Swarthmore Sunrise Rallies in Protesting New Tax Reform Bill

2.8 miles from Swarthmore sits a solitary office building, conspicuous in a neighborhood of identical, suburban houses. Office 202 of this complex is the local office of Congressman Patrick Meehan, Representative of Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District. Meehan, along with being a member of Congress, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and actively participates in US government tax reform negotiations. On November 16th, Meehan voted for the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” a bill that alters taxation for individuals and businesses in America. The bill is the major tax reform advocated by the Trump administration. In order to halt passage of the bill to be reviewed by the Senate, Democrats needed 22 Republican defectors. They won over only 13.

The bill is large in scope and its passage will have direct financial implications for every American. Here are some highlights:

  • Big businesses will get wealthier. The bill reduces the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. The bill also changes the global taxation system such that money made by US corporations outside of the US is no longer taxed. Businesses have been lobbying for these changes for years.

  • The most wealthy will get tax breaks. The bill reduces and then eliminates the estate tax, which allows the wealthy to pass on their estate(s) to heirs tax-free. The bill also eliminates the alternative minimum tax, which has prevented excessive tax-dodging by the super wealthy since 1969.

  • Renewable energy will suffer. The bill eliminates the electric vehicle tax credit and makes it harder for solar and wind projects to qualify for tax credits. These changes would mean $12.3 billion less in tax incentives over a ten year period for solar and wind energy.

On December 2nd, the Senate passed a related bill, 51-49. While similar in many respects, the bill also includes a repeal of the individual mandate and allows for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Currently, the House and Senate are in negotiations and will arrive at a new version of the bill, on which the House and Senate must vote again.

Swarthmore students expressed frustration at the content of this legislation.

“The more I've heard about the bill, the more frustrated I've felt,” reported Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20, a core member of Swarthmore Sunrise. “This bill is more than a set of tax reforms-- it's an outright attack on the majority of Americans. It helps the top 0.1 percent of society more than any other income group, it takes thousands of people off their healthcare, and of course, it gives tax breaks to the fossil fuel billionaires who have been burning our future.”

“Coming from a state with one of the most underfunded public education systems in the country, this bill is important to me,” offered Lewis Fitzgerald, ‘18. He said what frustrates him most is “the pervasive attitude that they can ship off their own inconvenience to the next generation through demolishing the wildlife refuge and give additional tax breaks for oil and gas. The idea that they can simply hoard all the money of this generation and shirk responsibility for the future of our planet and the economic future of the country at the same time.”

These frustrations motivated members of Sunrise Swarthmore to decide, at around 4:30pm on Sunday, to protest. Meehan has spoken out against arctic drilling in the past and claims to stand for the rights of his constituents, many of whom are working class Pennsylvania citizens. Students of Sunrise saw the second vote for the bill as a vital opportunity to hold Representative Meehan accountable to his constituents and to his word.

Sunrise itself is a national collective of youth mobilizing for climate resistance in individual hubs across the United States. As part of climate change resistance, Sunrise is deeply concerned about the impacts this bill will have on environmental injustice in this country. In a span of twelve hours, Sunrise’s core recruited a group of about ten students and two individuals from the neighborhood to sit-in at Meehan’s district office in Springfield starting at 10:00am on Monday, December 4th.

“We hoped to send a message to Meehan that Representatives who do not protect the future of young people will be voted out in the next election,” says Sophia Zaia, ‘18.

Before entering the office, Shana Richelle Herman ‘19 taught the group the words and tune to a protest song that they would sing upon entering. The group entered the office of Meehan and sang it louder, together. Then (on Facebook livestream) Shiney-Ajay spoke to the purpose of the protest, the group’s demands and why these things are so urgent.

(From left to right: Shana Herman, '18, Aru Shiney-Ajay '20, September Porras '20).

(From left to right: Shana Herman, '18, Aru Shiney-Ajay '20, September Porras '20).

“We are here as representatives of the Sunrise movement, we are young people concerned about climate change and about our future. We are here to ask you to vote no on the GOP tax bill. It is simple,” she continued, “If you say that you care about young people and if you say that you care about the climate, you need to vote no on this bill.”

At this moment, a clerk poked his head through the window. Expressing that though he wished to hear what the group had to say and that citizen opinions are welcomed by the office, he requested the protesters leave the space and not record the events therein. If the group had opinions they would like to share, he said, he would be willing to send a link to schedule appointments with the Congressman Meehan in the subsequent days. He would not, however, allow the group to take up space in the office, and disrupt, as he called it, an office of a Representative conducting the business of the United States of America.

A heated discussion followed after which the small group of protesters exited into the hallway. September Skye Porras ‘20, a leader of the Sunrise movement, began to tell a story from her life that spoke to why the prevention of this tax bill is deeply important to her.

“This tax bill for me not only threatens my family with policies around tax and climate destruction but it also threatens my opportunity as a first generation and a low income student.” She noted her care for her parents and care for the academic future that this tax bill threatens to destroy.

At this moment, a man from downstairs stepped out of the elevator and interrupted her mid-sentence. Asking the group to leave on the premise that the protest was happening on private property, he said that if they didn’t, he would call the police. Wanting to make a statement against the privatization of both space and government, Sunrise decided to stand its ground. Porras finished her statement as the man from downstairs dialed 9-1-1.

When Porras finished, the group of protestors exited the building.

Out on the sidewalk, on public property again, the party reconvened to sing yet another song. The police was on its way.

“We gonna rise up rise up til it’s won

We gonna rise up rise up til it’s won

When people rise up the powers come down

The people rise u-u-u-up the powers come down

They try to stop us but we keep coming back.”

(From left to right: Emma Walker 20’, Gavi Reiter from sunrise in Philladelphia, Shana Herman '19, Aru Shiney-Ajay '20, Sophia Zaia '18, Lewis Fitzgerald '18).

(From left to right: Emma Walker 20’, Gavi Reiter from sunrise in Philladelphia, Shana Herman '19, Aru Shiney-Ajay '20, Sophia Zaia '18, Lewis Fitzgerald '18).

Zaia proceeded to share, with raw and real language what made this protest important. “Our prospects are not looking good. They are continuously getting worse and worse and this is not something that we can accept.”

The police came and Porras, having been previously designated as the authority liaison, left the circle to speak with them. They took her information but were otherwise agreeable as the group had left private property. To end, the group tightened the circle and opened the space for each person to share reflections and feelings on the events of the early morning. Anger was mixed with words of gratitude and positivity.

“We sent a clear message,” Shiney-Ajay concluded. “Our resistance is only going to get stronger,” adds Zaia. “To me... it feels unquestionable to me to do anything but this work.”

Porras offered her thoughts, “On a positive end, it was really amazing to see people impassioned and willing to come out-- not just Swatties, but community members and students from Philly. On a more negative end, it was really impactful to be turned away so quickly; to be rejected by someone who, as a public servant, we the people are supposed to employ.”

With mixed feelings and a renewed sense of unity, the group trundled into the cars and headed back to Swarthmore to continue on the track of a busy Monday.