A Day of Decentralized Unity and Unscheduled Action with US Uncut

Posted on April 20, 2011

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What is US Uncut? That’s a good question.

I started out my day on Monday, April 18, with the assumption that US Uncut is a fairly loose collection of organizations, coordinating actions together in a relatively centralized “decentralized” way, as has been common the left for generations now, at least at the local level. I had seen two actions listed in Oakland on the national US Uncut website and I was curious about both because they seemed to have derived from such disparate organizations. One of these, at 2 pm, had its origin with the AFL-CIO, according to the website–a rally in front of Citibank in Downtown Oakland, to protest tax dodging corporations. The other at 9 pm, seemed to have it’s origin with the coalition of Ruckus Society,  Brass Liberation Orchestra, and et. al, that had shut down Bank of America on Saturday with a boisterous direct action musical.

I met one of the core organizers for the 2pm event, Charles Davidson, a volunteer with East Bay Move On Dot Org. Davidson hadn’t posted the action on the US-Uncut website of tax weekend/day actions, he didn’t know who at AFL-CIO had, or even what connection AFL CIO had to either US Uncut or the action. Davidson described himself, beyond his affiliation with Move On, as a progressive aligned only loosely with the Democratic party. He drew inspiration from the actions in Tahrir Square, in Egypt and Wisconsin and sees the possibility of similar forces from the netroots, community organizations and union rank and file coming together as a reaction to the financial crisis, but including broader themes of foreign and domestic policy, including American wars. Davidson was critical of the Democratic party:  he described in great detail the sign he carried, plastered with the image of Robert Rubin, a creature of the union of corporations and government, incubated in the Clinton and Obama administrations and Citigroup.

The crowd at the event was sizeable for a mid-day action, with at least eighty people crowded onto the sidewalk in front of the Citibank on Broadway. Most of them were in the greyer area of the activist spectrum. Cars and buses honked in support as they passed, as did a fire truck. Even an ambulance, careening around the corner, sirens blazing, managed a honk of support as it passed. Close to the end of the event, organizers—whom I later learned were with SEIU—passed out fliers for yet another event at three thirty at the Bank of America on the Dimond District.

At the Dimond District Bank of America event, about an hour later, I saw many faces from the downtown Citigroup action. Pete Feltman, a graduate divinity student and musician, had heard about the Citigroup event via email, but hadn’t known about the Bank of America action later in the day. His focus, as he described it, was on the basic questions—spending waste on the military and the limitations of an economically inegalitarian world swamped in debt. He felt ambivalent about Move On Dot Org, and complained that they were too reactionary and not pro active enough. While he described himself as part of US-Uncut, he laughed a bit when I asked him what that meant. I think Pete gave the best answer for what became a Sphinxian riddle for the day. Pete said that the label US-Uncut was a positive thing, so long as it gave people the ability to organize, “get people going and give some visibility to the movement”.

That certainly described the way that both I and Pete had come to be at the Bank of America action put on by SEIU and the Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment (the former California ACORN, now its own non profit organization) on Monday afternoon. In contrast to the Citigroup action, the Bank of America action was far bolder. The plan was to have four activists hold the doors open, as the crowd of around forty demonstrators walked in with banners and noise making devices, with the demand that the manager of the bank accept a document calling for consumer protections against foreclosure practices.

As usual for any idea involving a loose agglomeration of people, Plan A failed immediately. The lone armed guard at the bank, became obsessed with trying to hold the doors closed, his arms stretched out from his wide and bulky body, he nearly succeeded for a few minutes. But eventually, one demonstrator got through here, another there, and he gave up, allowing in the flood.

After occupying the building, and effectively shutting it down, the police arrived. They quite pleasantly agreed to act as mediators, and ask the manager to accept the letter and fax it to the corporate office. She refused. Some politicking went back and forth, but eventually the crowd left and the bank shut its doors.

I spoke to Gus Feldman, one of the coordinators for the action from SEIU Local 1021. He explained that the action had two limited goals: to draw attention to the under-funding of public services even as financial corporations, like Bank of America, foreclosed on mortgages to the very taxpayers subsidizing them through the worst tempest of the financial crisis; and to introduce and lobby for four legislative bills at the state level which would bring accountability to the foreclosure process by charging fees and providing other barriers for profit making when divesting people of their homes. According to those goals, the action was an apparent success, having drawn attention to the crisis in public programs, and the relatively pampered American corporate organisms. But Feldman also noted that the key to a successful campaign was always to allow for escalation. For now, the demonstrators marched in front of Bank of America, its doors closed.

By 9pm, it had begun raining intermittently. Still, I traveled to the Main Oakland Post Office for the 9pm event that had been scheduled on the Us Uncut website. The target of the event was an outdoor Post Office kiosk, open till midnight, accepting returns through the car windows of last minute filers. Unlike the previous events of the day, this was a relatively media-friendly exercise in fliering and pushing US Uncut’s message about tax dodging corporations. It was especially effective for stressed out taxpayers on a rainy tax day Monday—corporations don’t pay taxes, and here you are rushing to the Post Office in the rain to drop off your return!

Peter was there, and he pointed out one of the main organizers for the US Uncut events of the weekend, Leslie Dreyer. She had been inspired, she told me, by an article in The Nation called How to Build a Progressive Tea Party in which Jonathan Hari suggested that people use the model provided by UK Uncut, with their social networking inspired shut-downs of tax dodging corporations. An organizer based in Jackson, Mississippi took the message seriously, and got into contact with some of the organizers from UK Uncut, who loaned him their website model.

Then came the next wave of people like Leslie, who now, having a tangible idea to plug in to, started their own Facebook page for US Un-Cut San Francisco, like dozens of chapters that have started all across the country. Leslie’s model of activism is rooted in the idea of direct action spectacle. The first SF-Uncut action she took on had activists showing up at Bank of America trying to cash checks for 1.5 billion dollars. Business at the bank was slowed and the group made a well-defined point in an easily accepted way. Leslie then posted the action plan on the US Uncut main website, so that other groups could do it—what she called “pre-rolled” action.

Similarly, she pointed to the successful US-Uncut New York/YesMen hoax. The YesMen,  on behalf of US Uncut, mounted a faux-GE mea culpa press release vowing to pay its tax debt–some 3.2 billion dollars. The Associated Press fell for it, and the press release made headlines. US Uncut then interviewed tax payers about what they would do with this imaginary budgetary windfall.

By far one of the bolder US Un-cut actions that Leslie has been involved with, was the Ruckus Society/Brass Liberation Orchestra assisted occupation of the downtown San Francisco Bank of America on Friday April 15. Leslie helped organize the flash mob aspect of the event, and the flashmobbers did a “mash up” of Push It, with the words Pay Up, inserted instead. A Youtube clip of the event, had a dual purpose: to document the action, but also to promote other tax weekend events happening in California. The clip has gone viral, and you can see it below:

But still the question “what is US Uncut?” remains difficult to answer, even for those, like Leslie, at ground zero of the nascent phenomenon. Leslie offered that it was a “decentralized movement”, before admitting that the characterization didn’t in fact quite capture the idea.

There are, of course, some obvious weaknesses to the model.  Oakland US Uncut isn’t street active as yet, and people logging on to the Facebook page for the San Francisco chapter seemed to be asking for a certain level of top down leadership—which had resulted in the San Francisco based group taking on the Post Office project in Oakland.

The “movement” relies on self-actualization, which is something that, in a leader-centric discourse on movement building seems to frighten people. “There was a call to have a sit in at every state capital…so somebody suggested that the few people organizing just do it,” Leslie said, “and my response was yes, go do that…” Simply put: in this model, if followers aren’t prepared to lead, they may not get a chance to follow either.

At its most fundamental, argued Leslie, US Uncut is a message about tax dodging corporations, “so if somebody co opted it, it would be something else, and we’d keep doing this. And if they co opted it and it was the same thing, then well, fine.” Nothing would stop US Uncut from remaining on target she said, even if other groups tried to co opt the message. A co-opted, but essentially same message, could only amplify the group’s goal. This may be an over-simplification, given the struggles that have developed with the national Tea Party. In essence, however, the message of scurrilous tax dodging corporations is one which both Democrats and Republicans will find difficult to hijack without exposing their own hypocrisy.

Within that message, it seems, lies a hub for various groups that can come together with their own visions and goals, and act within the ether that is US Uncut. More importantly, this hazy agglomeration can accommodate individuals who may not agree with all, or any, of a group’s mission statement. Move On, SEIU, the AFL-CIO,  ACCE—none of these groups were actually in control of Monday’s events. Rather, what seemed to have materialized was a synergistic “fifth” group. Though ephemeral and already dissipated by the end of the day, it played an integral role in a direct action that hadn’t appeared on the US Uncut website or on the SF Uncut Facebook page. This was ironically the most aggressive event of the day, and one that may have scared off some of the participants that ended up attending it, if they had known about it ahead of time.

As one  demonstrator, who was at all three events told me, he was very distrustful of all the organizations that had been represented through out the day and he was much further to the left than any of them. Regardless, he had made himself a US Uncut tshirt, that was quite well elaborated, even as he cheerily said that he had no idea what the organization was and that it didn’t matter.

That opinion, echoed in one form or another throughout the day, may turn out to  be the phenomenon’s greatest strength. People want to get organized and address issues that are affecting them: their diminishing wages; the right to good jobs and affordable housing; the lack of accountability of corporations; the misallocation of government resources. But barriers of ideology, dogma and manifesto often stop them at the gate. There are no such considerations for US Uncut, if Monday is any guide. And many of the problems and frustrations of coalition building seem to have been left out of the process for now.

At this point, perhaps it may simply be most useful to call US Uncut a political action aggregator.

This is some footage I shot of demonstrators storming the doors of Bank of America in Oakland.

You can visit US Uncut’s National Website here.

Update:

Though I gave Leslie credit for things she was involved in, I didn’t mean to give the impression that Leslie alone is behind US Uncut SF. Many people gave their work collectively for the US Uncut actions, and continue to do so.  You can find SF Uncut here on Facebook.