By Susan Van Haitsma
Not one more death. Not one more dollar.
Dollars and death are connected in more ways than one. The old adage claims that death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but it is the connection between taxes and death that is the real certainty.
The grinding machinery of war needs fuel: soldiers and money. A majority of Americans indicate they want the machine to stop. Parents and students, veterans and military families are working together to withhold human resources from the war. Cindy Sheehan has movingly expressed the ways that one death has been one too many.
But what happens when the majority of Americans want war to stop, and the money to wage it keeps flowing in? Larger bonuses are used to lure enlistees, and more military services are performed by expensive contract labor. The machine rolls on.
What happens when wage earners get together and withhold their financial resources from the war? The amount of money diverted from death to life may be small in the face of the huge US military budget, but the challenge to the system is great. Somehow, when someone says, â€œNot with my money,â€ and backs it up with the open civil disobedience of war tax refusal, eyes open wider. â€œYou can do that?â€ Yes, we can and do. WWII conscientious objector and civil rights Freedom Rider, Wally Nelson, carried his well-used sign, â€œHavenâ€™t paid taxes since 1948,â€ up through his last demonstration at age 93. â€œSay yes to no,â€ he would say with a smile.
Wally Nelsonâ€™s widow, activist and writer, Juanita Nelson, was not the only octogenarian among the war tax resisters who met recently in Brooklyn, NY for a conference of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), a network of groups and individuals around the USA. Nor was Lincoln Rice of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker the only attendee in his 20â€™s. But, as we stretched ourselves into a human timeline according to the decade during which we began war tax refusal, the largest groupings were in the middle decades of the 1970â€™s and â€˜80â€™s.
War tax resistance reached its peak of activity during the Indochina War, with several hundred thousand phone tax resisters and some 20,000 income tax resisters openly redirecting some or all of their federal taxes. A number of well-known figures publicly joined the ranks of war tax refusers, including Joan Baez in 1964 and a group of over 500 writers and editors by 1967. Long-time activist Brad Lyttle, on hand from Chicago for the recent Brooklyn conference, was the first coordinator of National War Tax Resistance (WTR) when it was formally launched in December, 1969 during a New York City press conference that included Allen Ginsberg and Pete
By 1972 there were 192 local WTR chapters across the country.
In 1975, WTR was laid down, and NWTRCC was formed seven years later in response to the growing military budget of the Reagan era. Currently, NWTRCC is comprised of some 40 affiliate groups with area contacts in as many states.
Most war tax resisters consider themselves conscientious objectors. One of Juanita and Wally Nelsonâ€™s public statements about their resistance read, â€œWe hope our actions have some effect. But, in any case, simply in order to justify our humanity, we must persist in our attempt to make action serve belief.â€ Conscientious objection invites a paradox that has been expressed eloquently by soldiers-turned-conscientious objectors like Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman; taking an intensely personal, often lonely stand based on oneâ€™s conscience makes one feel more deeply connected to all humanity.
Connection with one another is an important aspect of the war tax resistance movement. Peter Goldberger, long-time lawyer advocate for war tax resisters, spoke during the Brooklyn conference to stress the value of the â€œbig tentâ€ of NWTRCC. He believes that the openness and transparency of a shared public witness offers a protective force. War tax resisters tend to be willing to discuss publicly what our society tends to consider private matters: personal income and expenses, financial assets, and our deepest moral and ethical beliefs about life and death.
One focus of the recent NWTRCC gathering involved outreach to young people. A young resister described the anxiety she felt early on about how she would plan for the next 40 to 50 years of life as a war tax resister. She found the prospect rather daunting. Older war tax resisters responded reassuringly that we can take things only one step at a time. Some resisters take the opportunity to reevaluate their situation every year, and many revise their method of refusal over time. In fact, many war tax resisters feel that one of the lessons learned is to live more by faith, trusting that each dayâ€™s needs will be met. It is a lesson that contradicts the value placed in this country on long-term personal security and financial investment.
War tax resisters have become active in the counter-recruitment movement. Juanita Nelson, who is invited into school classrooms, counsels us to be sure to talk to students about our war tax resistance. Even for students who are not yet confronted with paying taxes, she believes it is important to plant the seeds of resistance. â€œIn a way, we cheat them if we donâ€™t talk about it!â€ she says.
A joint effort of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Center on Conscience & War is the â€œI Will Not Killâ€ campaign, which educates young people about the concept of conscientious objection. The http://www.iwillnotkill.org web site features inspiring photographs of young people holding their I Will Not Kill pledge cards. At the close of the NWTRCC conference, we gathered for a photograph of our own: all ages standing behind a banner that read, â€œWe Will Not Kill, And We Will Not Pay for Killing.â€ We stood under a tent that could grow big enough to hold every taxpayer whose dollars were not meant for death.
Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation, a NWTRCC affiliate (www.nwtrcc.org)