San Francisco Uncut: we decide what American means
A couple of weeks ago while still living in London I read Paul Mason’s 20 reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere. I remember thinking where the hell is the US?! Why aren’t we kicking off?! Frustrated, I boarded my plane to San Francisco, leaving London after three and a half years thanks to the Tories new immigration policy. Then about a week after I arrived I got word that US Uncut was finally here and groups were springing up around the country.
On February 26th, the international day of action, I rolled down to Union Square park bright and early to meet some of SF’s activists, old and new. The target? Bank of America; a corporation which paid NO income tax in the 2009 fiscal year. This is despite the fact the bank holds 2.2 trillion in assets and earned a pre-tax income of $4.4 billion in 2009. It gets better. BofA also received $45 billion in taxpayer bailout funds in 2008 and 2009. The banks preferred method of tax avoidance? Funnelling its income through 115 foreign tax haven subsidiaries. If BofA had paid their taxes (shock, gasp) the US would be able to save $1.7 billion in Pell grants (financial assistance to low-income undergraduate students). Grants for higher education in the US are an endangered species and desperately need saving.
The plan: ask Bank of America to cash checks made out to the United States c/o Tax Paying Citizens in the sum of one billion five hundred million- the amount it should have paid in 2009 income tax.
One by one or in small groups we strolled into the branch as everyday customers. Since there were only two tellers the action was somewhat limited though still extremely successful in getting the attention of the supervisor on duty; immediately after I had handed the teller my check she disappeared and returned with the supervisor who went straight to the phone to contact the police. Before she returned I took the opportunity to explain why we were there to the teller and encouraged her to get involved.
When the supervisor finally deigned to speak to us she briskly stated that the authorities had been contacted and that we were free to leave before they arrived. I asked if she could comment on why Bank of America felt it was acceptable not to pay any income tax despite their huge profits and bailout from the taxpayers. No Comment.
The authorities had been contacted because a group of concerned citizens turned up in the branch of bank that had accepted billions of their money as a bailout for risky practices politely and peacefully wanting to know why the bank hadn’t paid any income tax. We were beyond polite, even offering to let actual BofA customers go ahead in the line. Still it’s clear whose interests our authorities are protecting.
As the next stage of the protest ensued (chanting, street theatre, banner waving etc) I wandered up and down the street handing out the ‘checks’ from BofA and engaging passers-by. The general responses were better than I expected although a few people did ask me if we were the Tea Party. Trying to choke down rising vomit I quickly assured them that we were the complete antithesis of the Tea Party however I think the queries were useful in demonstrating two things: 1) worryingly, public protest in the US seems to be quickly associated with the Tea Party and 2) despite its high media presence people still seem very confused about what the Tea Party actually stands for if they think a protest outside a bank demanding they pay taxes could possibly have anything to do with the Tea Party.
There were also of course the people who practically sprinted past me, people wearing ear phones – all the better to ignore you with- and those who snarled ‘I really could care less’. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explain that stating you ‘could’ care less meant you did care at least a little. But in any event, as in the UK, the message that corporations and banks should pay their fair share of taxes resonated with the general public.
What was a almost more disconcerting than being confused for the Tea Party was the need for the group to reaffirm its patriotism before proceeding with the protest. ‘I love my country’, ‘I’m not anti-business’ and ‘I’m proud to be an American’ were all proudly declared when the group initially came together. Several people had also brought along American flags. These measures were undoubtedly in part an attempt to head off inevitable charges from conservatives that this is a group out to destroy the American dream and who are part of a lefty, Marxist, communist, socialist, radical and pretty much every other label terrifying to conservatives, conspiracy.
It’s time to more closely examine and pick apart what ideals and values we associate and want associated with the term American. For too long conservatives have successfully intertwined the terms American and capitalism. What is good for the free market is American. What is good for big business is American. Blatantly manipulating public opinion and continuing the facade that big business acts in the interests of ‘ordinary’ Americans. For decades this rhetoric has successfully ripped down any attempts to challenge the distribution of power and wealth in the US by calling anyone brave enough to oppose it, un-American. It’s time to change the discourse. By creating an authentic grassroots movement across the country we can decide for ourselves what we want being ‘American’ to mean. Saturday was just the beginning.