ABOVE: Tom Emanuel speaks at the “Vermillionaires Against Corporate Greed” protest Saturday at Radigan Platz in downtown Vermillion. (Photo by David Lias)
The scene was hardly comparable to the "Occupy Wall Street" protests that have been occurring in New York City for over a month now.
A group of citizens calling themselves "Vermillionaires Against Corporate Greed," however, were able to peaceably express themselves in a gesture of solidarity Saturday afternoon, Oct. 15, at the Radigan Platz in downtown Vermillion.
Occupy Vermillion was a demonstration that drew, at maximum, approximately 100 people. It was a time for citizens, many of them USD students, to express their discontent with a variety of issues that go beyond the nation's current economic situation.
People expressed hope that the United States may one day end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, enact electoral finance reform, expand health insurance coverage for working Americans, and develop a clean energy policy rather than allowing the planned Hyperion oil refinery to be constructed near Vermillion.
"I think this is an international day," said Norma Wilson, organizer and member of "Vermillionaires Against Corporate Greed," who also serves on the board of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center. "According to what I've read there are thousands of these events being held today, not just across the country, but across the globe. That's exciting."
The protest joined similar gatherings that were being held across the U.S., and in 72 other countries, all of which were formed after citizens took to Wall Street in New York City last month. Other South Dakota cities that hosted similar demonstrations Saturday included Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Spearfish.
"I think it's pretty clear that the demonstration on Wall Street is about the undue pressure and influence that corporations have on our government," she said. "That is apparent on the federal level, and it's very apparent on the state level in South Dakota as well. That's why we are gathering as Vermillionaires against corporate greed.
"We know that Vermillionaires are different than millionaires," Wilson said. "We are very lucky to live in such a wonderful community as Vermillion, but Vermillion is kind of an enclave in South Dakota, and we want to speak out against corporations like the proposed Hyperion oil refinery that threaten our environment for future generations."
"Middle class people are starting to get angry at Wall Street, and events like this give people a voice," said Dr. Elizabeth Smith, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, who took part in Saturday's event. "A lot of folks just want to give voice to their anger for preferential tax rates for individuals.
"Every dollar that I earn is taxed at the highest marginal rate," she said, "but the dollars that I earn by doing nothing – my passive income – is taxed at a preferential rate. That's why Warren Buffet has an effective tax rate of 17.6 percent. Most of that money … he doesn't directly work for. To me, this violates a very fundamental American value of fairness and justice."
"We're here because the candidates with the most money won 93 percent of the Congressional seats in the last election – that's Republicans and Democrats both," Tom Emanuel, a USD student who helped organize Occupy Vermillion, told people who gathered at the plaza. "We're here because health insurance companies have the power, according to a Harvard Medical School study, to deny comprehensive health coverage to up to 45,000 people a year.
"We're here because Goldman Sachs and AIG and Bank of America get away with driving our economy into a recession, and then receive $700 billion in bailouts," he said. "We're here because our government can spend $3 billion a day on war … and yet, when we try to balance the budget, social programs get cut first."
Wilson said that corporations like Hyperion, and Power Tech, which plans to mine uranium in the Black Hills region, will be very detrimental to the state.
"To even think of transforming some of the nation's best farmland in Union County to an area that's uninhabitable is horrible. What these corporations do is come into cities into which there is a certain amount of unemployment, they promise jobs, everybody thinks things are going to be more prosperous, but they never talk about what's going to be left when they leave," Wilson said. "They never talk about the effects this will have on our water and our air and our soil."
Oil from Canadian tar sands is currently being transported through South Dakota in the TransCanada pipeline. "It has leaked a dozens times, and now the Excel pipeline is being proposed and we think that is going to be even more dangerous because the pressure is going to be higher," she said. "People are very concerned all along the route of the pipelines that the water is going to be polluted."
Smith noted the difficulty of trying to make changes in the current practice of granting tax benefits to large corporations.
"Once that tax benefit is in the code, it's immortal. It stays there forever," Smith said. "And it's invisible. So we can count every dollar that we spend on health care for children, but we have no count of the dollars we give away for free to corporations, and believe me, the amount is much, much, much higher."
She believes citizens are starting to realize the detrimental effects that current tax regulations are having on the nation's economic system.
"It's beginning to become more evident as you look at the rising inequality of income. Poor people are getting poorer and poorer. They don't have health care. They are living on minimum wage, which isn't a living wage in most parts of the U.S. And wealthy people, because they are taxed at this preferential rate, they keep it all (their income) or most of it," Smith said. "A lot of people who earn in the millions of dollars do not pay any taxes at all.
"For me, I think people are wanting to voice their anger," she said.
"Corporate influence on our government and the fact that we are still providing subsidies to our oil companies is a terrible thing for our economy," Wilson said. "We need to stop doing that and we need to put our tax dollars into programs that need that benefit – children, schools, health care. We need to improve our education system in this country."
Progressive programs, in Wilson's view, are too often stymied by a Congress that refuses to consider implementing higher taxes on people who can well afford it.
"I think that our economic crisis is largely the result of the CEOs that make salaries that are often more than 10 times as much as the employees of the corporation," she said. "When that happens, not as much revenue is becoming part of the broad economy, and it's really of no benefit."
Emanuel contends that Americans, as individuals, need to stop focusing on themselves and focus more on the many problems currently facing the nation.
"We need to recognize our enemy. Our enemy is not the 1 percent themselves, because they are people, too, and they are slaves to the system just as much as any of us are," he said. "Our enemy is this system in which we live that demands that we deny our deeper humanity in order to get ahead."
It's time for the American people to look beyond themselves, Emanuel said, and to begin caring for one another.
"We've got to break out of this 'us versus them' mentality that we have; this idea that my needs are more important than your needs," he said. "In reality, my needs are bound up with your needs. We are all connected in ways that we don't even understand."
Saturday's gathering in Vermillion may have been tiny compared to the events being held in New York and other metropolitan centers across the globe that day. Its small size didn't diminish its purpose, in Wilson's view.
"I think one of the main things we need to do is get to know one another," Wilson said. "One great thing that is happening is the involvement of the Vermillion community and students at the university to help with this. It's the young people across the world – when I see them speaking out, it gives me a great deal of hope and a good feeling about the future."
The current inequality in the tax code exists, in part, because corporations spend millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress, Smith said.
"We are able to see how the tax code is benefiting some people at the expense of others," she said. "Most people are shocked when they find out how favorable the tax code is for corporations compared to individuals. People are also shocked to learn that Wall Street income, that you don't lift a finger to earn, gives you a tax rate of 15 percent across the board no matter how many millions you earn a year. At the same time, marginal tax rates go up to 30 percent, so a middle class person can be paying 30 percent while a very wealthy person is paying 15 percent."
Smith said it is hard to predict whether "Occupy Wall Street" will catch on as a major social movement in the United States.
"I think the reason that Wall Street was chosen as the site of protests initially is because it's a symbol of corporate America," she said. "The fact that it has moved beyond Wall Street, I think, is a real surprise to everyone. I think it's a real surprise that a small town like Vermillion can turn out a few people who are willing to be on the record."
Smith believes a growing number of Americans are becoming frustrated that tax reform is never accomplished. "People have felt helpless and angry. Seventy five percent of Americans believe the tax code should be reformed, but nobody is listening to them.
"I think that the hope of the organizers is that more people realize there is a way to have a voice, and organizers of events like this are simply trying to provide a forum for people to speak out in a way that they can be heard," she said.
Smith noted that people have to begin holding members of Congress accountable. One way to do that is to become better informed about the nation's tax system so that they can ask their federal legislators how they have voted on specific measures.
"That means you have to begin to achieve a better understanding of the tax code," she said. "People should be able to ask whether we should extend the low rate of taxation on capital gains. That's a good question to ask our legislators. Do you want to give tax preferences to rich people, or should we lower rates to middle class people?
"Most of us don't know how to ask that question yet," Smith said. "I think that's what part of this is about – educating people."
Emanuel noted that "Occupy Wall Street" has been chided for not having a clear agenda.
"I think those critics are missing the point. You don't wait to put out a burning building until you've planned out the building that will take its place. And more importantly, these meetings are the agenda, at least for right now," he said. "We've grown tired of a government that does not listen to 99 percent of its people. Meetings like this are a way to get everyone involved. For problems as big as the ones that we are facing as a society, we need everyone at the table."
Today, the solution to these problems doesn't exist with a government influenced by well-funded corporate lobbying, Emanuel said.
"Our job here is to force it (the government) to respond. This is the first step, and I pray that it won't be the last," he said.