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March for Peace, Pay for War

Image by Gabriel Held

Growing up with a red diaper mother, I learned at a very young age that politics was center stage in shopping. Grapes were absolutely forbidden in our home, as were GE products and Nestlé. My parents could participate in such boycotts relatively risk free—with the exception of my nagging whine that they just be “normal.”

But my parents, like the vast majority of committed peace activists (including myself), dutifully pay taxes each year. We don’t want to break the law even though it sickens us that our money goes to a growing war machine. There’s no legal option to ensure that our money goes to schools and not to fuel Rumsfeld’s lethal wars.

One dollar of federal income tax illustrates the warped priorities of our federal government. According to the National Priorities Project, about .39 cent goes to military spending—as opposed to .04 for education, .03 for veterans’ benefits, and .02 for housing. The average Brooklyn household paid about $4,300 in federal income taxes in 2004, while $1,290 went to the military, $158 to education, and $17 to job training.

These pathetic numbers come as no surprise. Look at our public schools. The homeless population. The city’s unemployment rates for black and Latino men. The rising death count in Iraq.

It’s illegal not to pay for these corrupt priorities. But a group of New York City activists is lobbying the City Council to pass a resolution endorsing the “Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund,” a piece of federal legislation introduced by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. The bill has several cosponsors, including New York representatives Charles Rangel, Jose E. Serrano, and Ed Towns.

The concept is simple. Those who are certified by the Secretary of the Treasury as conscientious objectors would be able to direct their tax dollars towards nonmilitary spending.

The right to follow one’s conscience is all the federal legislation would allow, explains Brenda Jones, Lewis’s spokeswoman. It would not take money away from military spending; it would let pacifists pay taxes without fear that their money would go to war. Because at present some pacifists don’t pay their taxes at all, the bill could actually increase federal tax revenue.

Federal peace tax legislation was first introduced in 1972. The present version is unlikely to go before the hawkish Congress, and so local activists are hoping that the City Council can pass a resolution in order to make a strong statement of local support for the issue. Harlem councilman Bill Perkins, a consistent voice for social justice, introduced the resolution last May. Thus far, council members Miguel Martinez, Charles Barron, Margarita Lopez, Helen D. Foster, Philip Reed, and Gale A. Brewer have signed on their support for it. The resolution likely will be debated at a city council hearing in June.

Carol Wald, a member of the New York City Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund and a Prospect Heights resident, has been immersed in what she describes as the “unsexy work” of educating council members. She’s trying to get group endorsements and is reaching out to council members who voted for the council’s antiwar resolution, which passed in 2003.

Instead of enclosing a check for $1,004 with her taxes this year, Wald decided to donate that money to various social change groups. She wrote to the IRS: “The cost of just 3 days of war on Iraq would close the New York City budget gap without cutting services to its citizens.…I will no longer contribute willingly to U.S. militarism and war profiteering by the few at the expense of the rest of us with my tax dollars. My conscience will not allow it.”

Ruth Benn of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (WTRCC) has withheld part or all of her taxes for years. She gives her money to the types of causes she’d like to see the government aid: social service organizations, victims of war, and food banks.

In lieu of a check for $2,076, Benn sent the IRS a letter in April, explaining: “I do pay my taxes; I do this by sending it to groups who work for peace and care for people both in the U.S. and abroad. The money that I am not sending the federal government is being used wisely and safely. This is not an easy stand to take, but it is one that is very important to me. I would not like to be one who goes along with a criminal system just because it is easier than following one’s conscience.”

In general, it’s difficult to gauge the numbers of tax resisters, but Benn puts it at about 8,000 to 10,000 people. Some resist by earning less than taxable income. Others withhold the telephone tax, a three percent excise tax on our monthly phone bill that goes mostly to war. According to the War Tax Resistance Web site, this small tax has raised $6 billion each year since 2001.

The punishments for not paying taxes varies greatly. Benn faced consequences only once when in 1989 the IRS took $800 from her bank account. Not paying the phone tax is mostly risk free, according to the WTRCC Web site. A small percentage of income tax resisters have their bank accounts seized, she said. Benn said some resisters have their Social Security checks levied by 15 percent. But for tax resisters like Benn, it’s a small price to pay to live according to one’s beliefs.

Progressive strains of the religious community have joined the campaign, like the Presbyterian Church, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and the United Church of Christ. Reverend Earl Kooperkamp of Harlem’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, is working to educate New York houses of worship about the council resolution.

"We do all this praying and marching [while] literally funding the beast," Kooperkamp said. "How can we pray for peace and pay for war?


Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is a writer based in Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2005

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