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“This is Economic Treason”: 500,000 March in London Protesting Public Spending Cuts and Corporate Tax Dodgers

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As many as 500,000 protesters marched in London on Saturday to protest Britain’s deepest cuts to public spending since World War II. The protests come after U.K. officials estimated corporate taxes would be reduced even as it tackles a $235 billion deficit and plans to cut more than 300,000 public sector jobs. Meanwhile, in the United States protesters gathered in 40 cities on Saturday to oppose tax cuts for the wealthy amid budget cuts to public services. We broadcast a video report from the streets of London and speak to British journalist Johann Hari and Allison Kilkenny of Citizen Radio in New York. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As many as half-a-million protesters marched in London Saturday to protest Britain’s deepest cuts to public spending since World War II. The protests come after officials estimated corporate taxes would be reduced, even as the government tackles a $235 billion deficit and plans to cut more than 300,000 public sector jobs.

For more, we go to a report by freelance journalists Brandon Jourdan and Marianne Maeckelbergh.

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: On Saturday, March 26th, 2011, an estimated 500,000 people marched through central London to protest U.K. austerity measures, which are expected to lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and major cuts to public services.

DR. GRAHAM DYER: We’re marching against cuts. We’re marching against the 9,000-pound fee impositions on our students, which is going to leave them with huge amounts of debt. I’m Dr. Graham Dyer. I’m head of the UCU at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. Six billion pounds has been cut from teaching funding for arts and humanities and social sciences, which is going to lead to job losses in the university sector.

NADJE AL-ALI: My name is Nadje Al-Ali. I’m a professor of gender studies at SOAS, University of London. I’m also the equality and diversity officer of the union. When you look at the job structures, it’s people in the part-time jobs and people on non-permanent contracts, who are mainly women and people of ethnic minority, and we know that they’re the most vulnerable to the cuts.

PIERS MOSTYN: My name is Piers Mostyn. I’m a barrister. My chambers has come here on the demonstration, and we want to highlight the fact that several hundred million pounds’ worth of cuts that are being made to legal aid will result in large sections of the population not having access to justice.

TIFFANY: I’m Tiffany [inaudible]. I was going to train to be a social worker, and I looked into it, and they’ve cut the funding to the training.

PERRY LYNCH: My name is Perry Lynch. I’m a teacher in Renaissance High School. We do EAL, which is English as additional language. And we have teachers from different schools come over. And that’s one of the ways that will be cut.

DR. GRAHAM DYER: They’re slaughtering our public services: our hospitals, our schools, our town halls, our libraries, our universities. That’s why we’re joining with other public sector workers to fight against these cuts, kick out the Tory-Lib Dem government.

PIERS MOSTYN: A lot of people have arrived here to find out there are a lot of other people suffering from other cuts, and so everybody is uniting together a lot more.

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: Throughout the day, people marched, took direct action against banks, and organized temporary occupations.

PERRY LYNCH: Bankers, they’re the one who, some say, caused the state that we’re in now. I don’t see them marching or complaining, because they’re fine. We bailed them out one trillion. And they sit at home, probably, or in a villa somewhere in sunny Spain. And we’re in the cold, campaigning for what we believe in, and we bailed them out.

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: At 4:00 p.m., hundreds of activists from UK Uncut, an anti-cuts direct action group, occupied Fortnum & Mason, an upscale food store linked to a 14 million-pound tax dodge.

Influenced by the Egyptian revolution and the events that occurred within Cairo’s Tahrir Square, activists occupied Trafalgar Square with the intent to hold it. They set up tents, made music, and started bonfires to stay warm.

NADJE AL-ALI: I think often there’s sort of the perception that we are supposed to teach people something in the Middle East, but I think we’ve really been learning that, you know, standing up to politicians, to governments, and going out on the streets can make a difference.

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: At Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, protests carried on into the evening.

PROTESTERS: Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! For union makes us strong!

MARIANNE MAECKELBERGH: In total, 211 people were arrested on the day, and police say they will be using video surveillance to make more arrests in the weeks to come. The government intends to push through the proposed cuts starting as early as April, ignoring the growing public anger across the United Kingdom.

TIFFANY: It’s not like we’re not working and not trying. But if you’re not given the proper education that you deserve, and you can’t afford an education, you know, I mean, it’s just like, why bother, if you’re just going to start at the bottom and end up at the bottom?

DR. GRAHAM DYER: There’s a big change in British politics coming up. You know, we’re combining the energy and creativity of the student movement with some of the muscle of the trade union movement.

PIERS MOSTYN: And I think that a major benefit will be to show everybody that they’re not alone and that by getting together we can do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by Marianne Maeckelbergh and Brandon Jourdan from London. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

Well, protesters in more than 40 U.S. cities also gathered Saturday to oppose tax cuts for the wealthy amidst budget cuts to public services. There was a demonstration in Washington, D.C., which targeted Bank of America, which protesters say has not paid federal income taxes for the past two years. Many of the protests were organized by activists with US Uncut, a sister organization to UK Uncut, whichs helped organize Saturday’s protest in London.

To discuss all of these protests, we’re joined by the British journalist Johann Hari, columnist for The Independent in London, and here in New York, Allison Kilkenny, co-host of the political radio show Citizen Radio. She’s a freelance journalist who’s blogging at The Nation magazine about the US Uncut movement.

Let’s go first to Johann in Britain. Talk about the significance of this. I mean, we’re talking half-a-million people in the streets this weekend.

JOHANN HARI: This was the second-biggest protest in the entire history of London. That’s the city of London. You know, it’s really important to think about how big that is, and also it’s worth bearing in mind, these cuts haven’t actually started yet. They start in the next few weeks. So these are people, a half-million people on the streets, before this program has really begun. That’s a pretty extraordinary thing. But to understand why, I think you have to see the context. The last time British public spending was cut on this degree wasn’t before I was born, wasn’t before my mother was born; it’s before my grandmother was born, it’s in the early 1920s.

This is an absolutely massive assault that’s being led on the nature of the British state. And the consequences are being felt by everyone, particularly the middle class and the poor and — well, particularly the poor, but also the middle class. You know, just to give you a couple of examples, huge cut to housing subsidies here means that even the conservative mayor of London says that 200,000 poor people are going to be forced out of their homes and forced out of London in a process that he called “social cleansing.” This is a really dramatic change. You know, the biggest cuts are going to disabled people, homeless people. There’s a massive close-down of homeless shelters all across the country. You know, the people who caused this crisis are richer than they’ve ever been, and the people who had nothing to do with the crisis are being terribly punished.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the policy of targeting corporations, naming and targeting corporations, Johann?

JOHANN HARI: Well, what’s happening at the moment is a huge transfer of wealth. In addition to this huge austerity program, what we’re seeing is a huge transfer of wealth. Taxes are going up on the middle class and the poor, services are being cut for them, while there are being big tax cuts for people at the top. This has been going on for a long time. It went on under the last government to some degree, the Labour government, as well, but not to anything like the same degree.

And just to give you one example, the sixth-richest man in Britain is a person called Philip Green. In 2009, he earned 1.6 billion pounds and paid nothing in tax. That’s nothing. You know, the average person on the street paid more tax than him.

Give you another example, Vodafone, one of the biggest cell phone companies in the world and huge here in Britain, had been refusing to pay a large part of its tax bill for absolutely years. It bought a German company. It was claiming that the deal ran through a post office box in Luxembourg, even though they’ve got no business in Luxembourg. Whole thing was nonsense. They built up a huge tax bill that the Labour government was fighting for, six billion pounds, enough to cover the cost of all the housing subsidies. All those poor people are going to be forced out of their homes. When the conservatives came to power, they more or less canceled that tax bill. They canceled almost all of it. It’s a very powerful symbol of their priorities: you know, huge — hand out a huge amount of money to the rich, take it away from the poor.

Now, what happened is, a group of ordinary citizens — you know, nurses and firefighters and doctors — were outraged by this and said, “You know what? We don’t have to take this. Why don’t we just, next Saturday” — this started last autumn — “Why don’t we just, next Saturday, go and physically sit down in front of the biggest Vodafone store in London and say, 'You know what? You want to operate on our streets? You pay our taxes.'”

And the story of what happened next is incredible. A few days later, completely unrelated group in a completely different part of Britain went and sat down in front of their Vodafone shops. And then it started happening all over Britain. And two weeks later, 56 cities across Britain had blockaded their Vodafone stores, saying, “You can’t do this to us.” And it was really moving and powerful to the people who turned up. There were people who were worried about losing their homes. There were people who were worried about losing their public services. And there are people who think that the crisis should be paid for by the people who caused it. It’s a movement called UK Uncut, and it’s really grown.

AMY GOODMAN: Allison Kilkenny, you’ve been covering UK Uncut and US Uncut, and the same tactics are being used, like targeting Bank of America.

ALLISON KILKENNY: Yeah, well, there’s actually an interesting connection between the two groups. In US Uncut, they’ve been targeting Verizon, which is a huge corporate tax dodger. And Verizon is able to get away with not paying its taxes by redirecting their profits to their foreign wireless partner, which is Vodafone. So the two groups are trying to organize coordinated international efforts right now, where US Uncut would protest Verizon, while simultaneously UK Uncut would protest Vodafone.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the overall strategy and the other corporations that are being targeted in the United States.

ALLISON KILKENNY: Well, the strategy is similar to what UK Uncut is doing, where they go to these stores, sometimes they occupy it. Just recently, US Uncut in D.C. was successfully able to shut down a Bank of America. In fact, the bank managers just saw them coming and allegedly pulled the fire alarm before they even had to deal with anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: And why Bank of America?

ALLISON KILKENNY: Bank of America is a huge corporate tax dodger. You know, interestingly enough, they received $45 billion in taxpayer dollars during the bailout, yet they haven’t paid a cent in federal income taxes in the past two years. Now, if you or I did that, we would go to jail. But because Bank of America is a huge corporation, they get to play by a different set of rules. And it’s not just Bank of America, actually. Two-thirds of corporations within the United States don’t pay a nickel in federal income taxes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, take the example of General Electric.


AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey Immelt, who is the head of General Electric, is President Obama’s job czar. This is not a past job; it’s a current job. Both of them.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about General Electric. It, too, has been targeted.

ALLISON KILKENNY: Yes, and they had a lavish profit. And what’s interesting about that is candidate Obama talked a lot about these corporate tax havens. There was a lot of tough talk on the campaign trail. And actually, when he was a senator, he signed a piece of legislation to shut down them. And, you know, he had a great line during the campaign where he talked about there was one building in the Cayman Islands that was home to 75,000 corporations, and isn’t that ridiculous, and isn’t that corrupt? Yet, since that tough talk and since he’s become president, there hasn’t been a lot of follow-up.

And the whole tax haven scheme costs the United States $100 billion every year. Imagine what we could do with $100 billion, how many police, firefighters, teachers’ jobs we could save with that money. You know, in all of these states, we hear that we have to suffer under these austerity measures because there just isn’t enough revenue. But there isn’t a revenue problem, according to US Uncut; these corporations are just stealing from the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, GE not only didn’t pay taxes in the last two years, they claimed a tax benefit —


AMY GOODMAN: — of $3.2 billion last year.

ALLISON KILKENNY: And there’s something like 115 corporations on the S&P that also enjoy that arrangement: they receive more in tax credits than they pay into the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what about the comparison of how US Uncut is organizing with UK Uncut? UK Uncut, half-a-million people, you heard Johann say, the second-largest protest in London in history.

ALLISON KILKENNY: Yeah, well, it’s definitely a newer, smaller movement. In fact, it was partly inspired by an article Johann wrote for The Nation. A young man named Carl Gibson founded the very first US Uncut chapter in Jackson, Mississippi. But they are definitely a grassroots movement. They’re small. Cells go out to various stores like Verizon, FedEx, Bank of America, all the big tax dodgers, and right now they’re just protesting. Sometimes they actually occupy the stores. But it’s definitely a really exciting, growing movement. I know every time I check in with them, it seems like they’ve increased by another tenfold.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, the response of the British government right now? What kind of effect you think this massive demonstration will have in Britain?

JOHANN HARI: Amy, so, just to correct something, the main protest was not organized by the UK Uncut; it was organized by the TUC, the main body of trade unions across Britain. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all of this was UK Uncut.

In terms of the reaction, you know, we’ve got a very right-wing government. But we do know already — I mean, UK Uncut has been effective in the sense that they are already — the government feels they need to talk about tax avoidance. They claim they’re acting on it. Already, several, you know, large parts of the main equivalent to the IRS have been moved to work on checking the taxes of big businesses rather than small businesses. But, you know, it’s a very right-wing government. And a huge amount of pressure has to be put on them before they’re going to change.

But, you know, just to talk to something that Allison Kilkenny was saying, as well, about GE, these big companies, they justify this behavior by saying, “Oh, we do it all ourselves. We produce all this profit ourselves.” I’d just like to say, try — let’s just do a thought experiment. You know, for one month, I’d like to do an experiment. Say Philip Green, the guy — hugely wealthy guy, refuses to pay taxes in Britain. Let’s take one of his stores for one month and take away all the services he refuses to pay for. So we won’t collect the garbage out of the back. When the rats come, we won’t send pest control. If there’s a shoplifter, we won’t send the police. If there’s a fire, we won’t send the fire brigade. If the staff get sick, they can’t get treated in public hospitals. And let him come back at the end of that month and say he did it all himself. He doesn’t do it all himself. These people make money using the infrastructure that all of us pay for. Now, there’s a term for that in medical literature: it’s called parasitism. If you are feeding on a body but contributing nothing to it, you’ve turned yourself into a parasite.

And we don’t have to put up with this. You know, UK Uncut has really shown, a small determined band of citizens, coming together, can change a debate in this way. It is not true that there’s no alternative. You know, almost — the worst cuts in Britain, all of them could be paid for just by making a very small number of wealthy people — not even increasing the taxes on them, although I’m in favor of that, just making them pay the amount of tax that they are legally due.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Allison Kilkenny, as you cover the US Uncut movement, where does it span in terms of the political spectrum?

ALLISON KILKENNY: It’s right and left. In fact, this is probably the least controversial story I’ve ever covered. I’ve had very positive feedback from Republicans, from Tea Party members, because, you know, they really see it as a form of theft. You know, we always hear about the free market. But if the market was actually free, Bank of America would have failed, because they made really bad, shady mortgage deals. But instead, they got $45 billion in taxpayer money. So that’s done. But now that they’ve been bailed out, it’s time to contribute back to the society that facilitated their lavish wealth, and they’re just not willing to do that. It’s a form of economic treason. And, you know, Republicans, Democrats, independents, thus far, in my opinion, all see it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Allison Kilkenny, co-host of the political radio show Citizen Radio, blogging at The Nation, covering the US Uncut movement, and Johann Hari, joining us from Britain, writes for The Independent in London, has been covering the UK Uncut movement. And we’ll continue to cover both.

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