Web Only / Features » November 13, 2012
Activists Arrested Confronting Dick Durbin About ‘Fiscal Cliff’
Chicagoans dressed as Robin Hood staged civil disobedience at the Majority Whip’s office.
“They’ve been willing to rack up debt for 10 years on two wars, and now they are saying we have to get serious about the debt when it means cuts to programs that serve the poor and ailing,” notes University of Chicago student Jacob Swenson, who was arrested in Durbin’s office.
With hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to desperately needed federal safety-net programs looming and the future of Bush-era tax cuts to the rich up in the air, Chicago activists brought their case to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week.
In two days of action on Thursday and Friday, a coalition of Chicago grassroots and faith-based groups called Make Wall Street Pay Illinois demanded that Durbin use his leverage as Senate Majority Whip to protect crucial public services and programs such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare from the massive cuts ahead.
Under the measure known as sequestration, the federal budget will be automatically slashed by $1.2 trillion in January 2013 if Congress doesn’t take action to delay the cuts or find other ways to drastically decrease spending. In the lame-duck session this week, Congress is trying to hash out a “Grand Deal” that would avoid sequestration, but the deal could itself entail significant cuts for safety-net programs. One option to help avoid cuts would be a tax increase; Senators are haggling over whether to restore taxes on the rich to the Clinton-era rate of 39.6 percent, or leave them at the 35 percent rate created by Bush’s tax cuts.
On Friday, November 9, eight people entered Durbin’s office in the federal building in Chicago, asked for a meeting with the Senator, and within 15 minutes were arrested. Another six activists from different faith-based and community groups entered the office, but left when faced with a choice between leaving quietly and being arrested. About an hour later, 11 more activists who were holding a banner inside the building’s ground floor lobby were arrested, dragged or carried by officers to a detention center within the building after going limp in protest.
“This says something about who the senator will meet with and when,” said Beth Lanford, chair of the group Northside POWER, who was in Durbin’s office but was not among those arrested. “[His staff was] not even willing to call him on the phone, they didn’t even want to know what we were there for. Meanwhile they’re probably meeting behind closed doors right now, or have been”–about a deal that would include massive cuts.
Serving the rich or protecting the poor?
The protesters challenged Durbin to live up to his reputation as an advocate of the people by blocking cuts to public spending and by raising revenue through higher taxes on the rich and a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial transactions.
In the lobby of the federal building and pressed against the windows outside, several hundred protesters chanted “We are the 99%” and “People over profits.” Members of National Nurses United wore peaked green “Robin Hood “ hats with red arrows, an allusion to HR 6411, proposed by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a version of the Financial Transaction Tax which has been embraced by a number of debt-ridden European countries including Greece and Spain. Jan Rodolfo, a registered nurse and union employee, noted that nurses in the county health system have already seen increasing numbers of needy patients in severe economic distress, a situation that will only get worse if the government slashes spending on services and entitlement programs.
“We see cancer patients burst into tears because they haven’t eaten in three days,” Rodolfo said. “We see all kinds of stress-related ailments, high blood pressure, ulcers. The suicide rate is sky-high. The county [health system] is where people go when they fall through the cracks, and it’s only going to get worse.”
The previous morning, Nov. 8, protesters visited Durbin’s office and smashed two “golden calves”—actually piñatas—filled with gold coins. “In the Hebrew Bible, Aaron made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship after they grew disenchanted waiting 40 days and nights for Moses to receive God’s commandments,” read a statement from the coalition. “This symbolizes that when we destroy our worship of the idols of excessive wealth and greed, we can find the resources to invest in the common good and build a future of shared prosperity.”
Taking a risk
Before heading to Durbin’s office for the Friday sit-in, members of groups including Northside POWER, Occupy, SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation) and Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network (IIRON) gathered in a small room in a nearby office building to strategize. Those willing to be arrested passed off their valuables to friends for safekeeping.
“[Durbin is] called a champion of the people, but if you’re not willing to take a risk and go against the grain, you’re not a real champion,” Rev. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, executive director of the hunger relief and economic justice group A Just Harvest, tells In These Times. “We’re taking a risk getting arrested today, so he needs to take a risk as well. Lives are at stake here.”
Pagán-Banks was part of a small group of coalition members who met with Durbin in Washington, D.C. in May about the budget debates and were unsatisfied with his answers. They are demanding that he take a strong public stand in support of taxing the rich and protecting average Americans.
University of Chicago student Jacob Swenson, who was arrested during the Friday action, notes, “They’ve been willing to rack up debt for 10 years on two wars, and now they are saying we have to get serious about the debt when it means cuts to programs that serve the poor and ailing.”
He wishes the government would address the budget crisis by stimulating growth through a New Deal-type program that creates jobs, rather than a plan that “puts our communities on the chopping block” as he wrote in a piece for Truthout. After graduating from college in 2007, Swenson, like many people he knew, was unable to find permanent employment and took temp jobs for $10 an hour with no benefits. He's now a graduate student and instructor at the University of Chicago.
“Unfortunately the Obama administration and our own Senator Durbin are relatively immune to learning from experience,” he tells In These Times. “They talked about compromise for four years, and look what it got us. And it’s not a genuine compromise when 50 percent of the elected officials are arguing for the benefit of a fraction of Americans.”
Sequestration and the fiscal cliff
The Make Wall Street Pay coalition demands that Durbin support the “Robin Hood” financial transaction tax; allow no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid; and oppose extending the Bush-era tax cuts currently set to expire at the end of the year.
Durbin has voiced support for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as a solution to the “fiscal cliff.” However, economic justice groups say the plan disproportionately hurts low-income and working people, and doesn’t place enough burden on the rich. The plan, drafted by former President Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of Obama's Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, would include about $2.9 trillion in cuts, about half of which have already been made, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In a 2010 op-ed, Durbin defended his position (in third-person):
Why is a progressive like Dick Durbin voting for this deficit commission report? First, all politicians, left or right, Democrat or Republican, have to acknowledge the deficit crisis our nation faces. Borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend for missiles or food stamps is unsustainable. And being indebted for generations to China and OPEC does not make American a stronger nation.
As The Christian Science Monitor explained, there is no doubt that impending cuts will be extremely severe, but it is still unclear exactly what impacts they would have on different services and jobs. The likely cumulative effect has been compared to an austerity program similar to the measures that created massive public uprising and social distress in Europe in the past few years.
Outrage across Chicago
As the Make Wall Street Pay Coalition targeted Durbin, the Chicago Federation of Labor held a press conference on November 8 urging outgoing Congress members, such as right-wing Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), “not to slash vital programs” during the lame duck session. Since November 8, Chicago unions have funded a television ad that asks “elected officials to stand up for the middle class following the election,” according to a statement from the federation.
Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, which represents janitors, security guards and other Chicago workers, tells In These Times that the federal budget negotiations and other political and economic trends mean Americans are poised to lose the social safety net and the “American dream” that generations of unions and social movements have fought to preserve.
“If we really want to raise standards in this country, we have to raise revenue through fair taxes and we need to raise people’s wages,” he says. “They want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare–these aren’t ‘entitlements,’ these are things we have worked for and paid for that they keep chipping away at. There’s already a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. If they eliminate the safety net, what is the difference between us and a ‘third world’ country?”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.