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Occupy reinvented: '99 percent' protesters target General Electric

Hundreds of protesters chant 'Pay your fair share
Hundreds of protesters chant 'Pay your fair share/

Several dozen protesters who gained access to the annual shareholder meeting of General Electric in Detroit disrupted the start with chanting Wednesday morning before being removed by security. Meanwhile, hundreds more protesters gathered outside.

The protest — coming a day after a similar one at Wells Fargo's shareholder meeting in San Francisco — illustrated one of the new strategies taken by the Occupy movement and its offshoots. The Occupy movement, which set up large encampments in public spaces in cities around the country in 2011, was largely forced to leave those sites in the fall and winter. Many of the same activists are taking part in other types of civil disobedience and protests against what they consider corporate greed, money-driven politics and social inequity.

The protesters in Detroit began shouting "pay your fair share" just after GE CEO Jeff Immelt began speaking, reported NBC affiliate WDIV in Detroit.

The chant refers to the belief that unfair tax breaks had allowed GE to avoid paying the government billions of dollars.

A 2011 report by Citizens for Tax Justice, a left-leaning think tank, maintains that GE had an effective negative tax rate from 2008 through 2010, which the company has repeatedly denied.

After the protesters were removed, Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin defended GE's tax practices, Reuters reported.

"We absolutely are compliant with every law around the world in how we pay our taxes," Sherin said, according to the Reuters report. "Our U.S. tax expense last year was $2.6 billion. We are a large taxpayer, we pay our taxes and we very much support tax reform."

Immelt resumed his address with these words, according to the Detroit Free Press:

"We're happy we brought jobs here.... we are proud to be in Detroit this morning," he said. A spokesman for GE told the Free Press that the protesters must have been shareholders or they would not have been able to pass through security checks to enter the meeting.

Reports varied on the number of protesters in the meeting. Reuters reported there were nearly 100 who gained entrance while others put the number at 50 or fewer.

One activist who said she gained entrance to the shareholder meeting by buying one share of GE stock was Shyquetta McElroy, who drove six hours to Detroit with nine other protesters from Milwaukee.

McElroy said she was not connected to any organization, and did not take part in the Occupy movement but told she was part of the "99 percent."

"Basically (we are) citizens who are mistreated by corporations, by which I mean corporations moving jobs overseas, not paying taxes ...  just so they can get richer." She said such practices were partly to blame for painful cuts in programs from schools to health care.

At a similar protest of the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting on Tuesday, dozens of activists gained access to the meeting by purchasing one share each. About a dozen who protested inside that meeting were removed, and six protesters in the crowd outside were arrested.

Around the country, similar protests are planned to target major banks and other companies, an idea that has been under discussion for months among Occupy movement activists.

"Clearly this is a major project," said Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. Gitlin has written a soon-to-be published book about the Occupy Movement and says the idea of protest inside shareholder meetings has been envisioned for months within that movement. "This is one direction for the occupy movement."

Occupy groups have also combined forces with housing advocates and others to prevent foreclosures and agitate for banks to change lending and foreclosure policies.

A new group called 99% Power, which describes itself as a "coalition of workers and retirees, families fighting foreclosure and the unemployed, students, immigrants and environmentalists," said on its web site that it plans actions at dozens more shareholder meetings in the coming weeks. Other companies on their list include Verizon, Bank of America, Sallie Mae and Wal-Mart.

The organization casts itself as representing the interests of the vast majority of Americans, versus the wealthiest 1 percent.

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