National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee

New England Gathering of War Tax Resisters and Supporters • October 26–28, 2012

Transcript of Friday night panel, “Does WTR Have a Political Future?”

Larry Rosenwald wrote a position paper in advance that inspired some of the comments below.

Ed Agro, Boston

Larry Rosenwald and I kicked around the idea that we would come to this meeting and argue from different sides of this issue of tax resistance of the future. Larry couldn’t be here and sent me a copy of this [document]. Much to my surprise when I read it, his standpoint expressed there is exactly like mine so I don’t know how we could argue about it. The only difference between us is that Larry is kind of down in the mouth about this, about the possibility that war tax refusal may not be functional anymore at least as an act of resistance.

I don’t think it’s a melancholy statement. It gives a lot of ways that we can think about making WTR appropriate to the social and political situation in which we have to do the resistance. Instead of going through the long theory, I’ll just give you my little story.

I came into WTR a long time ago as what I call a secular resister. It’s not a very good term, but I distinguish that from the folks that come in from a pre-understood and from deep moral principles. I don’t disagree with those at all, but I came into from a much simple standpoint. There was a war going on, it was wrong. I felt in my gut it had to be resisted and by resisted I meant stopped. The people that came into it with me at that time, we were by and large secular resisters. It was in the air. At that time if you were against the war you were practically a war tax resister. It was not an exotic thing, so we did it.

Now, it seems it is not in the air and younger people when they first become cognizant of the place of war and militarism in our society and their relation to it, they think about ways to resist. And one of the things they don’t think about, in my experience, is war tax resistance. I’ve been thinking about that, and what does that mean?

Now, I’ve been taken with this idea of the arc of a tax resister’s life. It’s like you become a TR with certain strongly held ideas and even principles. And as you go along, it’s inevitable that as time changes and you learn more and you learn about the complexity of the society we are living in. Like when I started war was the problem, war was the thing to be stopped. I don’t believe that anymore. I think that war is one of the symptoms of something much, much deeper in our society. So it makes my connection, my original connection with WTR, which was like all kids, “this is going to change the world!” I don’t believe that now. It’s part of what we are going to do. It’s something that if it fits, we do it, but if it doesn’t fit, WTR to me is not an expression of my deepest held beliefs, it’s related to my deepest held beliefs, but I’m not interested in using WTR to express my moral structure. I’m comfortable with my moral structure, but the important thing is to stop war, to stop those things in our human existence that make war inevitable. It’s a tool, and if the tool doesn’t fit the work you can give up the tool and not feel bad about it.

Now here’s how it’s worked for me. When I started I had a good deal of money. In those days resistance made sense to me because the powers that be took notice of it. They were worried about it and we knew that because they gave us hell. “A guy’s coming over from the FBI today. Come on in, let me give you grief.” That’s what I liked in those days and it was fine because we had a sense that the state (I don’t like to use the word “state” because in my mind we’re the state; this is still a working democracy), but the powers that be were reacting to us.

Now just like with the draft resistance movement, we thought the draft resistance movement would stop wars, but it didn’t because the powers that be saw what we were doing, saw what was happening, and they’re not dumb, they learned how to work around it. So what happens? We don’t have a draft any more. We have a smaller army that is less expensive and it is far more lethal. Draft resistance was very good at one time, but it’s not going to work in the way we thought it was going to work now. Times change.

I think that the social and political climate right now is not friendly to tax resistance. What we [older activists] need is to pass WTR on to younger people who understand the climate they are working in better than we do. I don’t feel so bad that my tax resistance now, for various reasons, is only telephone tax resistance. It wouldn’t matter if I had more money to refuse, because in fact the powers that be don’t pay attention to us. They can run their wars without our money. They are doing it now. The proof of that is they could care less whether I’m refusing taxes. So the IRS maybe sometimes takes some money. I’ve been begging them to take my pittance of telephone tax. Every time I write to them with my little 25 words or less, “this is what I’m pissed off about this month” — the war in Afghanistan the first month, the prison system the next month, it’s nuclear weapons the next month… But that’s because the war is like everything else, part of a big system. My rebuke is that we have to complain about that big system. I don’t know quite what it is.

So, I’m not an über-resister right now, there are other folks who can be high powered resisters and I want to support them. So I do back office work for the WTR community, and I support the movement that way. But I don’t feel bad that I don’t have the same feelings about that resistance that I used to have or that I’m not in the same jeopardy that I used to be. I think that’s one thing that we have to take out of Larry’s letter; he gives a lot of ways that maybe — I’m talking about organizations now, like NEWTR, which is a group that I know, as an outsider now…

I think you get the point that there is life after the WTR movement that we knew, I don’t know what that life is going to be but if we do what we can to support those who are in jeopardy and we do what we can to build a movement… I’ve been trying but lately it’s not working very well. We tried to get together with occupy and that didn’t work because we didn’t have the staff to follow it through. We’ve been doing things with other groups. The younger that I know just aren’t cottoning on to it the way that we did and I think it’s because the system and the times have changed.

Ruth Benn
NWTRCC Coordinator, NYC war tax resisters

NWTRCC turned 30 this fall, so that’s something remarkable in itself, this small organization whose budget has hardly been over $40,000 a year has survived with a part-time coordinator with a good-sized volunteer network.

I also feel a lot of this discouragement of the times we are in and where war tax resistance is. It is certainly a low time, but what is having the political effect that we want? I look at a lot of movements and we’re not getting through. It’s frustrating. I got to a lot of peace demonstrations, antiwar, and a lot of other things in NYC. It tends to be the same people at each demonstration. We pretty much recognize each other — around the antiwar issue in particular. I don’t feel it’s just WTR. WTR rises and falls with the peace movement, so the weaker the peace movement is the weaker WTR is. Those are the people once they get active and who start saying “oh my god where is my money going.”

I do feel there will always be WTRs, at least if the system of collecting taxes that we have these days. There will always be people who refuse and I believe there always were since the first despot collected money or something for war. It has a long tradition, and I still see that in the future as long as the system is what it is. And some need for support. Whether a national office of any size will survive for very much longer I don’t know. Partly because NWTRCC was founded as a coalition, a clearinghouse for the organizations like NEWTR, and partly the way the organization got its money was from the dues from the different groups, so the weaker the local groups are the less support there is for a national office, so it may be — I don’t see it right now but — if we don’t figure out how to get the local system going again, reinvigorating groups — then things will change.

Occupy was so exciting. It was so exciting to be in Times Square with thousands of people who heard about a demonstration maybe a week before and came out. I know that I missed making some connections in Occupy particularly through the alternative economy kinds of directions that people want to go, let’s just start our own system. That’s not new, but there are parts of Occupy that are very strong with that. It’s still out there and it’s still possible to connect. One thing with Occupy is that if you didn’t have 24 hours a day to be in it, it was really hard to be in it. In some ways I think that’s how change will happen — you have to be out there and keep it going.

I have found with young people during the years I’ve been in NWTRCC, that when you come out of college $25,000 in debt you are not looking to get into more debt, particularly with the IRS. So I’ve felt I wish we had a stronger WTR network; I send out emails to our NYC network and try to get people to go but get little response. That’s frustrating feeling that if I don’t go nobody is going to go. The 99% really changed the discussion, but now the politicians have picked it up in the campaign so will it get bought off.

There are still some exciting things happening. One thing I’ve spent time on last winter and spring was Cindy Sheehan’s case. She is a war tax resister and the government does care that she is not paying her taxes and they are doing everything they can to collect every penny from her and make her life miserable. They took her to court last spring but they haven’t pursued a court case, but they’ve pursued collection with her. They started going after Paypal, which other WTRs used, or similar systems. The IRS hadn’t really noticed that but they are now. Her writings on her blog are great and solid. I couldn’t get the California WTRs too involved with her which I felt bad about. If she comes around do introduce yourself as a WTR and thank her for her outspokenness about it.

True what Larry says about levies as inhibiting WTR. Many calls I get are less about “how do I do it” than “how do I get out of it.” And the frivolous penalty, which also inhibits new WTRs. That’s what the government does. They do care about us because they keep using things against us. It’s hard to make a case about it. When your house is seized it’s easier to have a public demonstration than when your salary is levied or your bank account taken. We’ve struggled with that in NY about how to bring more attention to war tax resistance cases.

Daniel Sicken
Pioneer Valley War Tax Resistance, Brattleboro, Vt.

I’d like to start with drawing a contrast between the past and present. I started out with WTR in the 1980s. As many of us know that was a time of a lot of activity. There was a very strong nuclear weapons freeze campaign, plowshares had their first action. Pioneer Valley WTRs was very active and that’s how I got involved, not only with WTR but other activities centering on nuclear weapons.

So today we have the antiwar movement across the board is really diminished. How do we see that? I need to say that the most important thing on my mind back in 1981, WTR is an act of conscience. I don’t believe anybody is going to be a WTR as a tactic to use against the government. They are not going to put themselves in that kind of position. If anybody has used it as a tactic, that is one reason that we have a diminished war resistance movement today. It has to come from the soul. It has to come from the heart. It has to come from that little spark. If it doesn’t come from there, it’s not going to grow.

Why do we have so many people in the U.S. today who claim to be secular? People are trying to find their spirituality in different avenues. No matter where we find our soul, where we find our deep belief, there we are also going to find our WTR because the two go hand in hand. I think any political movement is going to be second to acts of conscience.

Last night I brought a speaker in from Colombia, and one of the questions that was asked of her was “What can we Americans do?” She said the first thing we do in our indigenous populations is prevent our own extinction. First we’re nonviolent. But we have to talk with one another. Out of the talking comes action. Half the world’s population lives on less than $2 or $3 a day. One of the by-products of being a WTR is that we get to have solidarity with the half of the world’s population. This is where I depart from Larry Rosenwald’s letter. We all do our WTR in different ways. Larry does it in a very different way and I don’t think he’ll go along with any one way of doing it. That’s one thing about our WTR, it’s diverse. We have our own way of approaching it out of conscience.

What has changed with war since 1981. War today I am convinced is accepted by a large part of the population .We have accepted the eventuality of constant war as part of our being. Why did so many people depart from war resistance? Look how many people came out right before Bush declared war or Congress gave him to the power to declare war on Iraq. People were out, thousands, millions, all around the world. Why did people leave? War went on. Right about ten years ago we were all out there and so many people joined us. They all thought that we can stop this and it didn’t stop. Then Bush got reelected and people got twice as discouraged and left. I think people become accustomed. One of the factors is fear since 9/11. Fear is a big factor.

We are very fortunate in the U.S. to have the ability to resist war. In most countries the tax structure doesn’t allow it.

I’d like to have a very political, active WTR movement, but the reason I come to these meetings is I just like being with people of like mind, we’re following what we feel we should do.

Bob Irwin

For people outside who only hear about WTR they might think “it’s a peculiar belief that they all share,” when in fact the diversity within the movement is really quite interesting of different tactics, behaviors, interpretations. I wanted to pick up first on Larry Rosenwald’s statement about having a political effect in the foreseeable future, and by political effect he means stopping or slowing American wars, eliminating or significantly reducing the American military budget. When I think about WTR in history, we read that history and we know the modern movement started with Ernest Bromely on the eve of WWⅡ, and that this is the period since then when the U.S. has become the world’s leading military power.

Every one of us knows that the U.S. has this stupendous military spending as much as the rest of the world put together. That we live in this country really skews our perspective and we’re concerned about war certainly is a major factor in our perspective also. I want to mention that while this country compared to 80–100 years ago has become vastly more militarized, that the overall trend in the world, since 1993, the amount of warfare in the world has been diminishing. War has been going down since 1993, a trend that does not automatically continue itself.

The head of the International Peace Research Association commented on this and said that it’s up to us whether this is kind of a trough and then things trend goes up again with all the stresses of climate disruptions and hardships that that will impose on people and all the conflicts and tensions that it will engender. It’s up to us, scholars and activists, whether it goes down and up or keeps going down. I think that’s a very valuable perspective to keep in mind, that despite our frustrations in this country with this tremendous militarism, war is going down. Joshua Goldstein attributes that to mainly the influence of the United Nations. Given all our frustrations about the U.N. and what we as activists might think, most Americans like the U.N. despite the fact that they only hear negative things from their politicians about it. Public opinion is supportive of conflict resolution efforts through the U.N.

I think if there is any one area that I wish we knew more about is public opinion. When I study the rare works that inquire into public opinion from a progressive perspective, I’m continually amazed as how much a majority of people agree with us. That is, people don’t like war, there are intermittent surges when they feel it is justified to hit back at somebody, but by and large Americans don’t like war. I think we need to distinguish a couple different things when we talk about antiwar sentiment or peace movement, we should be breaking down those concepts into hard core opponents of all war at one extreme and people who would like the military budget to go down at the other extreme, which gets us into a large majority, and then one step over people who are against current wars the U.S. is waging, also a majority. Then there is a spectrum of increasing activism of more principled opposition of various kinds.

Ed remarked that times change and that’s a pithy way of describing what I’m alluding to. We’ve lived through this era of tremendous militarization of the U.S., yet war is declining in the world. We have a set of positive and negative trends that are what we have to work with in our historical social setting from here forward. I’ll close by naming those.

We’re in a decline of democracy (we have semi-democracy; we had a coup d’êtat in 2000) We’re declining in democratic terms; on the other hand there is an advanced worldwide and in the U.S. in people’s acquaintance with nonviolent struggle and its effectiveness and the training capacity of many groups now, not just one or two or three. So we have the potential to organize nonviolent direct action campaigns selectively against aspects of militarism and lack of democracy. I think that is the most promising direction. There are a lot of flaws with WTR and its logistics and so forth in this historical time. I think there is potential to create campaigns that are more effective and might as a byproduct attract more people to WTR.

End of panel.

Rosenwald position paper

Photos from Gathering