Protecting war tax resistance strengthens antiwar movement

Peter Smith carries a check representing redirected war taxes in a demonstration accompanying the NWTRCC national gathering in Asheville, North Carolina, in May 2013. (WNV/Ruth Benn)

Peter Smith carries a check representing redirected war taxes in a demonstration accompanying the NWTRCC national gathering in Asheville, North Carolina, in May 2013. (WNV/Ruth Benn)

The thing about the 1 percent is that we outnumber them. They don’t have enough jail cells to lock us all down. They ought to be terrified. But what they lack in numbers they make up for in craftiness. They don’t have to go after all of us: If they target a few, the rest lose courage and fall back in line.

But this only works if we fail to organize creatively. With a well-run mutual aid program, if the government targets someone, the rest of us make sure that person doesn’t bear the brunt alone. One example is the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund, which has been protecting U.S. war tax resisters from the IRS since 1982.

Peter Smith is on the fund’s steering committee. A retired math professor from South Bend, Indiana, where he runs the St. Augustine Soup Kitchen, he has an infectious, elfin smile that bursts through a long white beard. You probably wouldn’t guess from looking at him that he was once an ROTC student who pulled his opinions from the John Birch Society.

“I wasn’t a gung-ho military person at any time,” Smith explained, “but I also wasn’t opposed. I grew up Catholic and I was involved with the Knights of Columbus who were really supportive of the Vietnam War. I didn’t get anything in my background that would indicate to me that there was anything wrong with war, and I never thought about the death and destruction that it caused.”

From college, Smith embarked on a four-year Navy stint, assigned to a destroyer in the west Pacific. Afterwards, inspired by Martin Luther King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his arguments for Christian pacifism and nonviolent resistance, Smith turned his back on the military. He began to counsel men on how to avoid the draft and, in 1969, he started refusing to pay part of his federal income taxes.

He has been refusing ever since. “I don’t keep the money,” Smith said. “I send it to organizations that I know are going to be helping people. I end up paying the whole tax, but I don’t pay it to the government.”

Smith doesn’t understand why more antiwar activists don’t join him. “It just seems so obvious … if you’re against war you shouldn’t pay for it. The IRS is kind of a scary institution and I guess people feel like they don’t want to mess with it.”

Many people think if you refuse to pay taxes you’ll end up behind bars, but this is actually very rare. Of the tens of thousands of people who have resisted war taxes over the past 75 years, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, or NWTRCC, knows of only 30 who have done time.

Although Smith has refused to pay for over 40 years, he said he’s never faced jail or criminal charges because of it. “The IRS would just as soon collect the money and sock you with fines and interest,” he said.

That’s where the Penalty Fund comes in. It fully reimburses resisters for penalties and interest, thereby taking the sting out of IRS reprisals.

The IRS often fails to collect penalties, interest, or anything at all from determined resisters. Some resisters live lives of voluntary simplicity and have nothing for the IRS to seize (or owe no income tax in the first place). Others hide their assets. And sometimes the IRS drops the ball and lets the statute of limitations expire without attempting to collect. An informal poll at a national gathering of resisters in 2011 found that the IRS had taken only about a quarter of the hundreds of thousands of dollars those resisters had refused to pay over the years.

peter smith San Diego 2014

Peter Smith at the NWTRCC national gathering in San Diego, California, in 2014. (WNV/Ed Hedemann)

But not everyone is so lucky. Smith says the IRS took just about everything they wanted from him — garnishing his salary and seizing money from his bank and retirement accounts: over $100,000 in all. If you’re unlucky you’re also on the hook for penalties (which can eventually climb to 25 percent of what you refuse to pay) and interest. For example, if you refused to pay $6,000 in federal income tax when you filed your return in 2014, by the following April, at the interest rates operative at that time, the IRS would have added another $600, and the amount would continue to climb from there. Smith said “many folks find that the penalties and interest sometimes accumulate almost as much as the original principal that the IRS said they owed.”

Shulamith Eagle, a war tax resister from Middlebury, Vermont, who is on the fund’s steering committee, says that support from people who believe in her stand strengthens her resolve in the face of these IRS reprisals. “Some of us can’t afford the financial penalties of tax refusal,” she said. “With the penalty fund, we can afford this type of protest because we’ll end up paying only the actual tax owed.”

Eagle says the fund reminds her of the South African tradition of stokvel — or small mutual savings and investment programs — held by Christian congregations that organize mutual aid health insurance, and also of more spontaneous generosity. “Look at what happens when there is a weather or illness tragedy and it’s publicized — money pours in from everywhere,” she said. “Human beings are very generous people, and are willing to sacrifice where ethical protest is involved.”

When people tell Smith that they admire his stand and wish they had the courage to do it, he tells them to subscribe to the fund. That way they can help other resisters until they work up the courage to do it themselves. “You don’t have to be a war tax resister to support people,” he said. “Anybody who wants to can sign up to help, and it’s easy to do.”

A survey of fund contributors found that many were not tax resisters. “Some people, because of family responsibilities or other reasons, can’t [resist],” Eagle said. “This way they can participate indirectly. It’s a blessing to help other people work to change things that must be changed, whether directly or indirectly. People said this over and over in their answers to the survey.”

And it’s a legal way to help people who are willing to risk civil disobedience, according to Peter Goldberger, an attorney who specializes in war tax resistance cases. “The penalty fund runs as a sort of insurance plan,” he said. “I can’t think of any way it would be illegal — either a violation of tax law or of criminal law — to plan to mitigate the consequences of other folks’ getting into trouble for their own choices. There have long been ‘bail funds’ that crowd-source getting poor people or arrested demonstrators out of jail, for example, and folks that pay the criminal fines of others who are arrested for civil disobedience that the funders support in principle.”

The fund has about 220 subscribers and it issues appeals a couple of times a year, asking subscribers to contribute about $30 apiece. Each person who applies for reimbursement provides IRS transcripts — showing the amount that was collected and how much came from interest and penalties — and also some evidence that they resisted taxes because of their conscientious objection to war.

“As of now we have been able to pretty much reimburse everybody for what they have asked for,” Smith said. The fund struggles more to find resisters to reimburse than to find money. Smith stresses that you don’t have to be a subscriber to apply for reimbursement: you just have to be a war tax resister who has lost interest and penalties to the IRS.

Encouraging resisters to ask for reimbursements is one challenge the fund faces. Recruiting subscribers is another. “We use word of mouth and tabling at NWTRCC meetings and other conferences,” Smith said. There’s also some drudgery involved: Someone has to maintain the database of subscribers. Sending appeals — a process that still relies mostly on snail-mail — is time-consuming. But their hard work means the government has to work harder to discourage war tax resisters. Hitting a few resisters with fines and penalties will not be enough to scare them off.

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