Conscientious tax resisters say they won’t fund war
Ed Hedemann has not paid any federal income tax since 1970 and has no intention of starting this April. The avuncular peace activist says he owes the government $70,000--a sum worth several cluster bombs at $14,000 each and dozens of $9 hand grenades. Instead, he donated the money to Global Exchange, American Friends Service Committee and other humanitarian efforts.
The 62-year-old mild-mannered pacifist says he sleeps better knowing his tax dollars are redirected to peaceful causes. “I run a risk of getting in trouble for not paying my taxes, but not as big a risk as the people of Iraq will suffer if I do pay,” said Hedemann, a freelance photographer and writer in Brooklyn.
Conscientious war objectors from the Vietnam era like Hedemann represent the cerebral wing of the anti-war movement--protesters who take their campaigns from the streets into the solitude of their homes and the privacy of their bank accounts. Tax resisters say their ranks are increasing as discontent over the war in Iraq grows. The U.S. Treasury Department doesn’t track the reasons why people refuse to pay their taxes, so whether the number of war tax resisters is swelling or stagnant is difficult to determine.
Hedemann, the author of “War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support From the Military,” helped found the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) in 1982 to provide information and support to people considering war tax resistance.
The committee estimates that 51 percent of 2008 federal taxes will go toward the military; the U.S. Office of Management and Budget puts the number closer to 21 percent.
The committee urges people to protest the war by refusing to pay anywhere from a dollar to their entire federal income tax bill. “If enough people participated you could really cripple the government,” said Hedemann, who estimates that at least 2 percent of taxpayers would need to become resisters. Bruce Friedland, an IRS spokesman, declined to comment on how many tax-withholding citizens it would take to put a crimp in military actions.
These determined pacifists believe their cause is catching the eye of war-weary Americans. Hedemann points to the rising number of hits on the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee’s Web site (nwtrcc.org) since President Bush spoke about a troop escalation in Iraq.
Anti-war sentiment is not a legitimate reason to not pay taxes, the IRS says. “No law, including the Internal Revenue Code, permits a taxpayer to avoid or evade tax obligations on the grounds that the taxpayer does not agree with the government's use of the taxes collected," said IRS spokesman Eric Smith.
But that doesn’t mean the tax man is quick to haul protesters off to jail. Conscientious tax resisters usually receive form letters from the IRS demanding payment for back taxes, penalties and interest.
Hedemann says he’s been receiving such letters for years, but has had an IRS representative knock on his door only five times in his life. “Once, I tried telling him about the federal pie chart and where his money was going, but he didn’t seem interested,” Hedemann said.
There are no constitutional, federal or tax laws that protect conscientious objectors, according to Peter Goldberger, a criminal defense lawyer near Philadelphia who has represented a dozen war tax resisters. But the resisters rarely receive any jail time because “the IRS doesn't have the resources to enforce the law and their priorities are going after those with a lot of money,” Goldberger said. “These people are not wealthy or greedy.”
He added that the IRS is wary of pressing charges because “the publicity these cases generate usually makes conscientious tax resisters sympathetic” and “they’re not tax cheats.”
These pacifists are inspired by writer Henry David Thoreau, who refused to finance slavery and the Mexican-American War in 1847 by withholding his poll tax.
In the past 60 years, there were only 45 IRS court actions against war tax resisters, Goldberger said. Most resisters have been hauled into court either for not cooperating with the government by refusing to hand over records or, during the height of Vietnam War protests in the early 1970s, because they fraudulently altered their W-4 forms. Only one war tax resister--James Otsuka in 1949--was ever charged with not paying taxes, according to the War Resistance League.
Hedemann was prosecuted eight years ago for refusing to divulge financial information to IRS investigators. Goldberger, who is Hedemann's lawyer, successfully argued that complying with the government would violate his client’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. The anti-war activist is so dedicated to his cause that he lives on the brink of poverty; he doesn’t own a home, car or bank account for fear the IRS will seize his assets.
“I don’t want to finance this country’s war-making machine,” Hedemann said.
Many war tax resisters object to military spending on religious grounds. Robin Harper, a Quaker and war tax resister, says he sends the IRS a letter each year that states: “The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees me the right to practice my religion freely, and I choose not to kill or pay others to take human life.”
Karl Meyer, a self-employed carpenter in Nashville, Tenn., said, “If I send $1,000 to DC, I doubt 10 cents would go to direct services.” But, he said, “If I send it to the Catholic Worker community, the whole $1,000 will go to the hungry and poor. The logic is crushing and overwhelming.”
One reason why the war tax resistance movement is mainly restricted to the Vietnam-era generation is because younger people don’t yet earn enough money to pay taxes.
But some college-age peaceniks are skeptical that withholding taxes would actually stop bombs from falling. “I think any form of resistance is good, but clearly withholding taxes is not historically the way wars have ended,” said Jared Rodriguez, 25, a student at the City University of New York and a member of Military Families Speak Out, an organization opposed to the Iraq war.
Conscientious tax resisters point out that tax resistance goes back to the American Revolution, but they agree it hasn’t been a popular form of pacifism recently. “Even at the height of the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War, tax objection wasn’t the main form of resistance,” said Dennis Dalton, a Barnard College politics professor who gives the federal portion of his tax bill to nonprofits. “But if tax resistance could be achieved on a large scale, it would be the most effective form of resisting a government that is waging an unjust war.”