Going Against The Law To Protest Criminal Acts: War Tax Resisters And The Rebellious Spirit
(Mint Press) — Nov. 5 is Guy Fawkes Day in Great Britain. Guy Fawkes led a failed coup d’etat against the British government in 1605, which was punctuated by the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The bombing was to happen during the state opening, in which the king, the commons members and all of the Lords would be present. The conspiracy was discovered a day prior, and the conspirators were promptly arrested, tortured, hung, drawn and quartered, with their various bits scattered throughout London. To this day, effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned and fireworks are lit in remembrance of this.
Guy Fawkes is remembered as a symbol of resistance. Popular culture has made him a legend, from the popular folk verse to the movie “V for Vendetta” to anarchist groups that take up the likeness of Guy Fawkes as their mask:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot! …“
The best memorial of this, however, is current resistances done in its spirit.
Civil rights activist, Freedom Rider, and longtime war tax resister Wally Nelson once asked, “What would you do if someone came to your door with a cup in hand asking for a contribution to help buy guns and kill a group they didn’t like?”
Throughout this nation’s history, the power of the protest has empowered the voiceless and bolden the meek. In response to major injustices, governmental abuses and grave and reckless acts of violence, the citizenry has had the option to resist and strike against the common flow — through strikes, peaceful resistance and, in rarer cases, riots.
In America today, a different kind of resistance is taking place in opposition to America’s involvement in two separate, decade-long military operations. Thousands of individuals have decided to hit Uncle Sam where it hurts — the wallet — by denying payment of all or part of their income tax.
As stated on the War Resisters League’s website:
“It is clear that the U.S. government’s ability to threaten, coerce, and, if deemed necessary, make war on other nations is a direct result, not only of our economic might, but also the unprecedented size of our military arsenal, which is now far larger than that of all our allies and “enemies” combined. It is equally clear that the maintenance of this arsenal depends upon the willingness of the American people — through their federal tax payments — to finance it.
Refusal to pay taxes used to finance unjust wars, along with refusal by soldiers to fight in them, is a direct and potentially effective form of citizen noncooperation, and one that governments cannot ignore. War tax refusal has a long and honorable tradition among religious and secular opponents of war.
Refusal to pay all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection to war may involve personal risks. For that reason, material, and moral support for war tax refusers — including organizing support committees, raising support funds, and providing legal defense — is an important form of war resistance in itself.”
This prong of attack is pitfall-proned: American history is full of criminals, rebels and self-conceived “outsiders” brought down because of tax issues — from Al Capone to Willie Nelson. However, one cannot deny the immediacy of attacking the nation’s revenue source nor can one reasonably argue that a person should act contrary to their moral core.
Becoming a criminal to protest criminal acts
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau decided not to pay the levy due from him for not paying several years of poll taxes. Thoreau stated that he wished to not pay is delinquent taxes due to his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery. Because of this, Thoreau spent a day in jail. This experience affected the man, and he went on to give lectures about his tax resistance and would later write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which influenced the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Leo Tolstoy and others.
Typically, large scale tax resistance corresponded to other causes. For example, in 1930, Mohandas Gandhi led a salt march to make salt in opposition to salt taxes collected by the British colonial government. This was seen as part of the Indian Independence Movement. The Women’s Tax Resistance League was a British movement that ran from 1909 to 1918 which protested women’s disenfranchisement during the British Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Tax resistance is as old as civilization. The oldest form of resistance was against tithes and corvée — a form of compulsory state labor in lieu of taxes. Since the payment of such taxes was seen to be to be oppressive, reliable tax collection has always been difficult. Tax resistances are thought to be the rationale for the collapse of the Egyptian, Roman, Spanish and Aztec Empires.
The most common form of tax resistance is also the most legal: just do not make enough in income to be taxed in the first place (the taxation limit is $9,750 for single filers, $12,200 for head of household and $19,000 for married filing jointly, as of 2012). Those who subscribe to this philosophy live minimalistically or completely “off-the-grid” — removed from the trappings and interdependencies of modern day life.
But, most people need their car, television and telephone to feel comfortable.
In the United States, every individual that draws an income may be subject to payroll taxes — which go into the government’s general fund — and is subject to withholding taxes — which fuel various social programs, such as Social Security and Unemployment Compensation. Quarterly payment of taxes is compulsory, and violators can face harsh penalties.
While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has made great efforts in recent years to be kinder and gentler, the consequence for non-adherence to tax law includes severe fines, seizure of personal property and financial accounts, liens against income, seizure of federal, state and municipal tax refunds and even imprisonment.
Those in the modern war tax resister movement embrace these risks. As stated by Henry David Thoreau, “If a thousand men [and women] were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”
A history of tax resistance
Tax resistance in this country dates back before the formation of this nation. The earliest instance of war tax refusal came from the Algonquin Indians, who opposed Dutch taxation to improve a local fort. Quakers — who strongly believe that the employment of one man to kill another man (which would include soldiers) is immoral — came under repeated attack throughout history for their repeated, individual stance on war tax resisting. The primary periods of attacks on Quakers due to their war stance fell during the Revolutionary War and the Mexican-American War.
In 1942, a year before the introduction of the employee withholding tax, Ernest Bromley refused to pay the $7.09 required for a “defense tax” stamp for his car. For this, he became the first modern war tax resister. He also received 60 days in jail.
In 1948, a conference on “More Disciplined and Revolutionary Pacifist Activity” was held in Chicago. From this, 40 individuals declared their intentions to refuse part or all of their federal income taxes, forming a Tax Refusal Committee. For 20 years, the committee was the sole source for war tax aversion information, until Joan Baez, in 1964, declared her intentions to not pay 60 percent of her 1963 income taxes due to the Vietnam War.
Several events that followed in quick succession afterward, including the refusal to pay the 10 percent telephone tax and the organizing of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest. rose the number of protesters from a handful to tens of thousands.
During this time, a popular method of protesting was inflating the number of dependents on the W-4 form. This led to 16 indictments and six convictions for tax fraud.
In 1972, the openly socialist Rep. Ron Dellums (D. Calif) introduced the World Peace Tax Fund Act to Congress, which offered conscientious objector status to taxpayers. Though rejected, the bill has been introduced into every Congress since.
In response to Reagan’s call to “re-arm America,” tax resisters’ number tripled after a steady decline between 1978 and 1981, according to the IRS. In 1981, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle called for all Americans to pay only 50 percent of their income tax, in protest to the nuclear proliferation. This stand was reverberated with other religious figures throughout the country.
From 1990 to 1993, the Alternate Revenue Service was developed by the War Resisters League and co-sponsored by the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) and the Conscience and Military Tax Campaign. In one tax season, more than $105,000 was collected and redirected to not-for-profit groups.
Today, the more than 20 People’s Life Funds — which hold resisted tax funds and makes it available to community groups, national war tax resistance organizations and local war tax resistance organizations — base their resistance on the military allocation of the national budget for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, which is based at $1.3 trillion for fiscal years 2001 through 2011 for Pentagon war appropriations and between $1.9 trillion and $2.7 trillion in other war costs, according to costofwar.org.
Most resisters refuse to pay a token amount that represents the “military portion” of their income tax, or may refuse to pay the due percentage (according to warresisters.org, 29 percent of income tax goes to the current military’s activities — 3.1 percent of the budget being allocated to the wars alone — and 18 percent to paying off past military activity).
Others file a blank 1040 with a letter of dissent attached or just don’t file at all. Others artificially inflate their dependents on their W-4. As reported on the NWTRCC webpage, in 1972, Lyle Snider claimed 3 billion dependents — the entire human population at that time — on his W-4. He explained that he felt that the world counted on him not to pay his taxes. He was arrested for defrauding the government, convicted and sentenced to 9 months in prison. His case was overturned a year later, mostly because the appellate judge felt an exaggeration that grand could not be reasonably believed.
What to make of all of this?
There is not one standard approach to war tax resisting; the method a person chooses to do this reflects the person’s values and approach on life. A person who would avoid taxes by making less than the federal income threshold is basically a different person than one who would simply not pay taxes.
A person who withholds “the military’s cut” but pays the rest of his bill is fundamentally different from a person who withholds all because he rejects all government spending. All people rebel in their own way, and this is no different.
But, in appreciating this trend and the inherent dangers those who do this embrace — including a tenfold frivolous penalty (from $500 to $5,000), striking the requirement for employers to submit W-4s for employees claiming 10 or more dependents and increased non-filers prioritization) — one should consider a quote from Albert Camus, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
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