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War Tax Resistance: Refusing to Fund War on Tax Day

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Today is Tax Day–while millions of Americans are scrambling to file their income taxes on time, others are protesting the use of tax dollars to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by refusing to pay some or all of their taxes. We speak with a member of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. [includes rush transcript]

Today is April 15th–Tax Day.

While millions of Americans are scrambling to file their income taxes on time, some people are taking a different route.

In at least 50 communities across the country, demonstrations will be held at Internal Revenue Service offices, Federal buildings, post offices, and other public places to protest the use of tax dollars to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some are making their protest stronger by refusing to pay some or all of their federal taxes that help pay for war.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in our firehouse studio in New York is Ruth Benn. She is co-author of the book, War Tax Resistance, and the coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, a coalition of local, regional, and national groups founded more than 20 years ago to provide information and support to people who are conscientious objectors to paying taxes for war. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RUTH BENN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about what war tax resistance is.

RUTH BENN: Well, war tax resistance is done by people who really don’t want their tax money to go for anyone to fight in war, for, you know, people to be victims of war, for all of the weapons of war. So, myself, I’m a long-time war tax resister. It’s been 20 year or so now. So, it’s not just necessarily focused on the current war, although that is certainly inspiring more people to think about resisting now. And it’s got a whole variety of ways, I guess, that people go about resisting. Some of us refuse to pay all of our income taxes, all federal income taxes. Some people refuse to pay a small portion of that, a symbolic amount. Some people just refuse to pay the federal excise tax on the telephone. That’s a federal tax that also pays into the general fund, the same place that income taxes go. So, and some people file and tell the government exactly what they’re doing, like I do. I actually do try to get my form in on April 15 and have to rush home and do that today. And I fill it out normally, and the amount that is owed, I send a letter saying why I’m refusing to pay it. Other people choose not to file and not be involved with the government at all, because of their protest of where the money goes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how has the government responded in the past to your tax resistance or to those of others?

RUTH BENN: Well, it varies a great deal. For myself, I get a lot of letters. Maybe, I think once in '89 or ’90, they took some money from a bank account. And bank account seizures and salary levies are, I guess, the most common way that they try to collect from people who refuse to pay these days. In the past, they have gone after property, houses and cars, and people hear those stories. That helps build up the fear of the I.R.S. and makes people afraid to make this kind of protest. But the government hasn't been doing that so much lately. It’s very labor intensive, of course, to do that kind of seizure for them. Its been probably more than ten years since a war tax resister faced a property seizure. So, they send a lot of letters. That’s the number one route of collection for the I.R.S. That’s the main thing that they do to scare people, and they publicize how, what they can do, and of course, it’s the fear that is really what keeps people complying with the system. At the same time their money is paying for a lot of death and destruction around the world and not taking care of people here and in other places.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of war tax resistance? How did it start, and then the differences when you’re paying or not paying the I.R.S., or paying or not paying a portion of your phone bill?

RUTH BENN: Well, I’m sure that as with people who refuse to fight in war and conscientious objection to military service, it’s been around as long as there’s been any tax somewhere in the world, that there’s somebody who said, you know, I’m not going to do that and I’m not going to pay for it either. In the U.S. the first instance was, I think, in the 1600s, Algonquin Indians who refused to pay for a fort that the Dutch were building to be used against the Indians, the Native Americans. But the current War Tax Resistance Movement started in World War II, in particular, the Modern War Tax Resistance Movement, we call it, during World War II when the income tax was instituted and withholding, taking money from people’s paychecks, up front, I suppose you could say. So, ever since — since World War II, it’s been a fairly consistent and active movement. A lot of connection with the Quakers and the peace churches, the Brethren and the Mennonite. But as with refusal to fight in wars, it crosses boundaries. People who conscientiously refuse for other reasons. So, your question about income tax?

AMY GOODMAN: The different forms of the resistance. Income tax and then this whole issue of the phone bill, what portion of it?

RUTH BENN: Let’s start with the telephone tax, which actually was first instituted in the late 1800s. The Spanish-American war, and telephones at that time were a luxury, so, it was a luxury tax on the phones, specifically to pay for that war. And then the government took it off. World War II, they needed money again, so they put the tax on again — or World War I, sorry. Took it off after World War I. World War II, they put it on again, and it’s pretty much been steady since then. During the Vietnam War, the telephone tax was as high as 10%, and I think it was Wilbur Mills who said that the tax is going to this level specifically to pay for the Vietnam War. It’s only the Vietnam War that we’re raising it to 10%. And after that, after Vietnam War, it was supposed to be removed, but instead, the government — it’s a tax that people don’t notice, so it’s an easy one for them to keep on. And currently it’s at 3%. And it’s a permanent tax now. They had to renew it for a number of years, and then about ten years ago, they made it permanent. So that 3% on all phone bills, cell phone, everything except internet phone service, that 3% tax goes into the general fund, parceled out the same way that income taxes are.

And in income tax resistance, people might choose to pay a symbolic amount, $1, which is certainly in the current situation, and considering what our tax dollars are doing and the consequences of paying taxes these days and seeing what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, around the world, refusing to pay $1, if you owe something, and sending a letter and saying this is why I’m making this protest, is an important statement. There are other people who refuse to pay about 30%, which is the current, about the current military spending. Other people who choose to refuse everything, and so it’s really variable. It’s a creative form of resistance.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I was going to ask that, because obviously the federal taxes go to more than just paying for the military or for war, and those who might be deciding to not pay any federal taxes are in effect also saying, I don’t want to have to pay anything for any of the government services, as poor as some of them are that we’re get. So you are saying that there are those who just specifically say, well, this is the percentage of the budget that goes to military spending of war, and that’s what I’m not paying?

RUTH BENN: Right. There are a number of people who do that. Some choose 30%. We use the war, a lot of war tax resisters use the War Resisters League pie chart, which is on the War Resisters League website at, which shows about 50% going to past and current military. Some people just focus on the 30% current military. I think, though, Iraq spending now is about 3% of the federal budget and another percentage that people can look at and refuse to pay. But I think those of us who refuse to pay 100% of federal income taxes also try to redirect that money to other programs, and for myself, I do file. I file state and local taxes, and I do pay state and local taxes. I pay into Social Security. But it’s that — the federal portion that I am really so furious about, and so that money I redirect, and I give it to food banks or housing programs or aid to victims of war and other groups, and a lot of war tax resisters do that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: What if everyone did this, people who are opposed to abortion, for example, people who just don’t like certain aspects of the government, everyone sort of picks and chooses what they don’t support?

RUTH BENN: Well, of course, I support people who stand up for their beliefs. Abortion now is a teensy-tiny percentage of the budget if it’s even in there anymore, because anti-abortion people have been quite successful at removing that from federal spending. But, when we’re looking at war spending, we are looking at 50% of the budget, and a bloated military, a bloated military spending tied in with all of these corporations, Bechtel, Lockheed-Martin, Halliburton, all of them who are profiting from this war. Billions and billions of dollars, which could be used better, so I do think those of us who are against war need to stand up and resist and take a stand.

AMY GOODMAN: What are people doing today?

RUTH BENN: Oh, all kinds of different things around the country. I think the great thing about tax day in the peace movement in general and peace and justice movement is that it’s very grassroots oriented. People get out, download a flier from a website, go out to your post office or I.R.S. federal building and hand out information about where tax dollars are going. I think the American public really doesn’t realize what a huge percentage it is, or even think about that $5 billion a month that’s paying for the current wars now. So, you know it’s coast to coast, really. There are people up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who have, I guess they’re coming out in masks of Bush, Rumsfeld, Condi, and the whole gang there with a big sign saying, “We found W.M.D.s: They’re in the President’s budget.” There are people in Portland, Oregon, who are going to be hanging signs from bridges there during rush hour this morning. Tulsa, Oklahoma has a “War Breaks the Budget” tax day protest at the post office there, I think. There’s lots of information, there’s a whole list of actions on the National War Tax Resistance website, which is

AMY GOODMAN: Last question on the phone bill, and that is, if you don’t pay this tax, the phone tax, isn’t your phone going to get cut off eventually, because you haven’t paid your bill?

RUTH BENN: Well, with the excise tax that’s imposed, the burden is on the I.R.S. to collect that money. So, the phone companies, although a lot of them don’t understand this, are supposed to, they should credit the tax on a person’s bill. You should send a note saying why you are refusing to pay that tax, and the phone company is supposed to credit it and report that amount to the I.R.S. So the bill should come to you from the I.R.S., and the phone company should not cut off the service on the phone.

AMY GOODMAN: I know that groups like Catholic Worker have refused to pay that tax for years, and they do have a phone.


AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Benn, I want to thank you very much for being with us, co-author of the book, War Tax Resistance, and the website is —

RUTH BENN:, or if you search on war taxes, it’ll come right up at the top of the list.

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