Lee Gough won’t be paying her federal income taxes this year.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the artist and part-time temp worker won’t be setting money aside for April 15th – just that the federal government won’t be getting any of it. The 37-year old Brooklynite has decided to make 2004 the year that she takes a stand, a move she’s been working towards for some time now. “I’ve asked the temp agency to increase the number of allowances on my W-4 form, and when I had unemployment I told them not to take any taxes out,” she says. “I’ve also stopped paying the federal excise tax on my phone bill, and when tax time comes along, I’ll take the $13 I’ve collected and redirect it to a more worthy cause.”
Lee is part of a small but dedicated group of Americans known as war tax resisters, people who refuse to pay all or part of their taxes to avoid feeding a war machine they believe has grown out of control. Whether by withholding a symbolic amount, reducing their income to below the federal filing level, or refusing payment altogether, tax resisters hope to slow U.S. government spending on militarism by cutting off its funding at the source, an act many feel is among the most pure forms of direct action available to them. According to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), anywhere from two to ten thousand people nationwide may be dedicated war tax resisters, while thousands more are likely engaged in lesser, more symbolic resistance.
And not without good reason. According to the War Resisters League, the long-standing pacifist organization, nearly one-half of all government spending goes for the express purpose of supporting military activities, while less than a third is spent on social programs. Each year, the League calculates what portion of the federal income tax collected goes to the military, and for the 2005 budget a full 49% is earmarked for past and current military purposes, up from 47% the year before. And, of course, that doesn’t include the unknown costs of current activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
War tax resistance has a long and distinguished history in the United States, ranging from colonial Quakers, who refused to pay taxes during the American Revolution, and author Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail rather than pay a Massachusetts poll tax that generated funds for the Mexican-American war, to more recent war tax resisters such as Gloria Steinem, Joan Baez, and Noam Chomsky. Currently, there are about 50 or 60 local groups spread across the country supporting the movement in one way or another, such as the inter-faith social outreach program Fellowship of Reconciliation, the National Campaign for Peace Tax Fund, and the Mennonite Central Committee, an arm of the North American Mennonite Church.
“The basic idea behind refusal is that the government doesn’t demand anything else of us in support of a war and the growing military-industrial complex other than to pay taxes,” explains Karl Meyer, a longtime war tax resister and political activist who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “No draft, no demand that we vote – in fact, the only thing they demand of us in support of militarism is to pay our taxes. So if we want to show that we don’t support what they’re doing, we have no choice but to refuse.”
Ruth Benn, who serves as the one-person Brooklyn office for NWTRCC, says there’s currently a wide range in the types of citizens who engage in resistance. “There’s everybody from anarchists to lawyer types,” she says. The most common method of resistance is refusal to pay the federal telephone excise tax, which was created in 1898 as a means to raise taxes to finance the Spanish-American War and expanded by President Johnson in 1966 to support the Viet Nam conflict. The phone tax, which drops about $6 billion dollars a year into the federal treasury, is among the most painless ways to resist resistance, primarily because of the bureaucratic gray area between whose job it really is to collect the taxes – the phone companies or the Internal Revenue Service. The relative lack of risk that comes from resisting in this manner makes it a popular option for some resisters. “We encourage people interested (in resisting) to start there,” she says.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is well-known activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who last year publicly refused to turn over $150,000 claimed by the government as tax due on an out-of-court settlement arising from the unauthorized usage of her likeness. Hill, the 30-year-old Californian best known for living in the branches of a 1,000 year-old Redwood tree for more than two years to keep it from being cut down, says the decision was a difficult one, despite her stated intention of turning every penny of the settlement she received over to social and environmental causes she champions. “I knew if I did this,” she said, “it could affect the rest of my life. I struggled with taking this stand for quite a while – since I’m a public figure, it could have easily made me a target.
“When the first bombs were dropped in Iraq, I was out in the streets,” she recalled. “I was out protesting. But I was already struggling with whether or not I had to pay, even though my lawyers said I had no choice. But then I realized: how many of us out here on the streets are going to go back to our regular lives and feed this system when we’re done? I knew then that I couldn’t support the same system I was protesting.”
Despite recently receiving the first of what may be many letters from the IRS resulting form her decision, Julia says she’s made up her mind for life. “As long as our government uses our money to pay for war on the planet and war on people,” she says, “I refuse them the right to any money that I make.”
Cases like Hill's point up the unswerving commitment and conviction war tax resistance often requires. “I think war tax refusal is part of a larger piece of resistance, which is to form a counter-cultural lifestyle,” says Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, which engages in direct action with civilians in Iraq and a long-time tax resister. “Once you get into the war tax refusal, if you’re really serious about making sure the IRS never gets the money, then you really have to tailor your lifestyle,” she adds, “but it’s a tailoring I would recommend to anyone if they’re pretty sure they know about the direction their life is heading and they’re going to stick with it.”
For Lee Gough, the decision came to a head last year, when her brother, Daniel, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, wrote a letter to his commanding officer declaring his status as a conscientious objector. After nearly a decade of service, including weapons training on a guided missile destroyer, the widely respected 35-year old had begun to re-examine some basic assumptions, especially in light of the invasion of Iraq and questions from his 4-year-old daughter about what he did for a living. After being initially refused, Daniel declared his status a second time a year later before being allowed to resign his commission in October of 2003.
In the face of her brother’s courage, Lee went looking for ways to live her own life more intentionally, and with greater purpose. “War tax resistance has come to be a way to exert my own personal power, which I believe no one can take away from me,” she says. “Just like declaring conscientious objector status when you are in the military, war tax resistance is not something some one is going to give you. It’s a power you’re going to have to assume for yourself.”
It’s given me a feeling of having much more control over my consciousness and how I live,” she says. “When you are tax resister, you know where your money is going. That’s important to me.”
Mark Anderson is based in Chicago. Visit him at http://www.thesentimentalist.com/.
Lee Gough won’t be paying her federal income taxes this year.