The uprising that swept Tunisia, Egypt, and parts of Europe is showing signs of blossoming across the United States.
In Wisconsin, public employees and their supporters are drawing the line at Governor Scott Walker's plan to eliminate collective bargaining and unilaterally cut benefits. School teachers, university students, firefighters, and others descended on the capital in the tens of thousands, and even the Superbowl champion Green Bay Packers have weighed in against the bill. Protests against similar anti-union measures are ramping up in Ohio.
Meanwhile, another protest movement aimed at protecting the poor and middle class is in the works. Cities around the country are preparing for a February 26 Day of Action, "targeting corporate tax dodgers."
Learning from the U.K.
The strategy picks up on the U.K. Uncut campaign, begun when a group at a London pub -- a firefighter, a nurse, a student, and others -- came up with an idea that is part flash mob, part sit-in. In an article published in the Nation, reporter Johann Hari tells the story of the group's frustration about government cutbacks. If Vodafone, one corporation with a huge back-tax bill, paid up, the cutbacks wouldn't be needed. The group spread the word over social media, and held loud, impolite demonstrations. The idea quickly went viral, and flash mobs/sit-ins materialized at retail outlets across Britain, shutting many of them down.
Now, a U.S. Uncut group has formed and announced a February 26 Day of Action here to coincide with U.K. Uncut's planned protests on the same day. Already, a dozen local events are planned. Some groups are keeping quiet about their targets, but several are targeting Bank of America. The goal, according to a statement on the U.S. Uncut website, is "to draw attention to the fact that Bank of America received $45 billion in government bailout funds while funneling its tax dollars into 115 offshore tax havens [...] And to highlight the fact that the poor and middle class are now paying for this largess through drastic government cuts."
The politics of class warfare
Across the country, the poor and middle class have suffered from the economic collapse: jobs disappeared, mortgages sank underneath debt, and opportunities for a college education evaporated. Much of the bailout that was supposed to fix the economy went to the very institutions that caused the collapse. Many of these institutions are now using tax loopholes and offshore tax shelters to avoid paying taxes.
It took some time for a political response to coalesce. The Tea Party movement was able to direct discontent away from the Wall Street titans who brought the economy to its knees. Funding from the Koch brothers' along with fawning attention from Fox News helped get the libertarian movement off the ground. But progressives remained fragmented and few built active, organized bases. Many waited for President Obama to act.
The tide may now be turning. Inspired by people-power movements around the world, people in the United States are beginning push back. The poor and middle class, those who didn't cause the collapse but have felt the most pain from the poor economy, are now being asked to sacrifice again.
Politicians are scurrying to cut spending, but fewer than one in five Americans say the federal budget deficit is their chief worry about the economy, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center; 44 per cent say they're most worried about jobs. Polls show that Americans also want spending for education, investment in infrastructure, and environmental protection. Yet spending in all these areas is up for drastic cuts in state and federal budgets.
Likewise, on the tax side, 59 per cent of Americans opposed extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, according to a Bloomberg poll. Congress cut the taxes anyway, and the package will cost $800 billion over just two years.
Until now, polls have been one of the few places where anger at government policies that favor the rich while cutting service to the middle class has been visible. But the crowds in Madison and the momentum of U.S. Uncut tell us that may be about to change.
As a statement on the U.S. Uncut website puts it: "We demand that before the hard-working, tax-paying families of this country are once again forced to sacrifice, the corporations who have so richly profited from our labor, our patronage, and our bailouts be compelled to pay their taxes and contribute their fair share to the continued prosperity of our nation. We will organize, we will mobilize, and we will NOT be quiet!"
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor and co-founder of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, and the journal which first ran this story.