Interview with US-Uncut

April 5, 2012

Andrew Sernatinger (Solidarity) interviews Anna Ogden-Nussbaum of US-Uncut.

Andrew Sernatinger: What is US-Uncut?

Anna Ogden-Nussbaum: US-Uncut is an anti-austerity group, and it targets tax-dodging corporations. So some of our major targets include Bank of America, BP, Verizon, they’re all corporations that pay little to no taxes and some of them even got a tax rebate. And it’s based on UK-Uncut, which is a similar group in the UK that’s gotten a lot of press there. A lot more than US-Uncut has gotten here, really. They targeted Vodafone and they got the government to audit Vodafone’s tax returns.

AS: Do you guys have any connections to UK-Uncut?

AON: Some of the national organizers have connections with them; they sent their website platform over there to get help on it, but I don’t know if there’s much connection save for over the internet. UK-Uncut kind of has a different organizing philosophy because they’re really into the idea that they have no spokespeople, nobody speaks for the group. US-Uncut does have official spokespeople; its been kind of a division for some people.

AS: What would you say your organizing philosophy is then?

AON: It’s hard to say because it wasn’t really discussed before it started. With UK-Uncut the core people were this close knit group of activists that came out of the university occupations that happened there last winter over the tuition hikes. That group of people got together and decided that they’re going to start this group, UK-Uncut, and none of them were going to speak for it, all their chapters are autonomous.

Its kind of the same here, at the national level the people who organized US-Uncut came out of “the other 98%” and had their own philosophy. A lot of the local groups who were inspired by UK-Uncut started actions themselves and they all sort of became chapters of this national group, whether they really meant to or not.

AS: You said before you’re an “anti-austerity group”. What would you say that means?

AON: It means that we’re against cuts to programs for working people, against education cuts. We don’t want the financial crisis to be borne on the backs of working people as opposed to the corporations who are getting away scott-free.

AS: Does US-Uncut have a worked out idea of what the crisis is, or some kind of discussion on that? When you guys talk about what the crisis is or where it came from, what do y’all say?

AON: I think that a lot of people come at it from different angles. It isn’t really well articulated in the group. There are a lot of people who come into it because of the idea that banks got bailed out when they’re getting cuts to their pensions and other stuff.

AS: Do you guys have demands or objectives or stuff like that?

AON: I think our main objective is to shift the discourse so that people stop playing into these myths; it’s not the immigrants or people “sucking up” welfare or public sector workers who caused the crisis. We want to get the message to people that the rich and the corporations actually have privileges that the rest of us don’t have. There is money out there, but the government isn’t taking it.

In the short run we support legislation like the Robin Hood tax, which is a tax on Wall Street transactions. If you buy a bond then you have to pay a tax on it. National Nurses United has had a big campaign about that and US-Uncut has worked with NNU on that.

AS: What kind of folks are around US-Uncut? Who do you typically work with?

AON: It depends from location to location. Some chapters have been moving with MoveOn, but here in Madison we’ve been working with a lot of the groups that have been coming up around the Capitol protests. We’ve worked with Wisconsin Resists a lot; we’ve done stuff with the Peoples’ Rights Campaign.

AS: Is it mostly students that do US-Uncut?

AON: It’s a lot of underemployed young people, students and some older people who just like what we do.

AS: What kind of actions does US-Uncut take?

We’ll go into the location of one of these corporations and do some sort of action there. We went into a Verizon once and we did a scene where we put them on trial for not paying their taxes. We did something similar at the Apple store. In San Francisco they had a really great flash mob inside of a Bank of America lobby.

AS: So like street theater and civil disobedience?

AON: Yeah. Usually people don’t get arrested; they’ll stay ‘til the very end but don’t get arrested.

AS: What made you guys decide that you wanted to do this kind of activism? How did you decide that this was the thing to do?

AON: A lot of us saw the success of the British movement, and its kind of a novel way of protesting. People don’t expect you to go into these stores to do actions around their customers, y’know. It’s different than just marching around.

AS: Are you guys involved at all in the Occupy Wall Street stuff?

AON: Yeah, there are a lot of Uncut people involved with that. I think it touches a lot of the issues that US-Uncut is involved with. I’ve seen a lot of accounts of what’s going on on the US-Uncut webpage. I know that they’ve done a lot of actions at Bank of America in New York; people got arrested there.

AS: What would you say that your strengths and weaknesses are for US-Uncut?

AON: We tend to be pretty creative, so I think that’s a strength, and we get a good amount of attention for what we do. But I think our weaknesses are that since we’re all ‘autonomous’ we don’t really have a good strategy, or we don’t all know why we’re doing it—why everyone else is doing it. How we decide on what to do has been a big issue.

AS: Do you feel like you guys have been able to address that?

AON: There’s been a lot of talk about it, because at the beginning everyone was just really excited about it and they jumped into it. But later on it would turn out that people were upset with each other, people thought that they were using the group for personal gain or there’s disagreement about the direction of the movement. There’s been work to find ways to decide on things more democratically, and hopefully that pans out.

AS: How does US-Uncut think about moving from here to there—achieving its objectives? Stopping tax dodging and educating people?

AON: I’m not sure if US-Uncut as a group really has thought about that. We’ve mostly just focused on bringing attention to the issue. I don’t know if US-Uncut itself would be the ones to move it forward. I personally feel like its mostly for getting attention, but we’ll need to link up to other groups working in those areas to have some movement.

AS: What kind of obstacles generally come up for US-Uncut?

AON: Lack of money comes up, but I think we’ve been pretty good at making do with what we have. There are issues of people’s ideas of what an action should be: some people want to go in and stay until they get arrested, others want to make it more accessible to everybody.

AS: How do you see the struggle that you guys are engaged in relate back to politics, locally or nationally?

AON: The issue of tax cuts for the rich and the corporations has been coming up a lot lately just in general. Partially US-Uncut, but a lot of people have been bringing up the issue of how the president is responding to the recession. I’m not entirely sure what the next step is.

AS: What do you guys anticipate coming up with the election next year, have you thought about that at all? Do you think it’ll change things at all?

AON: It’s hard to say, I’m not sure. Some people are gonna be anguishing about whether they should vote for Obama or not again. Depends on what the alternatives are.

AS: Do you think it’ll affect work with other people you guys are close to?

AON: I feel like elections tend to sap people away from movement-building, y’know. A lot of people are gonna think its really important to re-elect Obama. I don’t think that’s necessarily the thing to do in the long-run.

AS: Does US-Uncut have a position on that?

AON: No, its non-partisan.