I had a front row seat today for the Occupy Detroit protest against General Electric’s annual shareholder meeting. It was a perplexing experience to say the least.
My photographer Sunny Shields and I were initially prevented from entering the Ren Cen elevators up to the fourth floor because [we were told] cameras were not allowed. After a couple of phone calls to GE media relations asking "what gives," we were escorted up to the media sign in booth … and that’s where we ended up staying for the next half hour.
We were told GE does not and has never allowed cameras into its shareholder meeting. We were not even allowed to go through the security stations set up outside the Renaissance ballroom in an effort to keep trouble makers from disrupting the meeting. Now, I have attended numerous annual shareholder meetings over the years at Ford, Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors; all gave us in the media full access and respectful entry.
GE’s iron fisted refusal to give us access was remarkable and yet not totally unexpected. Having dealt with GE media relations previously they are a humorless, controlling lot. They lived down to their reputation in spades as the meeting started and the Occupy Detroiters began their protests. The protestors had purchased single shares of GE stock, tickets into the shareholder’s meeting room. They sat quietly until GE CEO Jeff Immelt started speaking. Then they immediately jumped into action, chanting “pay your fair share” at the top of their lungs based on the reports that GE Paid no taxes in the U.S. in 2010.
Immelt told the group GE did pay taxes and they [the protestors] were mistaken. Occupy Detroit [which is actually made up of a lot of people from out of town like New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee along with a laundry list of Michigan public sector employee unions] would have none of that and allowed themselves to be peacefully escorted from the room [about 50 people or so] by GE and Ren Cen Security. They continued chanting at the top of their lungs “pay your fair share." All the while a GE media handler did her level best to stand in front of our Local 4 camera. She was advised quietly and nicely her presence was not only unwelcome but would be dealt with less nicely if she did not stand down. She moved away, just as the exceptionally loud Occupy Detroit protesters walked past our position. This was decidedly not what the GE PR apparatus wanted. Local 4 was able to get exclusive video of this protest. GE ought to be ashamed of its staff’s conduct; but then again based on its reputation, there were probably bonuses handed out for working at making our life difficult. It’s all in a day’s work. I’ve been treated more rudely by better over the years.
So, now we head outside as the protest outside gathered steam at the Ren Cen’s front door. Several thousand people, some carrying signs, other with bullhorns, others with whistles, others with those movie “masks” that are the hallmark of the Occupy movement, all in full throated protest mode. The boisterous crowd was filled with media handlers more than willing to offer up interviews of the downtrodden and abused to appear on camera. We begged off of those. As I wandered through this rowdy crowd, following Sunny as he collected close up images of the angry throng, I began to wonder what was truly at play behind all of this. Many of the protestors were young and impressionable, happy to sing and dance and laugh at being part of something “meaningful." They didn’t seem so much angry as eager to please those running this program, who want so desperately to press their furious political agenda.
That agenda became clear when I interviewed one of the women who had bought one of those GE shares. Kelley Albrecht came here from Wisconsin and was in the room when the protest started. She told me she does not have health insurance as she is self employed. She says she stays awake at night worrying that if she has a medical issue that she and her husband and three sons could wind up homeless. I wondered how the two are related. GE does not employ her, it has nothing to do with her health care and even less to do with her individual decisions regarding employment and her qualifications for work.
Then, during our interview she gave me this quote that made it abundantly clear: “It's awful that they have the money to lobby our elected officials to realize tax loopholes and tax breaks to allow them to avoid paying taxes. All we are asking is for them to pay something so that the burden is not on the people anymore."
Her implication [and she stated it even more clearly as we talked] is that corporations like GE are not paying their “fair share” and therefore her health is in jeopardy. It’s a fascinating leap of logic! But then she went on, “And GE pays zero in taxes. They keep saying we paid 32 percent but they don't actually realize those taxes that is putting the burden on people to pay for the things that we need.”
So there it is: Because corporations don’t pay enough in taxes, the poor and downtrodden are somehow left out in the cold. It’s a zero sum game to them. If the “rich corporations” would simply pony up more money the average person’s welfare would be improved. Worse yet, there is an expectation that the corporation’s money is really theirs! Thus we get to the 99% vs. the 1%. We know where this “us against them” mentality comes from. It’s the central theme of Presidential Election Politics. With this rally and others obviously planned, and a Republican nominee now ensconced, it’s "game on” in earnest.
As I watched this scene play out, I couldn’t help but feel as if we are all being played. First of all, what is anyone’s “fair share”? The tax tables are supposed to handle that. We all just did our joust with the taxman. It was no fun writing that check for the money I owed this year to Uncle Sam [on top of what I had already paid] but we have been told since we were children it’s the price of admission as a U.S. citizen right? That’s what we tell ourselves. Well, the federal government’s most recent statistics say roughly 50 percent of all Americans pay no federal income tax at all. Most of them are the poor making under $25,000. Others are using every deduction available to them in the upper income brackets to zero out what they owe.
So, I wondered, how many in this crowd demanding GE pays its “fair share” don’t pay any income tax at all? Do they not see the irony here? Do they not understand that those of us who do pay our “fair share,” based on the tax tables, feel like saps? GE says the reason its tax bills were so low over the last few years it is largely because it was legally able to write off its massive losses from its financial unit during the mortgage meltdown. GE took the write offs it is entitled to, just as every one of us who were eligible took our mortgage interest deduction this year. Again, that is the 50 percent or so of us who actually paid income taxes in 2011. So where does 99 percent fit in to this equation? I don’t see it!
In the end rather than getting angry at GE or “greedy corporations” they have a beef with Washington, D.C. and our representation there. Our insanely complicated tax code is a product of congressional dysfunction. If anyone is not paying their “fair share” it begins and ends there. This whole debate is a canard and should be seen as such. No GE was not especially nice to us today. But it did nothing illegal. If the IRS finds anything illegal in GE’s tax returns there will be legal action. GE pays a lot of attorneys a lot of money to make certain that does not happen. The Occupy movement wants to cast itself as the “put upon little guy” held under the boot of horrible, money grubbing corporations unwilling to do what is expected of them, pay for their healthcare and any other benefit deemed necessary by politicians to buy votes. Really? Is this what it has come to?
How about this for a protest idea: Our federal government [BOTH Democrat and Republican Parties] has built up a debt so large we will never pay it off! Our great grandchildren may not even be able to pay it off either! See usadebtclock.org to get a feel for the terrifying damage done by buying votes in the manner we saw today! Let’s get real people; the Occupy battle is one posed to us in Washington, D.C. as a diversion. The REAL battle is over poor tax policy and cowardly politicians on both sides of the aisle who are unwilling to face the true danger plaguing this nation: a mountain of debt built by the overspending of elections past. How about putting away the credit card Washington? How about growing our economy so there are more tax dollars available to start paying down that crushing debt? We are being sold on class warfare as a way to divert our attention away from the real problem: the debtor’s prison we are already in!