At the foot of Wall Street, the marching band played while a hundred people sang along: “We’re not gonna take it/ We’re not gonna take it any more!” Behind the musicians, a banner called for banks and millionaires to pay more taxes; a sign on a trombone’s slide said “Stop the Cuts!”
On May 12, more than 10,000 people converged on the Financial District in an energetic protest against the upside-down priorities in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget, and the failure of the state and federal governments to make Wall Street pay for the economic crisis that it created.
“Income and wealth inequality in the country is at its most extreme point since 1928, just before the Great Depression,” said PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant. “Today’s growing inequality puts a spotlight on the fact that the nation’s wealthy are being dramatically undertaxed.”
How to fix the City or State budget gaps is relatively straightforward, Fabricant said. “We are not in the midst of an expenditure crisis but a revenue crisis,” he told Clarion. A modest income tax surcharge on upper brackets (the so-called “millionaires’ tax”), closing tax loopholes that protect hedge fund managers, ending the 100% rebate of New York’s stock transfer tax – these and other measures supported by the PSC and other unions could solve current fiscal problems quickly, he said: “What we need is the political will to put them in place.”
“As a professor, as a citizen, I’m angry about this budget,” said Gerardo Renique, an associate professor of history at City College. “It’s going to affect not only education but the future of this city, the future of our young people. It’s outrageous.”
“There is plenty of money in this city, so we know money is not the issue,” agreed Elidio Jiménez, a Chief CLT at Lehman College.
Shirley Frank, an adjunct assistant professor at York College, said she has been directly affected by the cuts to date. “I’ve lost some of my classes – and it’s not from low enrollment, it’s from cutbacks,” she said. “It’s obvious that the money isn’t going where it’s needed. At CUNY, we have to scrounge around for a piece of chalk!”
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Social needs are growing, said Frank, “but corporations are paying less and less. The money has been so unevenly distributed that you have to say we’re the victims of greed.” Frank was excited to see unions and community groups coming together to demand a change: “I think this is a wonderful demonstration, this is huge. We’re taking the message to Wall Street, and I love it!”
Gathering at eight different locations, from City Hall to the charging bull statue on Broadway, the crowds marched down the lower blocks of Wall Street. The protest included dozens of planned teach-ins on economic and budget issues, a large one at City Hall and many smaller ones arrayed along Water Street.
The tumult of the crowd made it difficult for many of the teach-ins to occur as planned, but others went forward successfully in the midst of the music, drums and chanting. About one-third of the sessions were led by PSC members.
“It’s a great beginning,” said Joe Wilson, professor of political science at Brooklyn College. “I’m hoping we can foster a mass movement to challenge the policies of Wall Street, to fight for public education and the public interest,” he told Clarion. “It’s wonderful to see so many students today – it looks like the United Nations out here! And that’s what we need. It’s going to take a united movement to overturn these bankrupt policies.”
Steve Garib, a student at Queensborough Community College, said he is worried about the effect of more budget cuts on both the cost and the quality of his education. “Tuition is supposed to go up,” he said, “and my family has some financial troubles. And the way QCC is now, I get extra help after class, like with math. That’s going to be out of there if they cut the budget.”
Community organizations also turned out in strength for the May 12 protest. “We are just appalled, we are furious, at what’s going on right now,” said Celina Lynch of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a Brooklyn-based group organizing low-income families, mainly in communities of color. “The way the system is being run right now, it seems like it’s only catering to the big corporations. So we are here to support the working class and the middle class.”
Kelitha Spence, a special education teacher at I.S. 125 in Queens, held a sign that said “Instruction, Not Destruction.”
“Bloomberg is destroying our classrooms,” said Spence. “We already have 30 to 35 students in each classroom, for one teacher. That’s ridiculous. In schools in other countries they don’t go over 20 students. But rich people don’t care, because their kids don’t go to public school.”
With four years’ experience in the city’s public schools, Spence said she is potentially vulnerable to the layoffs that Bloomberg has predicted. But she dismissed Bloomberg’s call to give the Department of Education the power to ignore seniority in layoffs. “I think he’s just trying to divide us,” said Spence. “Instead of taxing income above $200,000 a year, he wants to cut jobs of people who make $48,000 a year? That just doesn’t make any sense.”
Bloomberg and other wealthy New Yorkers are out of touch with what life is like for the majority, she added. “On CNN, I saw a banker complaining that $200,000 is ‘nearly poverty-level,’” said Spence, shaking her head. “Then what’s $48,000 a year if $200,000 is poverty-level?”
One young protester wore a T-shirt that read, “Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport” – and many in the demonstration said they were energized by the chance to make their voices heard.
“I can’t wait for the next action,” said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at BMCC. “I think we should come back here on a regular basis. Let’s make Wall Street our Tahrir Square, let’s keep coming back.”
ON THE WEB: Do taxes make rich people leave?