Tax resisters try to skirt paying to support war
By Peter Hirschfeld
Staff Writer | February 19,2006
MONTPELIER – Anti-war activist Linda Leehman refuses to put her money where her mouth is. And that's the whole point.
By withholding about 50 percent of her federal tax bill, Leehman says she at least partially washes her hands of the blood spilled in U.S.-waged military operations.
"It's a deeply moral and spiritual decision when you decide that killing is wrong," Leehman, a 31-year tax resister, told about a dozen other people gathered in the basement of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library on Saturday. "I believe that war is murder. … And I have to insist on my moral right to not connect myself (financially) with what I believe is truly insane and truly abhorrent."
Her remarks came during a workshop for central Vermont residents looking to find out more about tax resistance. The movement isn't a new one. Thoreau, in his landmark 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience," said, "If a thousand people were not to pay their tax bills, that would be not as violent and bloody a measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood."
For Plainfield resident Lori Barg, another tax-resistance expert offering advice Saturday, Thoreau's stance against the Spanish-American War retains its relevance 157 years later.
"What's one bullet cost? A nickel? A dime?" Barg said, as she recounted a meeting she had with a Central American woman whose son had been killed by a bullet fired by a U.S. soldier. "Since there's no draft for women, the only way for me to be resistant was to not pay for war.
"As horrible as I feel when I read the news, one really wonderful thing about being a tax resister is I can say, 'I didn't buy that bullet.' And that makes me happy."
Tax resistance doesn't generate the attention of loud rallies on public greens. But for Barg and Leehman, and the estimated 10,000 other war tax resisters nationwide (according to a 1990 study by the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee), obstructing the flow of money to a government at war is among the more meaningful contributions someone can make to an anti-war effort.
Tax resistance isn't for the casual pacifist. The consequences can be severe, and investigations by the Internal Revenue Service can result in fines, interest penalties, wage garnishing and, in some cases, seizure of property.
"The fear is there," Leehman says. "You're doing something that may have consequences."
Varying forms of tax resistance carry varying degrees of consequence. A common and relatively safe strategy is withholding the 3 percent federal excise tax levied on telephone bills. About half that money goes to the defense budget, Barg says. Another low-risk method is simply keeping your income below the level at which the federal government begins to require taxes. With the help of an accountant, Barg said she has kept her annual income below that threshold.
Other resisters are bolder. Leehman, whose taxes are withheld by her employer, claimed more dependents than legally allowed, thereby preventing the government from taking its full legal share of earned income. She ends up paying about half the taxes she actually owes. Leehman also publicizes her protest by writing letters to her congressmen, local newspapers and the IRS.
Tax resisters generally contribute their unpaid taxes either to nonprofits or escrow accounts that stipulate release of the funds to the federal government when it makes assurances that the money won't go to defense spending. The range of tax-resisting options is available at the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee Web site at www.nwtrcc.org.
Some people at Saturday's workshop were looking for ways to minimize their financial contribution to policies they do not agree with, while avoiding legal backlash. Conscientious objectors in the military can be reassigned to non-combat jobs, but civilian taxpayers don't have a system through which to avoid financing the violent acts they philosophically oppose.
"I'm not in a position to get my income small enough to get out of the tax game, and I'm not ready to take on the IRS," one man said. He said he was intrigued by the idea of "token" resistance, whereby a movement could organize millions to withhold a small amount from their tax bills so as to make a statement that might resonate with the government. "It's a small action that if enough people do hopefully it would make a difference."
For those looking to withhold the military portion of their taxes, there's little reason to believe the money they do send will go exclusively to non-defense expenditures. And that's the snag for those like Leehman. She recognizes that despite her effort, she continues to help buy bullets and bombs as well as benefit from policies she believes hurt other people.
"I'm complicit," she says, "and there's nothing I can do to avoid complicity with some of the destructive things going on in our name."
For Lea Wood, an 89-year-old World War II veteran arrested just this week at an anti-war rally in Barre, tax resistance is "another piece" in her effort to subvert her government's military policies.
"People will say, 'I'm only one person, what I do is so little,'" Wood says. "But when water drops on a stone long enough, the stone wears away. Eventually it has a cumulative effect. And tax resistance is one way to achieve that effect."