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Everyone Has a Stake in US Uncut's Fight

This weekend, US Uncut chapters in Georgia, New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and California staged actions (a much larger nationwide protest is planned for March 26. Thus far, thirty cities have signed up). I spoke with Kevin Shields, the founder of US Uncut Philadelphia about the protest and also his wish to close the divides between three groups: members of the lower classes, US Uncut’s predominately white movement and minority communities and also domestic efforts and the anti-austerity resistances in other countries.

A senior in high school, Shields decided to start his own US Uncut chapter simply because the need to protest is in his DNA. “For me, protesting and getting involved in activism is just something you do. If you don’t do it, you’re really missing out, and you’re participating in your own exploitation. So when I saw this, I thought, okay, I’ll do that.”

He tells me what happened at Saturday’s protest. It’s a familiar story for the newer branches of US Uncut: a small, peaceful protest during which the activists staged a “teach-in.”

“We explained [to customers] that if you take half of the money the IRS paid [Bank of America] in 2009 you’d be able to pay for every single cut Governor Corbett is proposing…. We just educated everyone there about what’s going on.”

For an example of a teach-in, here is a video from Uncut Boston:

As usual, the staff of the bank was not amused. “The security guy was kind of stressing out,’” says Shields. But then a funny thing happened. Security called the police, and when an officer arrived to the scene, he didn’t seem to know what to do. The protest was peaceful, and the activists clearly weren’t looking for a fight. Shields said the officer lingered in the bank for fifteen minutes before approaching him. “Finally, he walked up to me and was like, ‘They really want you to leave. I don’t want to tell you to leave, but they really want you to leave.’ It was really weird to have a cop at a protest be so polite to me,” he says.

I witnessed similar behavior at New York’s day of action. Protesters spoke with police officers and explained they were engaging in civil disobedience on their behalf. Under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership, firefighting staff will fall to its lowest ranks since 1980, and the police force will be slashed to its 1992 level, according to an Independent Budget Office’s report. Bloomberg also intends to fire 5,000 teachers. The cops seemed sympathetic with the protesters, who after all, were outside shivering and clinging to cardboard signs partly to save their jobs.

It’s trickier to form the same bonds of solidarity in Philadelphia because of a shrewd maneuver by Governor Corbett. Shields launches into an explanation of Corbett’s tactic by telling me a story about former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“There was one part of the government that Maggie spent more money on, and that was police, and of course she needed them for the miner strike. Corbett is doing the exact same thing here. He’s actually increased funding on police by about $40 million.”

By heavily funding the police, Corbett is removing the possibility of a serious, unified backlash from unions in the wake of his other austerity measures (about $1 billion in cuts). He has successfully managed to squash solidarity.

However, Shields has some ideas for how to counteract the Corbett-style wedge. Now, this must be stressed (namely because he emphatically emphasized it): Shields is by no means calling the shots. Unlike an astroturfing campaign like FreedomWorks, US Uncut is a 100 percent genuine grassroots movement. As such, it’s completely democratic. The members decide where the agenda goes. That being said, Shields does have some good ideas he wanted to convey to me.

He wants to capitalize on the overwhelmingly positive response he’s gotten from the protests thus far. Tax dodging, unlike abortion or gay marriage, isn’t really a super-divisive issue. For the most part, people agree that rich corporations should pay their fair in taxes, namely because citizens have to pay taxes, so why should the lavishly wealthy get to avoid them?

“It’s amazing because we’re actually getting a positive reaction from everyone that walks by. The only people who don’t like it are the bank managers.”

Since the issue of corporate tax dodging is such an enormously unifying cause, he wants to seize upon that spirit of solidarity and extend a hand to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), an organization that oftentimes adopts conservative stances on issues. For example, the FOP opposed the Employee Free Choice Act.

“I want to explain and say I know they’re spending more money on you, and your comrades, but the teachers and firefighters are getting totally screwed over,” he says, adding that other innocents can be hurt, too, like when two children in Philadelphia died from rolling brownouts, a process of closing fire stations on a daily rotating basis in order to save the city money.

Shields stresses the link between firefighters and police officers. Since his father is a cop, he goes to a lot of parties at firehouses where he sees firefighters and cops mingling. “So we want to get that message through to them, and say, look, Corbett is trying to bribe you. He’s trying to make you feel like you’re separate from them, but you’re not. You’re all part of the same class. You all have to work together, or else you’re all going to be brought down.”

All of this talk of budgetary cuts reminds Shields of crime-ridden Camden, where nearly half the police force was just laid off. “My parents won’t let me go to Camden, and I don’t want to go,” he says. “It’s scary what happened there. It’s so weird, ever since that happened, there’s been this shock.”

But he wants to educate people that the austerity pirates won’t stop at Camden. They won’t stop until all the middle-class wealth is gone, and the poor have been stripped of their rights to collectively fight back. “If we use [Camden] as an example and say they’re coming for you eventually.”

I asked him about one of the major criticisms I’ve heard lobbed at US Uncut: it’s an overwhelmingly white movement, which is a problem for a group that is about economic exploitation. Who has been more victimized by class inequality and a regressive taxation system than poor minorities? I asked Shields if US Uncut plans to do any outreach in the inner-city.

“Oh yeah. Pretty huge outreach,” he quickly responds. He tells me about the Taxi Workers Alliance, a group he clearly admires. “They’re a really interesting and inspiring group. Eight-five percent of them are immigrants.”

Shields intends to invite the alliance to the next US Uncut day of action. ”You can’t get any more diverse than taxi drivers,” he says. “Their union meetings—they don’t have a hall or anything—they meet outside the airport, but it’s like the United Nations…. They all have to translate for each other.... We’re going to do outreach to them, and if they’re interested—and a lot of them are—it definitely won’t be a white movement in Philly.”

Finally, Shields says that he wants to bridge the US and UK Uncut movements. “I want to…have an international day of action where we go after Verizon and Vodafone, collectively.” (To see how Verizon uses Vodafone to dodge taxes, read my last blog post).

“I think it would sort of tie the whole thing together…. With all the austerity the world governments are making it would be really amazing if we could have international resistance to international austerity.”

He lists some countries experiencing austerity: Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, and adds, “It would be cool if we could…draw a line across the Atlantic where we show there’s a common enemy of the international working class…. It would be good to show solidarity. Being part of an international movement is really an exhilarating thing, and it would excite a lot of people.”

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