The other tea partiers: antiwar tax resistors

Photo courtesy of the Northern California War Tar Resistance.

Partisan sniping on raising – or not raising – the U.S. debt limit has been going on now longer than anyone cares to remember. That all ended today, though. The U.S. Senate passed the debt-ceiling bill by a 74 to 26 vote, and President Obama is signing it today ahead of the midnight deadline. At the heart of the disagreement was how much you will have to pay in taxes.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, exceptdeath and taxes” – those are the famous words that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote back in 1789. Save for a short time that Americans were taxed to pay off the debts from the Civil War, we lived income tax-free until the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1909. That caused us to pay taxes every year thereafter.

And every year thereafter, people have complained – especially about helping to pay for programs they don’t like. But what can you do?

KALW’s Steven Short spoke with some people who do more than complain – they’re members of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, and they say have a clear conscience about it, too.

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STEVEN SHORT: The actual amount of U.S. military spending is a moving target, shall we say – but some estimates place it at around a trillion dollars annually. That’s a one, followed by 12 zeros. If you spent a dollar per second, it would take you a little less than 32,000 years to complete the task. And that’s about 80-100% more than what it was prior to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in 2001.

Possibly the most celebrated war tax resister was Wally Nelson. This long-time peace activist got fed up with paying for war soon after World War II, and for the rest of his long life, he took part in annual war-tax protests outside of his local post office in Massachusetts. When asked why he was a war tax resister, he answered something like this:

SOLICITOR: Hello. There’s a group of people we don’t like very much, and I’m collecting donations today to help us buy weapons so we can kill them. Would you like to contribute?

SUSAN QUINLAN: Our answer is, “No. We wouldn’t put money in that cup.”

Bay Area resident Susan Quinlan is a member of the Northern California War Tax Resistance.

QUINLAN: When it’s a government that comes to our door, are we willing to say no? We’re not going to put money in – in the cup of war. We want our money to go into our communities.

Quinlan was one of the coordinators of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee conference, held earlier this year in Oakland. The group has chapters in all fifty states, and in the District of Columbia.

QUINLAN: So that is the Outreach Strategies workshop, and that is going to be right out here in this foyer area, under the skylight. There’s a circle of chairs out there.

Many of those at the meeting are from the Vietnam War era. But tax resistance certainly predates that time. Remember the Boston Tea Party? Not the current Tea Party  – although they oppose taxes too. No, I’m talking about the first one….

NARRATOR: “December 16, 1773. American colonists board a British ship to protest tea taxes, and dump hundreds of chests of tea overboard.”

See? Americans started protesting taxes even before they were Americans!

Present day tax resisters seldom resort to destroying property, the way those Bostonians did. And it’s worth noting that those Tea Party revolutionaries were refusing to pay tax on a commodity. These people are resisting paying tax for something they find morally offensive: war.

KATHY LABRIOLA: My name is Kathy Labriola. I live in Berkeley, California. And I’m a war tax resister since 1978.

1978 was the first year Labriola owed taxes – a year, she notes, when the United States was providing military aid and training to non-democratic governments, from Iran to El Salvador.

LABRIOLA: I sent my tax forms with a letter saying, “I owe you about $5,000 and here’s why I’m not going to pay.” And every year since, I have done the same thing.

SHORT: I don’t imagine they took that too well. How did they respond?  

LABRIOLA: Well, surprisingly enough, for quite a few years they didn’t respond much at all, except to send me a lot of nasty, threatening letters.

SHORT: Threatening – threatening you with what?

LABRIOLA: Well, very vague. Just basically saying that they would do whatever they needed to, to collect that money from me if I didn’t just pay it, and why don’t I pay it right now. So, of course, I just responded to each letter by telling them why I wasn’t going to pay.

Labriola says when the amount gets large enough, the IRS does eventually collect what’s owed them – straight from her paycheck. In the meantime, she uses her unpaid tax money to buy certificates of deposit or other savings instruments.

LABRIOLA: … And then, by the time they collect on me, I actually come out way ahead, because I’ve made interest on the money.

Many war tax resisters donate their unpaid tax money to non-profits, or to The People’s Life Fund, run by the Northern California War Tax Resistance group.

QUINLAN: The People’s Life Fund is the escrow account that was established so that people who are refusing to pay all or part of their taxes can put that money in escrow, and the interest from that is granted each year to groups that are doing the kind of work that we feel the government should be doing. The kind of work that’s being cut right now. While the military is allowed to grow, our schools and social services are being cut.

The Internal Revenue Service declined to be interviewed for this story, but they did provide this statement: “There is no law that permits taxpayers to refuse to file a tax return or refuse to pay their taxes based on an estimate of what the government spends on programs or policies with which they disagree on moral, ethical, religious, or other grounds.”

Furthermore, the IRS says, such protests are “frivolous, and have no merit.” This position has been upheld several times in court.

Speaking of courts, Quinlan says prosecution is rare. IRS agents once came to her door, but when she refused to cooperate, they left, and never returned. Nationally, about 30 people have been taken to court – over a 70-year period. According to the national office, arrests are so low “because the IRS really wants to collect money.” You can’t pay if you’re locked up.

Erica Weiland is on the administrative committee for the national office. She says redirecting even a small part of what she considers a “military tax” has rewards that outweigh any fines or possible prison time.

ERICA WEILAND: De-funding the military opens up a huge amount of money, resources, and time that could be used building up our communities and supporting communities around the world – who need that so much more than they need to be bombed and shot at.

Old Ben Franklin may have said that our only certainties are death and taxes, but James Madison, fourth president of this country, said: “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes … No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

There was talk after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s about a “peace dividend,” when taxes for military spending could be redirected to domestic needs, and to rebuilding war-torn countries. Some – including a report by the International Monetary Fund – say that happened, and would happen again, if and when Congress trims our war budget.  Others, of course, say it doesn’t make any difference.

But whichever side you’re on in that debate, the members of the War Tax Resisters know that while they may eventually have to pay taxes that contribute to military spending, they haven’t done so without putting up a fight.

In Oakland, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.

How do you feel about your tax money going to our defense budget? Chime in on our feedback line: 415-264-7106.