A little over two weeks ago, Carl Gibson, a 23-year-old former Mississippi Public Radio reporter fired for leaking Mississippi Public Broadcasting emails, was inspired by the grassroots protests of poor and middle-class British citizens facing deep budget cuts.
The UK Uncut movement targets corporate tax dodgers and was spread largely by social media, as were the protests in Cairo and Tunisia. The template for bringing that model of grassroots direct action to the United States was described in an essay by the Nation's Johann Hari, "How to Build A Progressive Tea Party." Gibson's father sent the article to him as something he ought to look into himself.
"Dammit," he recalls saying, "if no else is going to do it, I will." Beginning with friends in Jackson and his home state of Kentucky, he started a Facebook page and Twitter stream, and borrowed some pointers and a web template from the British organizers for the debut of US Uncut. It's a loose network that doesn't depend on top-down leaders and invites activists to create their own protests timed to national days of action. This Saturday, nearly 50 protests are scheduled, targeting primarily the Bank of America, which has paid no income taxes while receiving $2.3 billion from the federal government in 2009, along with other corporate tax dodgers.
While there's no guarantee this onging effort will suceed—in an era marked by deficit hawks, timid Democrats and a GOP-controlled House of Representatives—this semi-employed young man working part-time as a bouncer at a gay bar has already drawn significant progressive press attention within a week or so of US Uncut being founded. And he's articulating a clear, fervent populist message that's been MIA from our national politics for far too long.
"We want to reframe the national debate about how to deal with this recession: Instead of saying 'what can we cut from the budget because we can't possibly raise taxes on anyone,' why don't we make the two-thirds of corporations that don't pay any income taxes pay their fair share? If we did, the U.S. Treasury would recoup $100 billion a year, a trillion dollars in a decade," he says.
As he explains, "I have one dollar in my wallet. That's more than the combined income tax liability of GE, Exxon Mobil, Citibank and the Bank of America. That means somebody's gaming the system."
For his state, the poorest in the country, enforcing existing tax law and actually closing loopholes could add $432 million in federal funds every year, he notes, while GOP Governor Haley Barbour is proposing $634 million in cuts.
"This budget crisis would be moot if corporations and corporate tax dodgers would just pay their fair share," he argues.
What would have happened to the congressional debate over tax cuts for the rich, Wall Street reform, and job creation programs if President Obama had used the bully pulpit to make such arguments with all the eloquence that has made him the greatest orator in a generation?
Yet similar points have been made before by national unions, among others, in such relatively well-funded campaigns as last spring's Make Wall Street Pay. That aimed to tax financial transactions for job creation programs to counteract the impact of the financial industry's looting of the economy—but it didn't make a dent in Congress, the press or in the White House. In fact, President Obama, Democratic leaders and Beltway pundits largely accepted the Republican framing of budget issues as a deficit crisis that also placed taxing the rich as off-limits.
Despite seemingly extensive organizing by national progressive groups and public rage at the bankers, the New York rally last year drew not much more than 10,000 people. The far more spontaneous Madison protests, fueled by grass-roots activism and union locals, quickly drew as many as 60,000 protesters in a single day. That's more than virtually any progressive local or national action since President Obama took office. (Some exceptions in 2010: a few local pro-immigration reform rallies and a last-ditch "One Nation" rally in Washington a few weeks before the GOP gave Democrats a "shellacking.")
The Wisconsin protests have also brought more national attention than any other labor-related issue in over a decade: whether it's the now-dead Employee Free Choice Act or fights over the minimum wage. In fact, mainstream progressive groups since Obama took office never really tried to organize major national rallies in Washington that could help ramp up public pressure on any reform goals, except for the defensive "One Nation" rally in October 2010, long after the Tea Party had hijacked media attention a year earlier and the GOP was streamrolling towards an election triumph in November.
It's still unclear why liberals demurred for so long, but it was likely due to their concern about potentially undermining the President they supported by going "off-message"—or their misplaced tactical view that they shouldn't risk derailing the insider legislative efforts for health reform, jobs programs or Wall Street reform. On top of that, Democratic Party leaders decided to muzzle the 14-million strong Organizing for America network of Obama supporters until the very end of the healthcare debate, when the bill was nearly headed to defeat and the public option had been long dropped.
At one point, Obama echoed FDR's message to liberal groups on reforms, "Make me do this," but they never really did, so Washington insiders and Blue Dog Democrats dominated the public discourse and legislative agenda.
As a result, progressives didn't draw much attention or spur effective activism to drive overdue reforms, lost control of the healthcare debate and couldn't counteract the Tea Party's ascent. They offered instead often tepid messages that didn't rally the Democratic Party's liberal base and allowed the centrist impulses of President Obama and his political advisers to hold sway.
Now this 23-year-old amateur organizer from Jackson, Miss., along with the organizers of the Madison and spreading labor protests elsewhere, are trying to reclaim the DIY populism that's been lost amid a decaying economy and indifferent Washington response. Their new prominence is a sign of the hunger to express outrage that national progressive groups never effectively harnessed since they all celebrated Obama's inauguration.
As Gibson says, citing communications guru George Lakoff, "Liberal groups have failed in their messages so very, very much, because the messages are too complicated, and people can't relate to it. This is really, really simple: It's not about taxing the rich or a higher tax rate, it's just about making folks who avoid paying their fair share of taxes pay it."
One crystal-clear example, drawn from the US Uncut website, about Bank of America:
Despite ruining the economy with their reckless greed, Bank of America has consistently avoided any form of accountability to the American taxpayer. In fact, in 2009, Bank of America actually received a net tax benefit. Yes, last year, the federal government gave Bank of America $2.3 billion.
That money alone could almost completely cover the proposed $2.5 billion cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills and affects 34 million households.
Now, Gibson is helping to coordinate movements in twenty states. UK Uncut helped him organize a unified day of protest against the banks. He's spoken with BBC World and The Guardian. Additionally, Gibson says certain US Uncut participants have reached out to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in order to bridge the divide between liberalism's two great abandoned resource pools: the poor and labor.
"I think this just indicates that people are so, so ready for a movement like this to come out," he said, "especially when you consider how the right-wing has stolen the mantle of populism in order to preach corporate propaganda and get people to protest against their own economic self-interest in the Tea Party movement."
As part of their efforts to nurture their fledgling counterpart, UK Uncut is helping Gibson locate those easy-to-recite tax dodging figures that captured the attention of Brits everywhere. The figures shouldn't be difficult to find.
The IRS estimates that individuals and corporations currently hold $5 trillion in tax haven countries. Nearly two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes at all, and the great vampire squid, Goldman Sachs, which received $10 billion dollars in taxpayer money during the bailout, negotiated their tax rate down to one percent. The entire tax haven scam costs taxpayers as much as $100 billion per year.
UPDATE: US Uncut or some of its members are linking up with separate protest actions on Saturday being organized by the Moveon.org Political Action team.
Here's how Gibson himself explained his group's goals to Kilkenny on the radio:
This article originally appeared in the Working In These Times blog that covers labor-related reform issues.