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Friday, September 13, 2013

A Global Social Network of Outrage and Action

On September 9, 2013 two members of the Isaac Brock Society led a FATCA protest in front of a press conference held by the Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.



The two Brockers, AtticusInCanada and WhiteKat, held up up signs like "FATCA:  Sequel to the War of 1812" and  "U.S. Bully Violates Canada's Charter."

For those of you who don't know U.S./Canadian history the War of 1812 was a war between Canada (Great Britain) and the United States.  Many believe that the its aim was to annex Canada to the U.S.  That clearly didn't happen and British troops managed to get far enough south to burn Washington, D.C. in 1814.  Not the U.S.'s finest hour.

But Canadians remember and that's why the words on that sign were well chosen and struck a chord with their compatriots.  The two Brockers also passed out leaflets, engaged people passing by, and talked to reporters.  You can read more about it here at the Isaac Brock Society.

Why was this protest so significant?  Because it was the very first one and to understand what makes it such a milestone you have to go back and look at what has been happening over the past 2 years.

The Origins of the Isaac Brock Society:  When Peter Dunn started the Isaac Brock Society in 2011 Americans, ex-Americans and Green Card holders abroad were waking up to a nightmare.  Here was this law passed in 2010 and signed by Obama called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).  Ostensibly passed to catch "rich tax evaders" it started to become very clear that there were consequences and adverse impacts on "minnows" (middle and lower-income people).   People all around the world wanted to know more. "Does this new law impact me in my country?" they asked. And they weren't getting satisfactory answers.

Peter Dunn, a native Alaskan living in Canada, tried to get people talking about it on another forum and was censored and then kicked out for his trouble.  He went on to form his own website called The Isaac Brock Society.  (Another history lesson here - Isaac Brock was a British army officer who gave his life in defense of Canada in the War of 1812.)  Peter invited people from all over the world to come and have an anonymous, uncensored conversation about it.

Fear, Policy Laundering and Exploitation by "Experts":  How can I best explain the atmosphere back then?  A "state of fear" describes it perfectly.  Stories were circulating all over the world of Americans abroad and their families facing banking problems and paying outrageous fines when they sought to become compliant.

It was almost impossible to get a straight answer to any question.  The IRS websites were so poorly written and confusing that people were more confused after reading Publication X, Y, Z.  Local governments in and outside the U.S. were refusing to answer their constituents' questions about what FATCA meant for them. The "public" forums on FATCA were few and far between and were meant for the banks, international tax lawyers and accountants, and government policy makers - not regular people who had to fight just to get in to listen (they were not allowed to speak).

The cross-border tax experts were not much help either.  Nobody seemed to be getting the same answer to the same question - everything seemed to depend on who you talked to that day. Some people got very bad advice and found themselves even worse off and facing financial ruin because of their "experts."  Even the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service in the U.S. started to raise flags and reported to the U.S. Congress that the situation was and continues to be deeply troubling.

Shame, Secrecy and the Wall of Fear:  But the worst part was the shame and the secrecy.  People read the IRS website and felt dumb because they didn't understand it or the language of the accountants and lawyers. How many people sitting at home in splendid isolation slapped hand to forehead and said, "How did this happen and how could I have been missed this?"  Insofar as people understood that renunciation was possible, it was still a taboo subject that no one ever talked about and any attempt to broach it was all too often met with a sharp, "Don't be silly.  No one ever gives up US citizenship."

How to do it was shrouded in mystery and folks were afraid to ask.

A Social Network:  Isaac Brock gave these people what they needed:  information and support.  A community grew up around the site.  It became the place to ask a question, get advice, tell a personal story or listen to the personal stories of others.

What did people learn at Brock?  That they weren't the only ones who hadn't understood what the U.S. government wanted from them and who were filled with a sense of outrage once they did figure it out.

They learned that they weren't the only "Accidental Americans" or "Ex-Americans Having to Prove They are Not Americans" or "Spouses of U.S. citizens";  that they weren't the only people being told that they were guilty until they could prove their innocence.

Above all, those who thought they were one of the sorry few who just didn't get the memo about citizenship-based taxation and FBAR, were astonished to discover that they had a lot of company:  millions of other people:

- U.S citizens and Green Card holders living abroad
- Immigrants in the U.S.
- Anyone from any country who spends significant periods of time on U.S. soil
- Non-U.S. citizens with children in American universities or with American spouses and partners
-"Accidental Americans" who never knew they were considered U.S. citizens by the United States
- Ex-Americans, now citizens of other countries, who believed they had lost their U.S. citizenship long ago.

The vast majority of these people just didn't know they were supposed to comply with U.S. tax and reporting requirements.  All were desperately searching for more information and help.

A Voice:  At first people spoke freely but mostly anonymously on the website.  A lot of emotion there in the beginning and the community "formed, stormed and normed."  And then some people started to use their real names.  The floodgates opened and suddenly more and more folks became willing to talk to reporters, write articles and comment anywhere there was an article about FATCA and CBT.  The more people came out, the more other people felt comfortable doing the same. "People overcome fear by being together," (Castells 2012)

At the same time the "minnow" renunciants went public.  That was a sea change in the mentality of Americans abroad.  Renouncing U.S. citizenship went from being a taboo subject nobody dared to discuss openly to a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation among Americans abroad - even the most diehard "I will never give up my US citizenship ever."  And while there are still strong feelings about it, a renunciant is just as likely to get support and understanding when he talks about his experience as he is to be denounced.

Today, after two years on-line, the Isaac Brock Society website is at nearly 1 million all time hits.  The site regularly receives between 4,000 and 6,000 hits a day with people connecting from China, Europe, North and South America and many other places around the world.

The Social becomes Political:  The real story here is not tax evasion or states' effort to combat - it is about empowerment and how a group of regular people - financial "minnows" scattered all over the world in many countries - have come together to act on their own behalf,  bypassing traditional institutions.  It's a social movement of regular working people who are part and parcel of the 99% whether they live in Canada, Thailand, Mexico, France, China, or Brazil.

What is outrageous is that these people are in the ludicrous position of having to convince others that they are not rich just because they live outside of their home country, or have an connection to, the United States. Since when do socialists, Green party members and other "progressives" require a statement of net worth before they will accept ordinary people's right to protest on their own behalf?  

Is a Canadian retiree with a lifetime of savings or a veteran of the U.S. military with a home or an unemployed IT worker in Europe somehow unworthy in their eyes and should therefore humbly accept the "inconvenience" of FATCA and citizenship-based taxation for the greater good?  From where the Brockers sit, the only "good' that will come of FATCA will come in the form of millions of dollar in profit for the compliance industry - companies like KPMG - and the banks who will surely inflict the price of compliance to their local customers.  It is highly doubtful that either of these institutions are planning to pass on their largesse to the working people of America or any other country.  

What is happening right now is the transformation of this community of interest into one that can act on its outrage in the "real" world.  Using this safe space on the Internet as a springboard, the Brockers, united in their outrage, are now forming other networks through IRL (In Real Life) meetings and protests.  The latter started this week with those "Two Mom in Tennis Shoes".  Others are being planned.

A Social Movement Among Many:  To those who are quick to say that this is nothing at all, may I remind the pessimists and naysayers that many social movements in our time have had such humble beginnings.



From cyberspace to public space, from a community of interest to a community of action, the Brockers are learning together that a lack of money, influence and sympathy does not mean that they lack resources. They may be mosquitoes in the grand scheme of things but by leveraging the collective experiences, intelligence and skills in their community and other like-minded ones, they are swarming to good effect.

They have torn down the walls of fear, empowered ordinary people to act as their own advocates, and built a strong transnational network of incredibly diverse individuals.   It is one of the finest examples of spontaneous, bottom-up, non-hierarchical, global organizations around.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria!
(Where there is unity, there is the victory)

(Full disclosure here:  I used "they" in this post but it is more accurate to say "we."  Peter Dunn brought me over to blog at Isaac Brock many months ago.  Since then I've been active in this movement, writing posts here at the Flophouse and over at Brock.  Now a few articles that I co-authored with Lynne Swanson have been published in The Hill and in Accounting Today.  I am a member of both ACA and AARO as well.  So I am a participant/observer in all this.  I do what I can to be of service with what I have and that's mostly writing. I  cannot express enough my appreciation for Peter, the Brock community and all the people in other organizations that have mobilized around this and who freely give their wisdom, guidance and help.  Whatever happens next, this has been an extraordinary experience.)

10 comments:

Blaze said...

Many Americans think U.S. won the War of 1812. If that was so, Canada would have been part of the U.S. for 200 years.

The War of 1812 actually lasted until 1815.

I hope this war does not drag on until 1815, but it's already been at least two years since our battle began.

With Two Moms in Tennis Shoes leading the battle, we can overcome!

Blaze said...

Oops. My first comment should have said until 2015. What USA failed to do 200 years ago, they're now trying to do with FATCA.

We all know FATCA is not about taxes. It's about control of people, governments, financial institutions and information. With that comes power.

One other point about "Two Moms In Tennis Shoes." They were so threatening, they soon had an RCMP officer assigned to them. They said he was friendly and cute, but asked lots of questions.

AtticusinCanada said...

We didn't exactly shout out to the Minister "No justice, No Peace!" but, we were thinking it. We're a little more laid back than the sixties days but, many examples of quiet demonstration against unjust laws can be found everywhere.

It was such a pleasure to meet and be with White Kat that day. What a brave inspiration she is. Very determined and I am so glad to know her. I'm looking forward to bigger things to come and perhaps standing along side more of you soon to fight this.

bubblebustin said...

It's amazing what the power of like-minded individuals brings, especially when their purpose is just and righteous. I can't tell you how many times we've been confronted by people on various fronts who start out against us but end up being sympathetic and as outraged as we are once they know the truth.
What you've written about here is especially important to me not only because of what it represents as a milestone in our movement (and yes it is a bonafide movement), but because I came up with the "FATCA: sequel to the War of 1812" slogan for the first-ever FATCA demonstration! Cool, eh?

usxcanada said...

It was almost impossible to get a straight answer to any question.

Praise of Brock should not pass over in silence the early contribution of Renunciation of U.S. Citizenship: a Web Guide, still available at http://web.archive.org/web/20121017102240/http://www.renunciationguide.com/

The Wayback Machine shows this fine resource was available as early as August 2011. Older than Brock, even if not a forum. They did/do respond to emails.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@blaze, I really recommend Manuel Castell's book
http://www.amazon.com/Networks-Outrage-Hope-Movements-Internet/dp/0745662854
Not a guide really but an inspiration.

Oh I missed the part about the RCMP (is that another word for "Mounty"?) Please, please, please tell more...

@Atticus, I am in awe of what you two did. Bravo mes dames!

@bubblebustin, Very cool indeed. I read it and smiled.

@usxcanada, I'll be damned - you can still access the site? I used them often in the early days and then they disappeared. Do you know what happened?

Blaze said...

@Victoria: Oh yes, very soon after Atticus and WhiteKat arrived, so did a "Mountie" (no horse!) to check then out.

I will let them fill you in on the details because they were there. I wasn't.

WhiteKat said...

Thanks Victoria. It is an amazing feeling to be part of such a spontaneously occurring group of people - many of whom already have their 'out' - yet are committed to this evolving 'global social network of outrage and action' because they care about living in a just society. I truly think that together, all us mosquitoes, will make a difference.

Anonymous said...

Another person speaks out:
http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ca/2013/09/it-is-more-complicated-than-tax.html

http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.ca/2013/09/the-end-of-american-ex-pat-influence-in.html

badger

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