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Is It Time for a Tax Strike? A Conversation With Activist Michael Kink

Tax resistance could be an effective way to break the back of this administration if we all do it together.

Michael Kink is arrested during civil disobedience at the New York State Capitol in Albany in June 2013 with a multi-issue activist coalition. (Photo: Nathaniel Brooks)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the fifteenth in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Michael Kink, the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a labor community coalition based in New York working on economic justice, income inequality and racial justice issues. Kink has worked in many arenas, serving as a legal aid lawyer, working for AIDS activists and LGBT civil rights groups, and briefly working in government. Throughout his career he has worked on direct action and civil disobedience, as well as on law and policy.

Sarah Jaffe: What was your reaction to the election?

Michael Kink: The day after the election I, like many people, wrote a couple of dozen groups and individuals that I would want to see connected. By that afternoon, I was on a 168-person email chain that included a lot of my friends and colleagues from back in [my] AIDS activism, health care activism, gay rights days. There was an instantaneous mobilization. I was scheduled to give a talk in the city that night and got off a train and walked into thousands of people flooding the streets against Trump. There are new people, young people, veterans, activists, folks that have fought for the last several decades, fought against Bill Clinton doing bad stuff and Reagan and George W. Bush and his dad doing bad stuff.

There are some skills that are left over that are totally relevant now…. The AIDS movement [of the late 1980s and early 1990s] … was an incredible intersectional movement of people…. We worked in the south with [white] gay men who had never been to a Black church and [straight] Black women that had never been to a gay bar, but they found common cause and they stood on the line together. When we fought for health care for people with disabilities in Albany, we had people with AIDS chained to people [using] wheelchairs, chained to people with psychiatric disabilities.

There are folks that know how to carry out mass civil disobedience. There are folks that know how to mobilize quickly. I saw someone send an email to one of these lists saying, “We need to do birddogging on the Affordable Care Act.” In two days there were 73 birddogging actions with people bottom-lining every single one of them and talking points all across the country. Things happen very quickly with the connection of digital media and email.

There are a lot of resources for resistance. There are folks who have fought these battles, Black and Brown and Latino and Asian people, Native people, together over time. I do think the AIDS movement is particularly important in that. At least in my experience of it, it was cross-cultural, cross-racial. There was a lot of fightback around white privilege and people working out how to work together effectively. It [took root in] places where there were progressives and liberals and folks who [were] on our side, and also in places where people hated gay people or drug users or people of color. People in power were trying to kill those folks and they found resources to fight back. Folks mobilized public opinions. Folks worked with faith leaders. Folks worked with cultural leaders, musicians, movie stars. There were things that we did to turn the culture that came because populations under the gun mobilized and walked together and found a way.

Michael Kink speaks at the Michael Kink speaks at the “Greed” rally outside Martin Shkreli’s offices in New York City in September 2015 with ACT-UP and VOCAL-NY. (Photo: Erik McGregor)

There is a whole lot that is going to be under attack in the Trump era, including health care (the potential repealing of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and Medicare, which now looks less likely than it did just a month ago, but still is certainly on the table) and immigrant communities — Obama already deported [nearly] three million people and Trump wants to make that look like nothing.

The issue of deportations is powerful and clearly it is an existential threat if you are a kid that is facing a parent being taken from them, if you are a parent that is facing a kid being taken care of without them, if you are in a community that values every single member and folks are hiding and under the gun.

The prospects for alliances between folks that respect and want to work with and protect immigrant communities, and immigrant communities themselves, are really powerful. That is a place to show courage. During the Civil Rights era you had Freedom Riders, you had white folks coming from the North to stand with Black folks in the South to demonstrate common courage, to eat with each other, to worship with each other, to dance and have fun with each other and then to fight for one another. [That] is exactly what is needed now.

I don’t think that Trump and ICE will be able to deport tens of millions of Americans without a fight. The kinds of mass trainings in civil disobedience and direct action we saw during the Civil Rights era, during the Anti-Vietnam War era, we are going to see again. It is already happening. When they try to really carry it out, cable TV news viewers are going to see hundreds or thousands of grandmas and high school kids and church ladies and church men standing together on a block with immigrant families, with Star Wars Stormtroopers coming to snatch screaming kids from their parents. I don’t think America wants to look like that. We need to have the courage to show what it really is.

It will teach people that aren’t victimized by “broken windows” policing what the consequences of “broken windows” policing are — the death penalty for a broken taillight if you came here from Guatemala. They are trying to send you to a society that you came fleeing for your life from.

You are going to see efforts in the courts to stop things that are clearly unconstitutional. You are going to see grassroots organizing of people to stand together and understand their rights and to build rights for those that have no rights through political action. We are going to need civil disobedience. We are going to need the Gandhian satyagraha where we express love and care for one another through standing with one another and stopping abuse from happening to people we care about. There were people that did that for my great-aunt who came over here in an iron ore freighter from Germany when she was 14, the way kids sneak up from Guatemala. That kind of thing has happened throughout American history and folks have fought for immigrants and that is going to happen now.

On health care, there are a couple of different angles. One, even folks that hated “Obamacare” because of racist anger at the president are beginning to understand the value and the benefits that the Affordable Care Act provided to them and their families. Like during the AIDS movement, there are recovering opioid addicts in Indiana that are in the same positions as people that are living outside of nursing homes with independent living plans in Kentucky and coal miners in West Virginia that get their black lung covered on the Affordable Care Act along with all of the working millennial folks on the coasts. You have got a lot of people that are unified by self-interest, [realizing] that you need health care to survive in society.

I do think [Republicans] have the political power to get rid of it if they want to, but they are beginning to understand the political consequences of trashing the system. I thought at the beginning that they were going to go for a Shock Doctrine vibe: blow it all up, repeal it, create chaos and then rebuild something that shoves a lot of money at insurance companies in the wreckage. That is still a very real possibility. I think the Trump budget will probably include Medicaid block grants. That is what Kellyanne Conway told the American public a few weeks ago. Medicaid block grants means, at least in prior legislation, cuts of 20-25 percent to Medicaid funding, elimination of the legal right to care.

Right now, if you have HIV in a state that has Medicaid, you are entitled to antiretroviral drugs to keep you alive. If you don’t have an entitlement, the state is allowed to say, “Well, we can only afford to give 50 people in this county HIV drugs this month. You are the 51st, so you are not going to get them. We can only afford 25 grandmas in nursing homes this month and your grandma is the 26th. So, figure out what you are going to do with her.” For a state like New York, getting rid of the Affordable Care Act would lose us $5 billion. Getting rid of the Medicaid entitlement and the current federal matching rate and slashing cuts could easily cut another $8-10 billion out of health care. Then it is up to someone like Gov. Andrew Cuomo or whoever succeeds him to recreate a decent health care system for people in their state.

People with AIDS, people with disabilities, health care activists want to work all over the country to slow or stop the efforts to get rid of the federal health care system. But, I do think that if the Republicans use the power they have to do what they say they are going to do, then we are going to be back to fights at state capitols to recreate a decent health care system, state by state, and it will be up to states like New York, California, Minnesota, Washington — places that have Democratic majorities — to actually show the rest of the country what it looks like. One way to do it when you are losing a lot of money is to tax rich people and get some more money in the system. Another way to do it is to cut the HMOs and the insurance companies out of the equation. I assume you are going to have to do both. Single-payer health care is something that becomes more of a possibility to everyday elected officials if all of a sudden you have to do more with less and you can’t give the insurance companies the 15-20 percent cut that they normally take in order to make massive profits for their shareholders and pay their CEOs’ salaries.

Michael Kink speaks at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York, during a March 2014 action on public school funding. (Photo: David Intrator)Michael Kink speaks at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York, during a March 2014 action on public school funding. (Photo: David Intrator)

We are at an interesting moment where people not trusting the government means that even some people who voted for Donald Trump don’t entirely trust him.

The Momentive strikers, right? We have, as Hedge Clippers, worked with the Momentive strikers here in Upstate New York. We did a paper on how the hedge fund billionaire Leon Black, the private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman bought the company, screwed the workers, got his family rich in the process.

And now Schwarzman is on Trump’s economic team.

Schwarzman is Trump’s guy! So, the Trump voters are like, “Wait a minute, Trump put this guy in charge of the economy?”

I do think that there were explicit promises that Trump made that Trump voters believed. He was going to drain the swamp. He has filled the swamp. The swamp is full of swamp monsters: Goldman Sachs, all these hedge fund guys. Trump said he was going to bring back millions of industrial working jobs to Middle America, but it was his billionaire buddies, it was Carl Icahn and Steven Schwarzman that looted those companies, outsourced those jobs, drove down those wages.

We have reconfigured Hedge Clippers for the Trump era to be whistleblowers for working people, to keep an eye on the Trump billionaire class, the kleptocracy, to expose the swamp, and to say to those people that voted twice for Obama and then for Trump or those people that were for Bernie in the primary and Trump in the general, “Here is how he is screwing you guys. Here is how his trade deals are going to work out….”

I think in two years, for the midterms, when Republicans have been collaborating with a kleptocratic clown administration, they are going to get thrown out of office and in four years, the Democrats will have no choice, based on the way people will demand candidates and vote their own interests, but to put up a candidate that will actually find a way to deliver on these fake promises that Trump is not going to deliver on and will actually bring some of the political revolution forward into the country. There is no other way for the Democrats as a party.

I see someone like Elizabeth Warren, I see someone like Zephyr Teachout, I see someone like Kshama Sawant, I see candidates that can speak out forcefully and directly and link economic interests and racial interests and class interests and get people to stand together. There are people that are going to be able to do this effectively and the moment is ripe for them. I hope that we have hundreds and hundreds of people like Zephyr or Bernie or Elizabeth Warren at the local level that will say, “I am just going to go do this” because it is clearer than ever that conventional politics have failed, that the systems of money and politics are all linked in Wall Street banks and insurance companies and special interests looking out for themselves instead of regular people. Reality has a way of getting in touch with you if you are not in touch with it.

There are some basic things people need and if the government isn’t delivering, people will say it is time for a change. Our job is to make sure that we can make that change as effective and help as many people as possible.

People are planning protests around Tax Day, and one of the things other than general strikes that is floating around in the air is the idea of tax resistance.

I think this year for Tax Day, it is like, “Donald Trump, release your taxes and don’t give huge tax cuts to your billionaire buddies….” The plan for massive tax cuts for billionaires who already have so much money that they are hurting our economy by not letting the rest of us have any of it, that is [outrageous].

If Stephen Miller and Steven Bannon and Trump continue to run the country and we have international wars and we have a government that won’t comply with court orders, we are going to need tax resistance. Tax resistance is the kind of thing, like general strikes, that people toss around really easily and say, “We should just not pay our taxes,” but, again, I think this moment is pretty unique in American history. Tax resistance has been a part of the history of the United States of America since the beginning…. Like a general strike, it [can] happen if everybody is going to do it. People need to get together and create a means by which folks can actually feel comfortable not paying their taxes, putting it into a separate account and getting receipts for it and all doing it together as a collective political statement. But if [some] smart people in the financial service industry and technology are able to give people some reliable way to put their money somewhere else … you can charter a state bank. Any state could create a state law that allows itself to charter a government bank. Jerry Brown could do it in California; Andrew Cuomo could do it in New York.

I think we are at a moment where the Trump administration will be seen as a dark, dark time during our nation’s history. It will be seen as a tremendous mistake by voters like the Momentive strikers. Trump has the lowest public opinion rating of any president at this point in American history. Tax resistance is something [with which] we can break their backs, and when and if it is time, we should do it together.

Note: This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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