Mark Twain wasn’t the last war tax resistor
By Bobby Smith
Sitting in a small conference room in the Tompkins County Public Library at an Ithaca War Tax Resistors meeting, I felt the steadfast conviction in the room. I was surrounded by self-proclaimed war tax resistors, all of whom risk government prosecution every time they withhold tax money. But despite this threat, war tax resistors in Ithaca and nationwide put their morality over law, unwilling to pay for what they believe to be unjust wars.
Typically, war tax resisters refuse to pay some or all of their federal income tax and the federal excise telephone tax. The government deposits both income and excise taxes into the military budget to fund current and past wars. There are a variety of reasons why people resist paying war taxes, including protesting a specific war, upholding religious ideals or stopping excessive military spending.
War tax resistors are not to be confused with tax evaders or tax avoiders. Tax evaders and avoiders intentionally try to deceive the IRS through misrepresentation or concealment. War tax resistors overtly and conscientiously resist taxes in protest of the government’s fiscal actions. As opposed to trying to save money, war tax resistors often redirect their tax money to charitable organizations. But whatever their personal rationale may be, and wherever they alternatively funnel their money, war tax resistors are breaking the law to uphold their moral convictions and therefore are practicing civil disobedience.
Probably one of the most famous accounts of civil disobedience was from Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes for the Mexican-American War. He was sent to jail, but to much avail. While serving time, he wrote the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” that now is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of literature to the war tax resistance movement. Thoreau’s actions inspired war tax resistors across the nation to focus war opposition on fiscal issues.
According to the National Priorities Income Tax Chart for 2007, 558 million dollars, or 27 percent, of every federal tax dollar goes to military spending, while a meager 3 percent of every dollar goes toward veterans’ affairs and 2 percent to the environment. War tax resistors nationwide do not want 27 cents of every one of their tax dollars to fund what they believe to be unethical military actions.
Pete Meyers, a member of Ithaca’s War Tax Resistors, said there are many ethical and personally fulfilling benefits to resisting federal war taxes that go beyond the monetary opposition.
“Having done this for eighteen years, it’s not so much whether it’s denying the military money, but what it has done for me. And it has been profound.”
Meyers, like many war tax resistors, calculates what he owes to the government and funnels the money to philanthropic organizations.
“If I give my money directly to people who need it, I can avoid going through a big government bureaucracy,” he said.
There is no accurate number of how many war tax resistors there are, because the Treasury Department doesn’t track the reasons why people refuse to pay their taxes, and some resistors keep their civil disobedience private. Estimates range from 8,000 to 10,000 people a year. There is no correct way to resist war taxes; it can be approached in a variety ways depending on one’s personal situation.
The War Resistors League Web site lists several ways to resist war taxes, including filing and not paying taxes, paying only a portion of the taxes, filling them out blank with a note of explanation or not filing at all. As coordinator of Ithaca War Tax Resistors Mary Loehr says, it’s a personal decision.
“There is no right way to resist. There is no formula. It depends on who you are, what you’re situation is, and why you’re doing it.”
For Laurie Konwinski, Coordinator of Committee on US and Latin American Relations at Cornell University, the reason for withholding part of her taxes is the Iraq War.
“If we pull out of Iraq I’d probably pay my taxes again. The Iraq War was the point that I couldn’t morally agree with,” she said.
She acknowledges that withholding tax money brings with it its own moral complexity. Konwinski, who lived in Haiti for five years, said that resisting war taxes should be frequently reassessed and taken into political context.
“You answer the question for yourself this tax year and then reevaluate yourself for the next. I lived in a country where they didn’t pay taxes, and the poor suffered and the rich got richer. There is a part of me that is glad I live in a country that pays taxes,” she said.
The War Resistor’s Web site goes through possible consequences of resisting war taxes. The most innocuous of them is a letter from the IRS. Other possible penalties include audits, levies and property seizure, and criminal prosecution. But according to the Web site, the chance of a war tax resistor actually getting prosecuted is very slim. Only about 30 out of tens of thousands of Americans who have resisted war taxes have been convicted on issues related to their war tax resistance.
Ruth Benn, co-author of the book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military, told Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow! that prosecution and property seizure is very expensive for the IRS, and it is usually done for symbolic reasons.
“[Property seizure] is the sort of thing that I think the IRS does to make a statement and to make people afraid, but it’s not something they do regularly,” she said.
Peter Goldberger, a criminal defense lawyer and pro-bono legal counsel for war tax resisters, told Smartmoney.com that in his experience with war tax resistors, only a few have faced federal persecution.
“Most consequences [for war tax resisters] are in the administrative or civil arena,” says Goldberger. “In the 25 years that I have been one of a small handful of lawyers in the country interested in helping these people, I know of one or two criminal cases.”
Kevin Mckee and Joe Donato’s experience, however, defied these odds. The pair, from Mays Landings, N.J., are serving prison time for “conspiring to defraud the United States” and “willful evasion” of federal taxes. Mckee and Donata are members of a small pacifist religious society that is known for their strong stance against war taxes. In 2006, Mckee and Donata were given 27-month sentences, the longest sentences given to war tax resistors in 60 years. Donata told the National Campaign for Peace Tax Fund that he will not compromise his religious convictions for a government tax.
“We would always have gladly paid our full share of taxes if only the government could assure us that the amount we paid would not go to fund war making,” said Joe Donato. “The lack of any provision like that forced us to either violate our religion or risk being branded as criminals. At that point, we saw no choice but to honor our beliefs.”
War tax resistors like New Jersey’s Mckee and Donata take a tenacious stand against the government’s allocation of money for what they deem as unlawful wars. Their acts represent a contemporary version of Thoreau’s civil disobedience, challenging what it means to be a criminal in the 21st century.
Bobby Smith is a freshman politics major who only shops during tax free week. Email him at rsmith2[at]ithaca.edu.