On a recent Saturday, the Bank of America in San Francisco's Union Square overflowed with a different kind of "customer." Lined up one by one, dozens of people approached the tellers to cash checks—for $1.5 billion. Made out to the "United States c-o Tax Paying Citizens" for "unpaid taxes on a 2009 earned income ($4.4 billion)," the amount reflected what Bank of America, the fifth largest corporation in the United States, would have paid in federal income taxes.
If it had paid any at all.
Instead, Bank of America joins a growing list of corporate tax dodgers like Best Buy, Citigroup, ExxonMobil and General Electric who pay no income tax whatsoever. "We want people to know that these corporations are not paying taxes," says Leslie Dreyer, an Oakland-based artist and organizer who arranged the fake-check protest and who made it into the bank branch before the doors were locked and the police called.
Dreyer and the other customers in Union Square call themselves "Uncutters." Their group is US Uncut, and the San Francisco action was one of 50 that took place in cities across the nation. As the recession lumbers on, US Uncut says that it's time to reframe the debate about deficits and expenditure cuts. "This isn't about all of us having to tighten our bootstraps. Working-class people do not need to take a pay cut," Dreyer says. "If the [corporations] paid Bush-era tax-cut levels, that would provide up to $100 billion a year."
Populist and decentralized, the Uncutters came about after an article in The Nation by contributor Johann Hari titled "How to Build a Progressive Tea Party." Like a similar Uncut UK movement, they use Twitter and Facebook to foment real-life actions going beyond passive point-and-click "activism." At a time when Congress has proposed $1 billion in cuts to Head Start Programs and when public-sector workers in Wisconsin fight to prevent pensions from disappearing into state coffers, the upstart movement says that uncollected taxes are the solution to the country's financial woes.
"The $3 in my pocket is more than the 2009 tax liability of Bank of America, Citigroup and ExxonMobil combined," says Joanne Gifford, a US Uncut coordinator from Napa County. Between 1998 and 2005, an annual average of 1.3 million U.S. companies paid no income taxes, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Adds Gifford, "I paid more in taxes than these giant corporations."
Some claim that this is simply business as usual. Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, author of Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill), points to corporate tax havens in places like the Cayman Islands as a root cause of multinational companies evading payment.
"Everything down in those places is simply a symbol moved around on pieces of paper. It has nothing to do with economic substance," says Johnston by phone from Rochester, N.Y. Bank of America funnels its income through 115 foreign tax haven subsidiaries, and it isn't alone. The GAO also reported that 83 of the 100 largest U.S. companies squirrel away money in such havens.
"Congress has written all of these laws that favor various kinds of business interests," Johnston adds, explaining that complicated tax codes benefit corporations rather than the "average Joe Sixpack."
Tom Rollison, a retired woodworker from Novato, participated in the San Francisco protests to fight what he perceives as the "overt war on the working-class people," and views the Uncutters as a much-needed example of true populism in action.
"There's an inherent falseness to the Tea Party, where it's supposed to be this grassroots movement, but as we all know it's a creature of people like the Koch brothers and their billionaire buddies, who are just showering all kinds of money on it," says Rollison. "It's amazing that there hasn't been a more, shall we say, 'educated' populist movement."
Gifford thinks the Uncutters is just that movement. "When people find out the truth about it," she says, "they're shocked and outraged."
More actions are planned by US Uncut in the coming weeks and months. And though it remains to be seen whether their rapid-fire energy can grow into an actual force to be reckoned with—like the Tea Party, whose members won elections across the country last November—their existence answers the 21st-century call for a liberal movement that actually instigates people to action.
"The fact that the movement is decentralized is a very good sign, strategically speaking," says Cynthia Boaz, an assistant professor at Sonoma State University who specializes in nonviolent action and civil resistance. "I think the movement will grow quickly, as it has an authentic and truly populist message that is likely to resonate across all social and political spectrums."