Demonstrators posing as a liberal Tea Party disrupted service at banks across the country on Saturday, in an effort to spotlight the gimmicks multi-billion dollar corporations use to avoid paying their fair share in taxes.
Self-organized through anti-austerity movement U.S. Uncut, regional captains helped organize demonstrators at more than 40 different branches of Bank of America. The newly-minted group was inspired by an article published recently in The Nation by Johann Hari: "How to Build a Progressive Tea Party." Hari writes:
Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind ... Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation ... This may sound like a fantasy--but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?
Hari evokes the spirit of UK Uncut -- a movement made up of British citizens, who, in the face of brutal budget cuts, have sought to shame corporate tax dodgers through public demonstrations -- and suggests Americans follow suit. U.S. Uncut is doing just that; though many members of the group have disowned the title of Tea Party, telling HuffPost that while they were inspired by the article in The Nation, they do not want to be identified as an opposition group.
Saturday marked the group's first coordinated event.
"Billionaires got bonuses, bailouts and tax cuts, too -- the least they can do is pay their fair share of taxes," said Ryan Clay, a 28-year-old media analyst who helped organize the U.S. Uncut demonstration in Washington, DC. "I got inspired, other people got inspired, we met online, and we're working through social media to really bring these abhorrent facts to the public."
A rally in San Francisco drew scores of protesters to a branch of Bank of America at Union Square; dressed in ordinary street clothes, they filed into the bank one by one, getting in line to speak with the tellers. Each of them carried a fake check from Bank of America made out to "The United States c/o Tax Paying Citizens," for $1.5 billion. The sum would cover all the bank's unpaid taxes on its 2009 earned income of $4.4 billion, demonstrators said.
Only a few people had presented their fake checks to the tellers before the bank temporarily closed for business; protesters were peacefully escorted out of the building by the police. Once on the street, however, they stayed put and kept handing out fake checks, which had facts about corporate tax avoidance written in fine print on the back, as fliers. "Two-thirds of all U.S. corporations do not pay federal income tax," the fliers said. "BofA is the largest bank and the 5th largest corporation in America."
"People seemed more eager to accept these fliers and actually read the information they contained than what one would usually expect from handouts with political messages," said Leslie Dreyer, 32, a resident of Oakland, Calif., who came up with the idea of using checks as props. "When asked 'would you like a check for 1.5 billion to cash at any BoA?', they were amused and intrigued enough to 'read the fine print.'"
A Bank of America spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment.
Many of the largest corporations in the country have mastered the art of evading taxes, booking expenses in the U.S. and profits in low-tax countries. A list compiled by Forbes shows that Bank of America was far from being the only multi-billion dollar corporation to avoid paying taxes on billions of dollars in earnings in 2009; it is also not the only bank to spark angry demonstrations this week.
On Wednesday morning, New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams marched into a Park Avenue Chase bank to denounce the bank's failure to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. HuffPost's Laura Basset reports:
After denouncing the bank to a cheering crowd and calling its executives "bloodsuckers" for accepting bailout money and refusing to help the suffering homeowners they "preyed on," Williams was stopped by security guards at the door and told the branch was closed. The mob then chanted "open the door" until Williams was let in, at which point he closed his account.
Williams told HuffPost that when campaigning in New York City, he met at least two people on every block with mortgage troubles. He said he doesn't want the bank to use his money to "further deteriorate the community" he represents, especially in light of chief executive Jamie Dimon's recent $17 million bonus.
"It's incredible what these banks are making people go through," he said. "It's disgusting. They're like bloodsuckers, just sucking the lifeblood out of communities and refusing to help out. I understand that people need to get paid to get the best and brightest and these bonuses help with that, but you can't do that and then not assist the community and then get a taxpayer bailout to the tune of billions of dollars. That's just greed at its worst."
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