By Bryce G. Hoffman and Tom Greenwood, The Detroit News
26 April 12
hile several thousand protesters made noise Wednesday in the city’s downtown over feelings General Electric isn’t paying enough in taxes, three dozen protestors stood up at the beginning of GE’s annual shareholder meeting chanting “pay your fair share”
The group was escorted from the meeting room at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center by police and security without incident. They continued their demonstration outside in the lobby. A phalanx of security guards formed outside the ballroom to prevent them from re-entering.
The protesters with ties to the “99 percent” movement – made popular last year in light of corporate bank bailouts – made their frustrations known over GE’s tax payments outside the building, stretching into nearby Hart Plaza.
Inside the Renaissance Center, security was tight. Shareholders were required to pass through metal detectors, and endure bag searches and wand scans in order to enter the lobby outside the meeting room. Only registered shareholders were allowed in, but it was clear by the union pins some wore that they would bring the protest inside.
A small group of union activists from the Service Employees International Union tried to enter the meeting with proxies from shareholders, but they were turned away by security and police.
GE CEO Jeff Immelt had planned to come out and mingle with investors but that was canceled out of security concerns.
Outside the Renaissance Center, demonstrators swarmed the area, chanting “this is what democracy looks like.” They were held back by dozens of police, including three mounted units.
The protesters were loud and largely non-confrontational as they held up signs demanding that GE pay what they believe is its fair share in taxes. The protests were largely over by 11 a.m.
After gathering at Hart Plaza, a parade of protesters chanted their way to the Detroit River side of the RenCen. Chants of “We are the 99 percent,” “GE pay your taxes” and “No justice, no peace” filled the air. The crowd was made up of young and old, black and white, senior citizens, retirees and the fringe elements who seem to show up at any protest.
Police largely kept the protesters to half the street and urged them to stay on sidewalks on the river side of the plaza. Police also locked the doors leading into the RenCen.
On Tuesday, about 20 protesters scuffled with Detroit police before they were escorted out of Cobo Center. The protesters blew whistles and attempted to enter the SAE World Congress being held there, but they were forcibly blocked from doing so.
Immelt defended the company’s payment of income taxes after protesters interrupted his speech Tuesday at the event.
“Tax rate was 29 percent last year,” Immelt told a couple protesters at Cobo Center as they chanted “pay your fair share” a few feet from where he was speaking.
At Grand Circus Park on Wednesday, half a dozen protesters gathered in the early morning sunshine, watching as the fountain sent a plume of crystal clear water into the air.
It was a second visit to the park for Curtis McGuire who camped in the park last year as part of the “Occupy Detroit” movement.
“We intend to march to the GM building for a large game of ‘dodge tax ball,’” said McGuire, who was wearing a “Say Yes to Michigan” badge on his jacket. “Will what we do make a difference? Yes, it will be very powerful especially combined with other protests around the country.
“You have to knock on the door before you get in.”
There was a definite, but discreet police presence outside the Renaissance Center early Wednesday as officers in perhaps a dozen cars kept watch on Jefferson Avenue. Police had also erected a temporary chain-link fence outside the massive building, with a single opening for people leaving or entering.
On the sidewalk, a group of about 40 protesters walked peacefully back and forth holding signs reading “Fighting for Pension Fairness – GE.”
Earl Hornung drove up from Indiana to show how he felt about his retirement situation.
“We’re trying to get a raise in our cost of living allocation,” said Hornung, who worked for GE for 28 years. “We have one fellow here who is 90 years old who retired 30 years ago. He’s hurting really bad due to inflation. I’ve been retired for 10 years and inflation is eating away at my pension, too.”
At nearby Hart Plaza, several hundred protesters gathered near the fountain, many waving flags while others chanted “we are the 99 percent!” The vast majority of the protesters were from Wisconsin, pulling up in bus after bus.
“There’s probably two to three hundred of us,” said Milwaukee resident Ed Jude, 56, who had an American flag wrapped around his shoulders. “We are here because we want our voices to be heard. “If we pay our fair share of taxes, then the corporations like GE should pay their fair share, too. If they paid their taxes like us, there would be less of a strain on our social systems.”
GE spokesman Gary Sheffer has said the company paid a 25 percent income tax rate in the United States in 2011 – and a 29 percent rate globally. In total, GE paid $2.9 billion globally in income tax in 2011, Sheffer said.
GE said it paid a 7 percent U.S. tax rate in 2010 because it had lost $32 billion in its financial services unit and because of other tax breaks, Sheffer said. “We paid income taxes and we paid another $1 billion in taxes across the U.S. – state, local federal.”
“The folks that are protesting here are unfortunately protesting based on misinformation. We did pay taxes. Our rate was lower,” Sheffer said Tuesday.
Protesters have said they had tried to present Immelt with a tax bill for $26.5 billion for what they asserted GE owed in back federal income taxes under the 35 percent statutory tax rate.
“Mr. Immelt, when are you going to pay the $26 billion in taxes,” asked Shyquetta McElroy, a mother of two who traveled from Milwaukee. “I pay my taxes year after year – why doesn’t GE?”
Few, if any, U.S. companies pay the statutory tax rate because of various tax breaks and incentives in the tax code.
The protesters asserted that GE has become “the poster child of American corporate tax-dodging” and argued it has been paying only a 2.3 percent effective rate over the last 10 years.
Immelt joked Tuesday that the protesters had given him some “good practice” for GE’s annual shareholder meeting in Detroit on Wednesday. The United Auto Workers union has said it is considering protesting at the meeting.
On Monday, GE awarded $500,000 in grants to The Wellness Plan-Gateway Medical Center and Community Health and Social Services in Detroit.
Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.