this point…. The normal mechanisms by which democratic participation are rendered possible in this country have been closed shut, and if we don’t do this, we die. This is what’s left of hope in this country.” In that nonviolent protest, Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg and more than a hundred antiwar activists were arrested.
It’s clear that the working poor are no longer willing to pay for the mistakes of the privileged elite. The Washington State Labor Council released the following statement about Friday’s event: "Washington's working families are tired of being blamed and punished for the damage done by Wall Street banks and corporations.” The group is asking citizens to demand their lawmakers "put people first."
With the shutdown of the US government nearing, budget protests continue across the country. Four hundred people came to rally in Olympia to oppose state service cuts and to demand an end to state tax exemptions for things like plastic surgery, non-organic fertilizers and shoppers from out of state. To do anything else, the protesters say, would be to side with corporations instead of the people.
And speaking of unscrupulous corporate practices, US Uncut sent me a new flyer the group has been circulating to drive home the problem of tax dodging, particularly the evading practices of major corporations like GE, Bank of America, Verizon and Citigroup. US Uncut says this uncollected tax revenue could have gone toward things like job creation, early childhood programs, training for teachers and after-school programs.
Thousands of people converged on Texas’s Capitol yesterday to protest statewide cuts. In Texas, the hot-button issue of the moment is funding for public schools. Since the House budget failed to raise taxes, schools are now nearly $8 billion short of what state law requires (Medicaid is also underfunded by more than $4 billion). Some of the protesters included Catholic bishops from across the state who delivered the message that even though the state is short in revenue, “protecting human life is the most sacred responsibility lawmakers have.”
A group of Vassar and SUNY students travelled to the State Capitol in Albany yesterday to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts to education and healthcare. The plan calls for a $1.2 billion reduction in state aid to local school districts and a $2.8 billion cut in Medicaid.
The protesters filled the Capitol and loudly chanted “Tax the rich, not the poor!” Though Vassar is not directly affected by the budget cuts, the students came out in solidarity for students who will suffer under the brunt of austerity. For example, SUNY lost $289 million from its operating budget, in addition to a prior loss of $1.4 billion in state aid accumulated over the past four years.
“When we were there we really realized that as Vassar kids we were not being affected by the budget cuts, but at the same time we came out of solidarity for other students” said Nicholas Korody ’13, one of the trip’s main organizers. “While the cuts don’t directly affect our lives, they affect society, and we belong to that society.”
Governor Scott’s decision to cut $170 million from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities brought out hundreds of protesters in St. Petersburg yesterday. Scott has also proposed $2 billion in tax breaks for—surprise—corporations and property owners.
Meanwhile, a majority of Americans prefer cutting defense spending to reduce the deficit rather than stealing retirees’ funds or axing health programs. Another poll conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair shows that 61 percent of Americans want taxes for the wealthy increased as a first step to addressing the deficit. The next most popular strategy is cutting defense spending.
Major networks like CNN are adhering to the tradition of false equivalency where the “fringe players” (those opposing all cuts to the poor and those demanding a complete shutdown of the government in lieu of more cuts) are presented as having equal power in Washington. That simply isn’t true. While Congress is implementing deep, radical cuts to the budget—Democrats have already agreed to $10 billion in “reductions” in addition to having “identified” about $13 billion more—no one is seriously talking about cutting defense or taxing the wealthy, despite the fact that a majority of Americans see that as a priority.
It isn’t just the actions of tax-dodging corporations like Bank of America and Verizon that have infuriated activists. Blackwater, the private mercenary firm that recently changed its name to Xe Services, is also being accused of owing millions in back taxes.
Camden County Manager Randell Woodruff alleges the company owes around $2.9 million, including penalties and interest. Yet, the United States government permits multibillion-dollar companies to play by a different set of rules, while average Americans are asked to sacrifice their pensions and social services.
While Erik Prince gallivants around the planet, his pockets stuffed with untaxed revenue, educators and union members marched in the streets of Philadelphia yesterday to protest the state education budget that contains a 54 percent cut to public higher education spending.
Students like Azeem Hill approach the issue of education cuts, which oftentimes lead to tuition hikes, less myopically than some political leaders. “Youth violence is one of the reactions to educational deprivation,” Hill said. “The more we send to jail, the more crime we can expect down the line.”
In Florida, citizens joined a national day of union-led rallies honoring the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination by protesting Governor Rick Scott’s appearance at an economic forum. Florida’s rally was one part of more than 1,000 groups holding nationwide protests as part of the “We Are One” demonstrations. WR1 emphasizes that King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 while standing in solidarity with sanitation workers who were demanding their dream: the right to collectively bargain for a “voice at work and a better life.”
The WR1 chapter in Michigan attracted more than 500 supporters in downtown Muskegon. Participants carried signs that read “Stand Up For Workers Rights” and “Unions also are We the People.” Meanwhile, more than 700 anti-union bills, many of them similar to laws in Wisconsin and Ohio, have been introduced in nearly every state in the country. Quite literally, labor is under attack, according to this protester in Detroit, where hundreds of union members rallied downtown yesterday.
"The pay cuts, the tax on pensions, it's just too much," said Horace Stallings, a grounds worker at Wayne State University and an AFSCME member who marched along with other members down Woodward.
"We can't take it. It's anti-labor to the core."
In New York City, more than 1,000 people, mostly local union members, rallied against budget cuts at City Hall. As Pat Gibbons from Communications Workers of America Local 1101 put it, “We want our fair share because we do the work.”