Anna Becker looks tired. Becker is leaning against the brick wall beside the entrance to Bank of America’s Pearl District branch in Portland, Oregon, where one of over 50 nationwide protests by US Uncut has been underway for nearly two hours.
But Becker, a retired teacher, is just as energized as the protesters at the front of the crowd of about 60, who spill into the street and draw long, loud honks from the stream of cars driving toward the Willamette River.
“I have been waiting for 20 years for something like this to happen in America,” says Becker. The words she has spoken in private for years are now plastered onto the canary yellow poster board she holds up like a shield: “B of A is al-Qaeda: financial terrorists.”
Bank of America (B of A) is the first corporation to be targeted by US Uncut, the transatlantic offspring of the United Kingdom-based anti-austerity group UK Uncut, which held its first demonstration to protest corporate tax evasion in late 2010.
As a voice at the megaphone of the Portland protest said, “The United States does not have a deficit problem. The United States has a revenue problem.” According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office, 25 percent of the biggest corporations pay no federal income tax. B of A, the recipient of $45 billion in bailout funds, shuttles its would-be tax dollars into 115 offshore tax havens. Meanwhile, budget deficits are cited as justification for pay freezes for public workers and cuts to heating assistance programs, Social Security, and other social safety nets.
“The $3 in my wallet is more than ExxonMobil, GE and Bank of America paid in taxes last year, combined,” said Carl Gibson, founder of the first American Uncut group, US Uncut Mississippi, in a release prior to the February 26 protests.
“There’s a direct connection between corporate tax dodging and what’s happening to real people’s lives,” said Gibson. “Because of overseas tax havens and other tax loopholes, US corporations are making profits in America but barely paying taxes here. If we close those loopholes, we wouldn’t have to be cutting back on firefighters, library hours and student loans.”
In its first weeks, the movement remains small but is already getting noticed. In Washington, DC, about 100 Uncut demonstrators closed down the B of A branch where their protest was staged. Boston organizer Chris Priest estimated turnout there at around 50.
Demonstrations in some other cities owed part of their numbers to spillover from MoveOn’s 30,000-strong rallies in solidarity with Wisconsin’s workers. In Philadelphia, a handful of people gathered in front of Comcast’s headquarters to protest its unfair tax advantage grew to more than 30 as they drew the attention of MoveOn supporters demonstrating nearby. Alec Johnson, the founder of US Uncut Columbus, spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at the Ohio statehouse in a rally cosponsored by Planned Parenthood and MoveOn. And about 200 people turned out to the capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia, in a protest to support both US Uncut’s message opposing attacks on the public sector and the wider worker solidarity movement that continues to ripple out from Madison.
Despite its size, the brand-new movement has already caught the attention of Fox News conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. In a February 24 segment, Beck painted the US and UK Uncut movements as a “radical” conspiracy.
“The fact that Glenn Beck is already coming after us, that’s interesting to me,” said Johnson. “When some big media gun gets on the airwaves and starts telling people that the organization I’m interested in is awful, that speaks to our power … and I’m a lot less scared of him.”
Kevin Shields, the high school senior who coordinated US Uncut Philadelphia’s protest against Comcast, agreed. “I think that’s actually some of the best press we can get,” said Shields.
Other participants are less enthusiastic about right-wing interest in the growing movement. Some of DC’s impromptu media representatives, who were culled from the event’s participants, guarded their identities when speaking with reporters. One of them, a nonprofit-sector worker using the pseudonym Matthew, told Truthout, “Here in DC, we have a lot of sort of back channels to the UK group,” who, in light of “some vicious right-wing hatchet jobs” against some of its members in the UK’s conservative press, encouraged its counterparts in the United States to remain anonymous.
In addition to concerns about media smear campaigns, said Matthew, “We’re dealing with a massive corporation with unlimited resources, and, as we’ve seen with the hacked emails, they’re going to go after people.” (When Anonymous, a group of hackers supportive of WikiLeaks, discovered the head of private security firm HBGary Federal claimed to have infiltrated Anonymous’ ranks, it hacked the firm’s emails and discovered that a law firm hired by B of A had approached HBGary about spying on Anonymous.)
The range of attitudes about identity and security among US Uncut supporters suggests a growing public uncertainty about how much a government increasingly indebted to corporations can be trusted to uphold its citizens’ right to dissent. As of two days before the protest, at least one other city’s Uncut organizers, in Los Angeles, were maintaining their anonymity. Before Brian Woodward came out to Portland’s protest, he spoke with his mother, who was an observer at the Nuremberg trials. “She has some experience with the last bout of fascism this country saw, and her words to me were, ‘Keep your head down,'” said Woodward.
Meanwhile, Johnson, a longtime activist who said he was arrested three times in the 1980’s at protests against New Hampshire’s Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, insists, “My retirement plan has pretty much always been to get shot off the barricades.”
“People who want to be cautious, that’s fine if that’s what it takes for them to discover their agency,” said Johnson. For his part, he said, “I’ve got two children, and I think they are counting on me to be their father, and if that means I have to take it on the chin from the Bank of America, then so be it.”
Priest says he chose to use his full identity in his participation in the US Uncut movement for a different reason. “This isn’t an underground movement. The point is to be mainstream,” he said.
So far, US Uncut’s self-described decentralized model appears to make room for multiple approaches.
“Americans are really searching for a new protest model. They don’t want the same old thing of standing outside the mall every six months,” said Matthew.
Shields, a labor activist, also welcomes US Uncut’s unconventional strategy, which blends social media outreach with old-fashioned street protests. “As an activist myself, it’s so frustrating – on the picket lines and everything, most people are fighting for things that affect their own lives – it’s really tough to get people out for things that don’t directly affect them.” Shields said he was encouraged by the turnout in Philadelphia. “It was sort of weird,” he said. “I did it accidentally. I sort of figured it was just going to be me and a few friends.”
The pro-democracy movements spreading through the Middle East have been credited with influencing the recent resurgence of direct democracy in the US. “I don’t think that overnight we’re going to become Cairo,” said Johnson, who nonetheless thinks the events in Madison and elsewhere have been an inspiration to many. “I’m going to be keen to see what we can pull off,” he said.
A widespread sense of outrage could provide more fuel for US Uncut. In Portland, retired educator Marilou Baughman wondered what to make of the increasing disparity between the freedoms and privileges of ordinary people versus those of the super rich. “What’s the next logical step?” asked Baughman. “Slavery?”
Between megaphone sessions denouncing corporate tax dodgers and “selective austerity,” Jen Nichols explained why she took a lead in organizing the Portland protest. “I’m probably technically white collar,” said Nichols, who works in IT and took a 10 percent pay cut after the recession hit, “but I’m still living paycheck to paycheck.”
“I’m tired of paying taxes and being told there’s not enough money for me or my daughter,” she said.
Nichols is not the only one who is tired. In the lead-up to the protests, on February 21, a tweet sent out on the US Uncut handle seemed intended for those Americans who are struggling to meet their basic needs, plan for the future or get ahead in a recession. “THIS is your fight, the fight for a job, for benefits, FOR SURVIVAL, do not expend what little energies you have fighting for anything else.”
Watch Videos of Protests in Ohio and Boston, Below: