While the Robin Hood of folklore rode through Sherwood Forest robbing from the rich to help the poor, more than 2,000 activists –– a good number dressed in his iconic green costume –– marched through the canyons of New York on the evening of September 17. They stopped at power centers from the United Nations to JP Morgan Chase to demand a “Robin Hood tax” of a half cent on all financial transactions to fund $350 billion in human services to “end AIDS, provide jobs, build housing, strengthen education and healthcare, and fight climate change,” according to Aaron Boyle, a board member at the Health Global Access Project, or Health GAP, who in a release added, “We’re crazy not to do it.”
Having failed to get New York City, state, or federal authorities to adopt the tax, the activists –– mostly nurses, AIDS service providers, labor unionists, and veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement marking its second anniversary –– first rallied in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza to call on the United Nations to join the push for the tax.
Some 200 organizations joined together for the demonstration, which was led by Health GAP, VOCAL New York, a group that organizes people affected by HIV/ AIDS, drug use, and incarceration, and National Nurses United. The groups launched a national campaign for the tax several years ago.
“We’re here to highlight the suffering caused by austerity politics,” Amanda Lugg of the African Services Committee –– a Harlem-based group that assists African immigrants especially around AIDS issues –– told the crowd.
Veteran AIDS activist Benjamin Heim Shepard, who was among the demonstrators, said, “We have to fight for healthcare in any way we can and the second anniversary of Occupy is a good time to think about it. It’s part of why Bill de Blasio got elected.” As for the feasibility of the tax, he said, “This is the beginning of something. It’s completely doable. Any way we can fight AIDS, we should.”
Mark Harrington of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) was among the 16 arrested blocking traffic on Second Avenue. “Five years ago, the world economy collapsed and the government spent billions propping up banks,” he said, calling on authorities to do the same for the collapsing healthcare system. “We want a state plan to end AIDS.”
Out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman was also arrested, joining in the chants of “No more budget cuts on our backs, end AIDS with the Robin Hood tax.”
Just before his arrest, Charles King, the veteran head of Housing Works, said leadership on the tax had to come from President Barack Obama to aid “a global fund to end AIDS.”
Bill Dobbs, a longtime Occupy member, was at the action and said, “I have a lot of doubts about the Robin Hood tax because it undercuts all the budget priority organizing,” such as that of the War Resisters League, which has been calling attention to bloated defense spending for some time. “Priorities have to change. Occupy gave people a taste of power –– how to push back against the rich and powerful. Two years later that spark is still there, but a lot of people are going to have to pitch in and help.”
As the throng moved to JP Morgan Chase headquarters on Park Avenue, among the signs was “Rich Kids for Redistribution.” People chanted, “Banks for bailed out, we got sold out.”
Veteran ACT UP member Mark Milano was there, saying, “The tax is a good idea. If we put it into global AIDS now, we can end it now.”
But his fellow ACT UP member Jim Eigo said, “I don’t know if the tax has a chance of flying in the US, but it would be good if it could.” Noting that provisions for prevention in the Affordable Care Act could mean “the end of AIDS is in reach,” he voiced alarm at the prospect the divided Congress won’t pay for it. “If we can’t fund it now, when will we?,” Eigo said.
Congressman Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat, is the lead sponsor of a measure to impose the tax, but the independent GovTrack.us website gives the bill a one percent chance of clearing committee and none for passing the Republican House.
Still, Jennifer Flynn of Health GAP, one of the lead organizers, said, “The Robin Hood tax is inevitable,” noting that 11 countries in the European Union including Germany and France have signed on to it, partly to slow down financial trading a smidge and prevent another 2008-like collapse of the markets. “They will get the revenue and most of our financial institutions will have to pay it,” she said.
Flynn sees the possibility of “an end to the AIDS pandemic within 30 years.”
It wasn’t all about AIDS and healthcare. Mithika Mwenda, of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, spoke up for his cause as well as ending AIDS. “We need the political will to do that,” he said, “and that’s why we’re doing it at the UN, putting pressure on world leaders” as the General Assembly gets underway.
Outside the Midtown offices of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, another target of the protest for its cuts in services and freeze on wages, Eric Sawyer, co-founder of ACT UP and Health GAP and now at UNAIDS, said, “We have to make sure that Wall Street, which benefits from local and global public health, should bear part of the expense of it.”
The march ended in Bryant Park where a stage and big banners read “End Austerity” and “The Robin Hood Tax: Coming Soon to the European Union.” Deborah Burger, co-president of National Nurses United, told the crowd about similar actions taking place around the world that day from Brazil to Ireland to South Korea.
Where an LGBT rally might have chanted “Everybody out, nobody in,” this crowd of economic justice activists, including many LGBT people, shouted, “Everybody in, nobody out.”
“We need this tax,” Flynn told the crowd. “Our lives depend on it.”