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A Tax Day Confessional from a Failed Tax Protester

Every April, as income-tax returns come due, I think about the day 30 years ago when I opened my rented mailbox and saw a business card resting inside. Its first line read, innocently enough, “United States Treasury.” It was the second line — “Internal Revenue Service” — that took my breath away. That card belonged to an IRS revenue agent and scrawled across it in blue ink was the message: “Call me.”

I’d used that mailbox as my address on the last tax return I’d filed, eight years earlier. Presumably, the agent thought she’d be visiting my home when she appeared at the place where I rented a mailbox, which, as I would discover, was the agency’s usual first step in running down errant taxpayers. Hands shaking, I put a quarter in a pay phone and called my partner. “What’s going to happen to us?” I asked her.

Resisting War Taxes

I knew that the IRS wasn’t visiting me as part of an audit of my returns, since I hadn’t filed any for eight years. My partner and I were both informal tax resisters — she, ever since joining the pacifist Catholic Worker organization; and I, ever since I’d returned from Nicaragua in 1984. I’d spent six months traveling that country’s war zones as a volunteer with Witness for Peace. My work involved recording the testimony of people who had survived attacks by the “Contras,” the counterrevolutionary forces opposing the leftist Sandinista government then in power (after a popular uprising deposed the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza). At the time, the Contras were being illegally supported by the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

With training and guidance from the CIA, they were using a military strategy based on terrorizing civilians in the Nicaraguan countryside. Their targets included newly built schools, clinics, roads, and phone lines — anything the revolutionary government had, in fact, achieved — along with the campesinos (the families of subsistence farmers) who used such things. Contra attacks very often involved torture: flaying people alive, severing body parts, cutting open the wombs of pregnant women. Nor were such acts mere aberrations. They were strategic choices made by a force backed and directed by the United States.

When I got back to the United States, I simply couldn’t imagine paying taxes to subsidize the murder of people in another country, some of whom I knew personally. I continued working, first as a bookkeeper, then at a feminist bookstore, and eventually at a foundation. But with each new employer, on my W-4 form I would claim that I expected to owe no taxes that year, so the IRS wouldn’t take money out of my paycheck. And I stopped filing tax returns.

Not paying taxes for unjust wars has a long history in this country. It goes back at least to Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay them to support the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). His act of resistance landed him in jail for a night and led him to write On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, dooming generations of high-school students to reading the ruminations of a somewhat self-satisfied tax resister. Almost a century later, labor leader and pacifist A.J. Muste revived Thoreau’s tradition, once even filing a copy of the Duty of Civil Disobedience in place of his Form 1040. After supporting textile factory workers in their famous 1919 strike in Lowell, Massachusetts, and some 20 years later helping form and run the Amalgamated Textile Workers of America (where my mother once worked as a labor organizer), Muste eventually came to serve on the board of the War Resisters League (WRL).

Read entire article at TomDispatch