Late in the afternoon of April 15, in the quiet of the huge round Bank of America lobby on Montgomery Street, a young woman suddenly yelled “Bank of America made $4.4 billion in profits in 2009 but paid zero in taxes!” About two dozen bystanders converged in a synchronized dance routine, kicking, strutting, and shimmying to lively music from the Brass Liberation Orchestra while supporters held up signs reading “tax evader.”
The event was one of hundreds of “Tax Day” demonstrations around the country on April 15 and 18, sponsored by progressive organizations US Uncut, MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, and many more. US Uncut identified the targets as “corporate tax cheats and unnecessary and unfair public service cuts.” They point to big corporations’ use of offshore tax havens and specially tailored loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes while Congress is slashing popular programs from education to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Barely two weeks before, on April 4, thousands of union members and their allies gathered in Oakland and San Francisco in two of more than 1,000 rallies across the country expressing support for embattled workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, protesting cuts in public programs, and pushing a simple solution to the country’s economic woes: “tax the rich.”
“I think what’s happening is the rebuilding of a movement,” said Josie Camacho, acting executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council. Nina Rubin, a participant in the April 15 Bank of America protest, agreed. “People started rising up in Wisconsin and now sparks are flying all around the country.”
At another Bank of America office on Market Street targeted by protesters on April 15, Oakland resident Peggy Maxwell said she heard about the flash mob actions on Facebook and joined “because these cuts [to public services] are going to bring down the country. Unless we make corporations contribute at least their share to offset their bad decisions, there’s no hope for anyone not in the top 1 percent.”
Marylee Fithian, 75, traveled from Guerneville to participate “because I am a senior who is going to be screwed by these Republican cuts. They claim we’re broke, but we’re not. If all the corporations paid taxes and we put higher taxes on the very rich, we wouldn’t have a problem at all.”
Cynthia Reed, a Hyatt Regency telephone operator active in UNITE-HERE Local 2, said she joined the April 4 march in San Francisco because of the attacks on public employee unions in Wisconsin. “If that governor gets rid of the unions, who will stand up for the people’s rights, their health care, their pensions, their wages?” she said. “Corporations have their lawyers — who will represent the people?”
Beyond the immediate events, “people really wanted to do something about the crisis we’re in and the right-wing manipulation of the political infrastructure,” Camacho said. Bob Mandel, an activist in the Oakland Educators Association, said that “lots of people really resent the  bailout [of banks]. The anger is still there,” fueled by ongoing economic pressures.
San Francisco resident Christopher Roesner participated in the April 15 Bank of America flashmob wearing a business suit and sporting a faux Bank of America badge identifying him as a specialist in “tax accountability.” Formerly a nonprofit finance director, in the current recession, “I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost my health insurance,” he said. “I was forced into bankruptcy while the banks got all the money. That’s a typical American story now.”
In people’s lives, the issues converge. Because of the economic crisis, said UNITE-HERE Local 2 activist Reed, employers are “trying to take away our wages, make us pay for pensions and health care — and the cost of living is still going up.” Meanwhile, “as people get lower salaries, the [public] programs that are there to help people are being taken away.”
With these overlapping concerns, groups that don’t typically work together joined in the recent protests. Unions representing electricians, grocery store workers, and other private-sector employees defended public-sector workers and denounced cuts to public services at the April 4 rally in Oakland. The AFL-CIO joined with MoveOn to sponsor the nationwide “Tax Day” protests on April 18. US Uncut leader Joanne Gifford says she’s been meeting with labor and community groups.
The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), along with another community organization, People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 joined together in a statewide campaign against foreclosures and for “bank accountability.” Camacho cited this coalition as an example of union and community “partnerships getting deeper,” adding, “We have members [in Local 1021] who have lost their homes in Oakland” to foreclosure.
The coalition brought about 100 people to Sacramento April 5 to lobby for bills that PICO says are “aimed at protecting homeowners from fraudulent bank foreclosure practices and making banks pay their fair share for the housing and foreclosure crisis.”
The combination of the 2008 federal bailouts, the ongoing foreclosure crisis, and revelations of “tax evasion” has made “the banksters” a special target of progressive anger. Under the radar, smaller protests aimed at banks continue.
The Oakland Education Association (OEA), for example, faced with the layoff of 600 Oakland teachers, scheduled a sit-in at the downtown Oakland Wells Fargo branch April 4 with the slogan “Bail out schools, not banks!” Forewarned, bank officials closed the office for three hours, so about 100 Oakland teachers and their supporters protested outside. The OEA wants Wells Fargo to use its influence to increase state support for education with money raised through progressive taxation and to stop foreclosures and reduce the debt of “underwater” mortgage holders to the current value of their houses.
On April 12, students at Berkeley Community College held a two-day “Move Your Money” teach-in. Student Gabriella Deyi, treasurer of the Civic Engagement Club, said cuts to the community college budget will mean higher tuition, thousands of students turned away, and services slashed. “Corporate bankers are stealing money from all of us and they don’t pay taxes,” she said. “So giving them your money is investing in a lost cause.” The club urged students to take their money out of big corporate banks and deposit it in community banks and credit unions, some of which had set up tables outside the auditorium.
Berkeley Community College students are also participating in student protests in Sacramento, joining what has become an annual spring ritual in which public employees and advocates for education and social services travel to the state Capitol to oppose budget cuts. Teachers, students, parents, mothers on welfare, people with disabilities, and others plead for programs they depend on and tell their personal stories of why proposed cuts would be devastating.
Typically political strategists advise them to avoid the question of where the money to fund the services will come from, lest they incur Republican wrath by using the “t” word: taxes. This year, though, the new spirit of activism seems to be emboldening some advocates to say out loud what they’ve been whispering for years: “tax the rich.”
“We’re not just fighting defensive battles,” said Fred Glass, spokesperson for the California Federation of Teachers (CFT). “We’re going on the offensive.” The CFT created ammunition with a poll asking California voters how they felt about raising the income tax on the rich. The results, released April 1, show that 78 percent of Californians support raising the personal income tax rate of 1 percent on the top 1 percent of taxpayers (those making more than $500,000 a year). Sixty percent of Republican respondents also agreed.
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D.-Berkeley) has introduced a bill for an increase of “1 percent on the 1 percent,” and the CFT is working to put together a coalition of unions and community organizations to promote it. Glass says he’s getting more invitations to deliver his workshop on fair taxes to unions and community groups.
Meanwhile the other teachers union, the California Teachers Association, charges that “the Legislature’s failure to protect basic, essential services is destroying our future,” has declared a “state of emergency” and is calling for a week of actions May 9–13 in local communities and Sacramento, beginning and ending with a “takeover” of the state Capitol by hundreds of teachers.
Will this new spirit of progressive activism grow into a force capable of challenging corporate power?
“I just feel the hope that people are resilient,” Camacho said. “We’ve been through difficult times. What we need to do is turn this into a movement that builds and builds, where people are energized, where people find their voice, find the energy to lift their heads and say, ‘We’re not going to take it any more. We’ve got to stand together.'”
For now, ACCE, SEIU, PICO, US Uncut, and other groups are planning a “militant protest” at the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in San Francisco May 3. 2