February 15, 2008
For the past three decades, retired social worker and lifelong peace activist Esther Kisamore has received threatening phone calls and letters from the Internal Revenue Service because she refuses to pay federal income taxes and federal excise taxes on her telephone bills.
Lawyer Bill Durland and his wife, Genie, have appeared in tax court numerous times since the 1970s and last year had their Social Security checks garnished by the IRS. Psychologist Donna Johnson had two houses seized and eventually returned. The Colorado Springs residents were aware of such possible consequences when they deliberately snubbed tax time — not to have extra money in their pockets and not because they don’t believe the government should tax citizens. They don’t want their taxes used to fund military spending and war efforts. The Bush administration has received or requested $624 billion for the Iraq war from 2002 to 2009, according to this week’s Senate committee hearing on the Department of Defense’s 2009 fiscal year budget. And that doesn’t sit well with war tax resisters. “Some people look at this as screwing the government, but there’s a philosophy — we don’t want our tax money to go to war,” Kisamore said. She and Peter Haney, director of dynamic peacemaking at the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, will lead a workshop Sunday on the history, theory and practice of war tax resistance. The local organization promotes social and economic justice, nonviolence and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. “It is an individual act of moral conscience,” Haney said. “In Colorado Springs close to 50 percent of our primary employment comes from military bases and defense contractors, so we’re so reliant on the federal dole, yet many of us have a frontier mentality to be independent and self-reliant.” Not paying taxes as a form of protest against government policies has been practiced for centuries. In 1197, for example, St. Hugh of Lincoln refused to pay a tax to pay for King Richard the Lionhearted’s war against the king of France. His property was seized. Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the interest in war tax resistance has been revived, said Ed Hedemann, an organizer with the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, based in New York City. “We know of people in all 50 states doing it, and we’re seeing a trend toward people who are not the typical peace activist getting involved because the popularity of the war is waning.” The organization estimates that each year at least 10,000 Americans refuse to pay all or some of their federal income taxes over objection to military spending. The IRS does not know how many Americans do not file income taxes, or keep track of the reasons people do not pay their taxes, said Jean Carl, spokeswoman in the Denver IRS office. War tax resisters are just one kind of tax protester — others refuse to pay taxes because they believe the system is unfair, unconstitutional, invalid or voluntary. Not filing tax returns or paying taxes can result in audits, liens and seizures of assets and wages, Carl said, and possible imprisonment. Hedemann said although property seizure and imprisonment aren’t unheard of for tax resisters, such actions are rare. “We’re not advocating fraud — we do this on principle,” he said. “We’re up front about challenging not the tax system itself but how the money is being spent.” There are several ways to be a war tax resister. The most common method, Hedemann said, is to file a 1040 tax return and withhold a percentage equal to the percentage the federal government spends on defense and military, past and present. His organization estimates that to be about 50 percent. Most war tax resisters send a letter to the IRS, explaining that they oppose war and don’t want to pay for it, said Durland, whose tax stance stems from being a Quaker. Some do not file tax returns, or file a return but do not pay anything, or earn a wage below the taxable amount, which for a single person under age 65 is $8,750 for the 2007 tax year. Some resisters increase payroll exemptions so they don’t have as much deducted from their paychecks for taxes, Kisamore said. Many also boycott paying federal excise tax on telephone bills, which had raised money to pay for wars and now goes into the general federal budget. Before Johnson reduced her income to below the taxable rate, she paid half of what she owed in federal income taxes. Her first house was seized by the IRS for nonpayment of the phone excise tax, about $7. She eventually got the house and another one back, and the $200,000 she owed in taxes and liens on her property were released after a statute of limitations ran out. “You just stand up and say ‘I’m not willing to pay even though you threaten me,’” Johnson said. War tax resisters also are encouraged to not keep the money that would have gone to the government. In the past, Johnson launched 100 helium balloons, each containing a $10 bill and a note about what she was doing. She’s also given away her tax liability to day laborers. Most war tax resisters “redirect” the would-be tax money to nonprofit organizations they support. “You have to do a lot of soulsearching and know where you’re at with your conscience and what you’re willing to risk,” Kisamore said.