In the Face of the GOP’s Class-War Tax Bill, Chicago Activists Voice Outrage in the Streets

Timna Axel

Chicago's march was one of dozens of rallies and events planned this week in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan. (Matt McLoughlin)

Chicago — It’s an unseasonably warm December evening and a crowd of about 500 people, some wearing knitted pussy hats and recycled signs from previous rallies, are gathered at the plaza in front of the Chicago Board of Trade. Two days earlier the Senate passed its version of the GOP’s tax plan, which gives lavish tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. 

Everyone I talk to in my church and in my seminary community is terrified of what this bill and other pieces of legislation mean for us,” says Samantha Nichols, a 24-year-old seminary student who attended the event.

Nichols wore her clerical collar under a grey coat as she marched in the December 4 protest. With almost $50,000 in debt and one year left on her parents’ health insurance, she worries both about her future and that of the parishioners at the Bridgeport church where she is a vicar.

In the city that launched Barack Obama, home to one of the most diverse and most segregated urban populations in the country, street protests have become both an expression of popular outrage and a chance for political attention. Notice of Chicago’s protest against the GOP tax plan was posted online December 2 by The People’s Lobby and co-hosted by a dozen other organizations. By December 4, around 700 people had RSVP’d on Facebook.

Hundreds of rallies and protests have erupted around the country as the GOP tax bill made its way out of the Senate committee. Last Wednesday, graduate students at more than 40 university campuses walked out of class, and protesters took to the streets around the country as the bill made its way out of the Senate Budget Committee. According to Indivisible, dozens more rallies and events are planned this week in California, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan. 

At the Chicago protest, the crowd chanted, 

Love thy neighbor as thyself! Tax the rich and share the wealth!” One man held a sign illustrated with a pitchfork.

While many of the mostly white protesters walked straight from their Loop offices to join the march, 34-year-old Reid McCollum came in from the western suburb of Hinsdale to participate. He leads the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th, a network of 25 grassroots groups advocating for local civic engagement.

McCollum’s congressional district is represented Republican Peter Roskam, one of only two dozen red districts in the country won by Hillary Clinton in November 2016. About an hour before crowds gathered in downtown Chicago, Roskam had been selected to reconcile the current versions of the Senate and House GOP tax bills before they’re sent to President Donald Trump.

The House has named its conferees (though not without a tantrum from the conservative Freedom Caucus), and the Senate is expected to do so on Wednesday. The timeline is unknown and the process to reconcile the House and Senate versions will take place behind closed doors, but GOP lawmakers are eager to get the law passed before Congress goes on holiday break after December 15.

One of the major sticking points is expected to be the late addition of the corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT) into the Senate proposal. Removing it in conference would add $40 billion to the cost of the bill. And while the Senate version guts the Obamacare individual mandate, the House proposal leaves it untouched. Other differences that will need to be ironed out include whether graduate students’ tuition waivers are taxable income, estate taxes, the mortgage interest deduction, and the child tax credit.

Peter Roskam is the most culpable politician in the entire state of Illinois for this tax bill,” says McCollum. He wrote this thing and right now he’s sitting in a room with lobbyists and billionaires writing a version that’s going to probably pass, and constituents in my district need to know about it. … No Democrat has voted for this thing. The fact is that only one Republican senator had the courage to say this is wrong, this is not what we believe in – it’s not even what the Republican Party believes in, its what the libertarian extreme donors believe in, and they’re working for them not the American people.”

McCollum wants people to focus on street protests, canvassing, and turning out for the next election to oust lawmakers like Roskam.

Max Romero works as an independent publishing contractor in Uptown and organizes with ONE Northside. He worries that without the deductions he relies on, he will not be able to continue working independently, and that finding a job as a 47-year-old in media will be nearly impossible. Until six months ago, he and his wife went on Obamacare, and he now worries about how further financial instability may affect his family.

I do put some of the blame on establishment Democrats. They for too long have been almost like the less conservative arm of one party that runs this country,” he says. But, Romero adds, a lot of people are waking up, and many are running for office or entering politics who would never have thought about it otherwise. I think that’s where our real hope is.”

At a few minutes past 5 p.m. Illinois State Senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss shouts through a megaphone, Do you know what kinds of untold wealth come in and out of that building on a daily basis?” asks Biss, nodding at the towering Chicago Board of Trade.

As a student teacher what really concerns me is the fact that they’re taking out the deduction for teachers [in the house bill],” says Joe Padilla, a student teacher. We have to buy our own supplies because we don’t have fully funded schools, and now they’re taking our deductions so we’re paying more.”

Padilla, is from the western suburbs and is a senior at the University of Illinois in Chicago where he’s studying to be a history teacher. While on campus he got involved in the fight for student workers to be paid minimum wage and became a coordinator with UIC Student Action.

Padilla has attended public schools his whole life, and his mother is a public school teacher. He joined the protest because the House version of the GOP tax plan includes a voucher for charter schools to allow a families to withdraw up to $10,000 a year from tax-free college savings and use it for tuition and expenses at K-12 schools, including private and religious schools.

What gives me hope is seeing things like this,” he says, being able to go into legislative meetings and demand that our elected officials support a budget not just in Illinois, but across the country that puts people and planet first, over profits and corporations.”

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor running in the crowded race for Illinois attorney general says the blame for the tax bill lies on people I know who stayed home and didn’t care when I asked them to get energized for this last election.”

Biss and Mariotti are not the only political hopefuls attending the rally. Ra Joy who is running for lieutenant governor as the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy (Bobby Kennedy’s son) is also there.

This billionaires’ tax scam is completely and totally morally bankrupt,” he says. It’s probably the most regressive and unfair piece of legislation to move through Congress in my lifetime.”

Editor’s Note:
A previous version listed Indivisible Chicago as the organization that posted the event to Facebook. The article has been updated to show that The People’s Lobby​ posted the notice.

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Timna Axel is based out of Chicago and works for Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She’s also written for 90 Days, 90 Voices, City Bureau, the Invisible Institute and South Side Weekly. In 2017 she won a Peter Lisagor Award for her reporting on City Bureau’s Living with Lead” series.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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