'We're Not Broke': The Movement That Helped Spark Occupy Wall Street

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The Nation

'We're Not Broke': The Movement That Helped Spark Occupy Wall Street

Back in February 2011, I started reporting on a movement called US Uncut that formed in opposition to the practice of tax-dodging. As it turns out, corporate tax evasion is a huge, huge problem. In fact, the United States loses an estimated $100 billion in revenue every year as multinational corporations hoard their cash overseas in havens.

It’s true that no one movement or cause is solely responsible for the birth of Occupy Wall Street, and protesters list an impressive spectrum of issues and events that inspired them to get involved in OWS, ranging from the Arab Spring to tuition debt to the corrupt political system. However, US Uncut was definitely at the forefront of framing the “99 percent” narrative seized upon by Occupy. Except, back then, US Uncut referred to America’s woes as being “The Corporations versus Everyone Else.”

Quite simply, major companies (GE, Apple, FedEx) were robbing the country blind during a time when the 99 percent were being asked to sacrifice their already meager means. As teachers were fired, and firefighters laid off, US Uncut tried to alert the public to the presense of one percenters shovelling buckets of cash offshore. For example, General Electric paid no federal income taxes in 2010, even though it raked in $14.2 billion in profits (and another $3.2 billion in tax benefits.)

Nearly a year after the birth of Uncut, the movement is chronicled in We’re Not Broke, a documentary (and official Sundance Film Festival selection) about the meteoric rise of the group. Filmmakers Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce are the recipients of the duPont–Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalist for their first film, The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, and also produced and directed Held Hostage in Colombia, a documentary about three American contractors captured and held hostage by FARC guerillas in Colombia.

We’re Not Broke, which follows a group of activists from the start of US Uncut in February 2011, piqued my interest. I was curious as to why the issue of tax-dodging appealed to directors who previously dealt with the considerably sexier issues of hostages and guerillas.

“Neither one of us had any experience in this type of high finance prior, so we thought it was a great challenge to dive into,” says Hayes.

Bruce had some early reservations. “I was totally unconvinced. I usually end up finding a good story, but this was a very hard one, and I felt totally unprepared to go into this world. Fortunately, the story tells itself,” she says. “At first, we thought we’d make it about the Swiss whistleblower, and individuals who dodged taxes, but every time we sat down with an expert, they’d say, ‘Oh, no. The big problem is what corporations do offshore.’”

And as it turns out, the problem is not a small one. Every time Bruce would ask an expert to name some of the major corporations that steal tax revenue, the experts would reply, “All of them!”

“And then your world closes in on you, and you realize everything you do: your phone bill, and your electricity, and the gas for your car, everything is owned by one of these multinational corporations that’s actually screwing you all the time,” says Bruce. “That was the hook of the film, because it hit me in my gut. Once people know this, then maybe things can change.”

Three of the US Uncut protesters featured in the film are Carl Gibson, 24, from US Uncut Mississippi, Chris Priest of US Uncut Boston, 24, and US Uncut D.C.’s Ryan Clayton.

It’s impossible to talk about US Uncut without also talking about Occupy Wall Street. Just three weeks before OWS starting camping at Zuccotti Park, Clayton told the filmmakers that he believed US Uncut would prove to be “the spark” that started a much larger movement.

“He said we sparked a dialogue that no one else was talking about.… Then the whole world exploded,” says Bruce.

I ask Clayton if he thinks US Uncut was absorbed by OWS. “That’s like asking if the tadpoles were absorbed by the frogs,” he responds, adding he thinks it’s all part of a natural, healthy evolution. “The work of many organizations in the early months of last year, including US Uncut, We Are One, and Rebuild the Dream, was really the proving ground for a new progressive movement that burst onto the scene in a powerful way with OWS.”

The targeting of corrupt corporate influences made it easy for many Uncut protesters to transition into the OWS movement.

“I’ve been heavily involved in Occupy Houston since late September,” says Gibson. “I’ve been arrested twice in the last three months during actions. Occupy has a lot of respect from both inmates and prison guards, it turns out.”

Clayton agrees. “I have been spent nights at Liberty Park at Occupy Wall Street and have been apart of the local community at Occupy D.C. More importantly, many of my friends (and fellow Uncutters) were some of the first people on the ground at OWS from day one, and many Uncutters organized local chapters of Occupy around the country.”

That includes Chris Priest, who was instrumental in the founding of both Occupy Boston and Boston Uncut. “Literally every US Uncut organizer I know has been deeply involved with their local Occupy chapter since the beginning. That’s no coincidence,” says Priest. “Occupy Wall Street provided a priceless opportunity for every progressive organization to unite and fight on multiple fronts.”

Priest sees US Uncut as merely one of many events that snowballed into Occupy. “US Uncut began in February 2011, and shouldn’t be discounted as an influence for OWS. The same can be said about Wisconsin, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen,” he says.

As Priest mentioned, Occupy’s strength is in its broad appeal. Whereas US Uncut was devoted to a very narrow, albeit highly important, issue, Occupy can mean almost anything to anyone, and it’s that all-inclusive nature that appeals to many disillusioned individuals.

“I know there are a lot of people out there who have different agendas that are more pertinent to them, so perhaps Occupy appeals to them in that way,” says Bruce.

This shouldn’t give anyone the impression that US Uncut is by any means defunct, though the group has appropriated the language of Occupy.

“We’re kicking things back up, ironically the week Sundance is happening, teaming up with grassroots groups in over a dozen major cities for actions against corporate tax dodgers,” says Gibson. “Specifically, ones that paid their lobbyists more than they paid in taxes. These allies consist of every facet of the 99 percent, from organized labor, to unemployed and underemployed workers, interfaith groups, clergy, the uninsured and Occupiers. Look for us to hit the streets with national days of action each month leading up to tax day. We’ve got some fun things planned for spring shareholder meetings, too.”

Bruce and Hayes hope to seize upon what they see as a very easy-to-understand, populist message that should outrage the majority of Americans, if only they were properly informed about what’s going on. Corporations, flush with cash, have been very successful in running disinformation campaigns and shielding themselves by claiming they’re not doing anything illegal by tax-dodging, which unfortunately is true.

“Since they have lobbyists, and they have this huge amount of money that they’re able to donate to candidates, and Congress people and presidential campaigns, they have influence over the politicians, and they’re able to basically walk their laws that they want passed into the hands of the Committee members who are writing the tax code. In that way, the extent of influence that the corporations have over politicians is massive. A lot of it has to do with the huge amount of campaign costs, and that’s where the candidates go. They go to the corporations. It’s like a you scratch my back, I scratch yours type of thing,” says Hayes.

Bruce sees the issue of tax-dodging as a morally repugnant thing. “Slavery was legal. Child labor was legal. Now, these corporations are here, they’re using all of our public services, they’re putting a lot of pressure on our infrastructure, all their [employees’] kids use public schools. Don’t they owe something back to the country that’s been making them wealthy?”

The official We’re Not Broke website can be found at: werenotbrokemovie.com.

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny is the co-host of the progressive political podcast Citizen Radio (wearecitizenradio.com) and independent journalist who blogs at allisonkilkenny.com. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, the L.A. Times, In These Times, Common Dreams, Truthout and the award-winning grassroots NYC newspaper The Indypendent.

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