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War Tax Resistance: How a Portland Couple Have Refused to Pay Taxes for Over 30 Years to Protest Military Funding

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Today is April 15th, Tax Day, a day when tens of millions of Americans scramble to file their income taxes on time. It’s also a day when people across the country are planning to protest the use of tax dollars to fund war. A recent study shows that more than 40 percent of every income tax dollar in 2007 went towards military spending. We speak with Pat and John Schwiebert, a Portland couple who have refused to pay their taxes for the past thirty years to protest military spending. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today is April 15th, Tax Day, a day when tens of millions of Americans scramble to file their income taxes on time. It’s also a day when people across the country are planning to protest the use of tax dollars to fund war. In dozens of communities across the country, demonstrations are planned at IRS offices, federal buildings, post offices and other public places to protest the continued funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent study by the National Priorities Project shows more than 40 percent of every income tax dollar in 2007 went towards military spending. The largest share of that was for the war in Iraq, which has been estimated to cost taxpayers $12 billion per month. The total amount allocated for the Iraq war through fiscal year 2008 is more than $520 billion.

To protest the continued funding of the war, some Americans are taking a stand today by personally refusing to fund the military. Tax resisters across the country are planning to withhold part or all of their taxes to protest the war.

Pat and John Schwiebert have been war tax resisters for the past thirty years. John Schwiebert is a retired pastor who spent more than four decades as a United Methodist minister. His wife Pat Schwiebert is a registered nurse who founded support groups for parents who have lost their children. They both join me here in our Portland, Oregon studio. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Welcome to Portland. It’s good to have you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s good to be back here. John, how long haven’t you paid taxes?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Well, it’s been over thirty years. I’m not exactly sure. I think it was 1977 when we stopped paying.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your decision thirty years ago.

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: I think we just pretty much together came to the realization that we’re conscientious objectors to war, and if you object to war, you don’t participate. The only way we could participate at our age at the time is by refusing to support it. And so, we just said, well, we won’t send in the military portion, the military percentage of our taxes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you work that out?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Well, you —- in that case, we just filled out our tax return, we told the IRS what we owed, and we said we’re only paying a percentage of it, and we’re refusing to pay the rest. The IRS just treats it as if it were a failure to pay, so the only thing they’ve ever done with us is to try to collect the money. And in some cases they have, and in some cases they haven’t been able to collect it.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat Schwiebert, how do they try to collect it?

PAT SCHWIEBERT: Well, they’ve garnished our wages. They’ve taken a -—

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

PAT SCHWIEBERT: Well, it means that they will attach part of your wages and take it without your permission to pay the portion of taxes that you’ve refused to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: So your check is just smaller?




AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of the percentage, what are you calculating, for example, this year, the percentage that would go to the military? What percentage aren’t you paying?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Actually, we’ve gotten to the point we’re so upset by the direction the country has taken and the demise of democracy in this country, that after the Iraq war broke out we completely stopped cooperating. So we’re paying nothing now. So the percentage that’s estimated by the War Resisters League is more like 50 percent. But I haven’t paid any attention to it this year, because we —-

PAT SCHWIEBERT: We don’t care.

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: —- we just didn’t give anything. We’re in total non-cooperation with the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you set money aside at all to give somewhere?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: We have traditionally redirected the money to some other cause. And now, since 2002, our decision has been to take the money that the federal government says we owe and to pay it directly to our local Multnomah County government. And so, day after tomorrow, we’re going to go down to the Multnomah County Commission meeting, their weekly meeting, with a check in hand, and we’ll give the reasons why we cannot support the federal government, and we’ll thank them for not having a military department, and we’ll give them the money to be used however they wish. But we have in mind that our county government has a heavy cost to pay for healthcare for people, including people who are in the position they are because of their involvement in the war and the suffering from the war.

AMY GOODMAN: What does Multnomah County, the officials there, say when you come to bring the money?

PAT SCHWIEBERT: “Thank you.”

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: “Thank you.” They have — I think they have a difficult time politically making statements, but in every year that we’ve done this — and this will be the fourth year now that we’ve done it — they thank us. And I can tell that there’s appreciation, and there’s probably even support for what they’re doing, even though they may not be able to say it openly.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the IRS go after you?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Well, they’ve gone after bank accounts. They’ve taken money out of bank accounts. We don’t have money in bank accounts now. They’ve gone after wages, gone to our employers. Most recently, they went to the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church, and this has been a real difficulty for us, because the United Methodist denomination has in its social principles a statement of opposition to war as an instrument of social policy and also a directive that churches should support their members who engage in conscientious civil disobedience. And yet, the General Board of Pensions, when they got a notice of levy from the IRS, actually paid over $8,000 of money that we had refused to pay, took it out of our monthly pension checks and sent it directly to the IRS. So we have a bone to pick with them. We’re going to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church next week, and we’re going to ask them to make it a policy that the General Board of Pensions may refuse to cooperate with the IRS. In other words, the Church has to be a civil disobedience, too, if it’s opposed to the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any indication they will?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: There’s a bunch of conservatives that have their hands in the operations of the General Conference, so we don’t know. We don’t have any illusions about that, but we’re going to be there and show our faces and say we’re the people who are on the line.

AMY GOODMAN: How much support do you have from, well, just the general Methodist membership?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: There’s a lot of support. There’s division in the Church, of course, so there are some people that think that the worst thing you could do would be to stand up against your government.

PAT SCHWIEBERT: Well, I think most people, too, are — even though they are verbally supportive, they’re also afraid. They’re afraid for us, and they’re also afraid for themselves, and so aren’t willing to take a stand.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat, can you talk about your work, working with parents who have lost their children?

PAT SCHWIEBERT: Sure. I began working with bereaved parents in the early ’70s and was humbled by how I saw the death of their children, how it affected their lives. And it was one day when a nurse colleague and I were talking, and she said, “Do you know what your income taxes go for?” And I wasn’t able to really answer that question very succinctly, and so she helped me see that the major portion of our taxes go for the military. And it was like one of those pivotal moments in my life, where what my life’s work was and what I was actually participating in kind of coincided, and I realized that I couldn’t continue to do that, that as a parent trying to live my life consistently, it was — that’s not what I was showing my children, that in one breath we were saying it’s not OK to kill, but we were paying for somebody else to kill in our name. So we, as a couple and then as a family, have chosen not to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a Congress member for a moment and ask you to comment after she speaks. On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers are holding a Tax Day press conference this morning on the cost of the Iraq war. Representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont will present taxpayers with a bill that shows how much each American family owes for the Iraq war.

Democratic Congressmember Jan Schakowsky joins me now on the phone from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you, Amy. I’m glad to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you’re going to say today?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, we’re going to, on Tax Day today, show that the Iraq tax bill for the average family of four is $16,500 per family of four. It’s only one way of expressing how much the war costs, of course, but the dollars are pretty significant, and most people understand that. In fact, 89 percent of Americans believe that the cost of war has contributed to the US economic problems. And certainly, it’s been a problem for them in their own families.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you calculate the cost of war?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, we looked at what the total bill is to date, over half-a-trillion dollars, and just divided it out among the families. And that’s a lowball number, because we aren’t considering the other costs, including the care of veterans, all the healthcare costs. So it’s really a modest number that, you know, could go into the trillions of dollars for the whole country.

But we also, I think, need to look at what else could we be doing with that money? I know just in my state of Illinois, every single person could be provided with healthcare if we — you know, for the amount of money we pay just in Illinois for the war. Homeless veterans, 48,000 of them, could be provided with a place to live for a year. I mean, the things that we can’t do and don’t do because we’re just throwing all this money at a war that seems endless and is not making us safer is just — it’s so tragic, really. And we want to point out what that cost is to people in real dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Schakowsky, do know how much military contractors like Blackwater cost?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, we know that there are big winners in this war. And of course, an over-a-billion-dollar contract has been renewed with Blackwater. Imagine — just imagine anybody hiring a contractor who we know has killed seventeen innocent people. Now, there’s not been any results of the investigation, but don’t you think that most sane people would say, “No, I think we better figure out another way to provide this service”? It’s just mind-boggling, astonishing that Blackwater would get this contract renewed. But there are huge winners in this war: these companies that are making money hand-over-fist, these war profiteers that are delighting in the continuation of the war and the bilking of the American people. There’s horrible corruption and waste fraud and abuse that’s going on. And yet, Americans are asked to pay on and on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Congressmember Schakowsky how you feel about people like Pat and John Schwiebert — John Schwiebert, a retired United Methodist minister; Pat Schwiebert, a nurse who deals with families who have lost their children — not paying taxes, as they haven’t for more than thirty years, war tax resistance.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, you know, I can understand that. I truly do. Obviously, my heart just breaks for people who have lost their children. But beyond that, the notion of contributing to this war, I certainly can understand that. You know, I guess the argument is that, you know, if everybody sort of picks and chooses what they want to pay for, that it could be a problem. But this war is such a huge problem, that I certainly understand and empathize with the decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Congressmember Jan Schakowsky, speaking to us from Capitol Hill before her news conference. And I wanted to end with our guests today, John and Pat Schwiebert. In the 1980s, you were imprisoned. Can you talk about the actions that you took, your protest of nuclear weapons, John?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: Well, we were involved in some blockades of, in one case, a company that was manufacturing parts for weapons. We were a part of the tracks campaign, the groups across the West that stood in front of trains that were carrying motors to the nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Washington, and blockading doorways, things like that that are part of the general protest, not related to our tax resistance, but just part of what we’ve been doing over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning more of that?

JOHN SCHWIEBERT: We will, yes, as there are opportunities. We’re seeing that the kind of protest that we used to do seemed to make more of an impression. This current government in Washington seems to have said, “We don’t have to pay any attention.” So it’s really discouraging. But regarding what the congresswoman said, we look forward to the time when we’ll be able to go back to paying our taxes.

PAT SCHWIEBERT: Right. And I think also that even if there was plenty of money to pay for healthcare and education, we would still be refusing to pay our war taxes, because we believe that killing is not a way to bring peace to our world. And as citizens of the world, we are responsible for each other, and we need to find other ways to deal with conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Pat, the T-shirt that you often wear, what does it say?

PAT SCHWIEBERT: It says, “I will not raise my child to kill your child.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Pat and John Schwiebert, war tax resisters for thirty years. We’re broadcasting from Portland, Oregon.

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