War Tax Resistance and
Blueberry Fields Forever
By Aaron Falbel
Arthur Harvey has not filed a federal tax return or paid income tax since 1959. His partner, Elizabeth Gravalos hasn't filed or paid since 1972. Until recently, the Internal Revenue Service gave them little trouble.Aaron Falbel is a writer, editor, activist, musician, philosopher and farmer in Cambridge, MA.
"They visited us twice, once around 1965 and again around 1978, back when we lived in New Hampshire," Harvey says. "Probably they concluded we had nothing much worth taking and perhaps were not subject to much tax anyway," he adds. But after the Gravalos/Harvey family moved to Maine ten years ago, earned a bit more money, acquired a house, two wood lots and a blueberry field and started paying state taxes (New Hampshire has no state income tax, but Maine does), the IRS began to take notice. This past April 4, the IRS seized their properties in lieu of tax payments assessed at $62,000 (including interest and penalties) for the six years from 1987 to 1992 an astonishing figure, considering the family's annual income from their blueberry and flower business averages about $16,000.
Going Once . . .
The IRS held an auction June 19 at the town office across the street from the Gravalos/Harvey home. "I might have cried if I were alone," Gravalos admitted. But she was far from alone. About 75 supporters gathered outside the building and spoke of their solidarity with Elizabeth and Arthur. To demonstrate the power and the good that can come out of war tax redirection, Harvey, Gravalos and their family and friends raised over $3,000 to pay off the local property tax liens of seven Hartford residents.
The auction didn't last long. When Gravalos and her family emerged stoically from the town office, she announced, "The good news is that no one bid on the house." Emily Harvey, Arthur and Elizabeth's daughter and a sophomore at Wellesley College, bid on (and won) the small half-acre wood lot on behalf of her younger brother Max. (Max, at age 16, was legally too young to enter a bid.) The town selectman and town clerk teamed up to buy the larger 21-acre wood lot, and another Hartford resident bought the blueberry field.
Harvey speculated that the reason no one bid on the house was that the minimum bid was too high: $21,000 for a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. At the conclusion of the auction, the IRS declared that they would reevaluate the minimum bid and hold another auction July 16.
Going Twice . . .
The minimum was eventually set at $7,900. Gravalos and Harvey had originally discouraged friendly bids on their house, feeling that the price was too high. "We really did not want the IRS to get that much money," Harvey said. But for the second auction, with a lower minimum bid, they didn't discourage people who would buy the house back for them, even though that meant surrendering money to the IRS.
Harvey explained that what matters most for him is making a strong public statement, bearing witness to the government's violence: "Our reason for non-cooperating with the IRS is a reluctance to support war preparations, especially nuclear weapons, and the export of arms and military forces to many places around the world. Others have gone a lot further in their war tax resistance than we have, and we honor and respect those people. For [them], the most important thing is to withhold money from the IRS at all costs."
That, he acknowledged, is not his style of war tax resistance. "There are and there have been war tax resisters who have gone that far. My friend Ammon Hennacy [the legendary pacifist connected with the Catholic Worker movement] was one. Our approach is more complicated to describe and more flexible in practice." He scoffed at a news article that described him as "unwilling to pay one penny to the IRS." "We have three cars," he noted, referring to the federal tax on gasoline that he pays every time he fills up at the pump.
About 35 supporters turned up for the second auction, this time held at the IRS office in Lewiston, Maine. Demonstrators read excerpts from letters to IRS officials and to President Clinton urging them to call off the auction. (As at the first auction, money was given away, this time to groups doing the kind of work tax dollars could fund: $500 to the local Abused Women's Advocacy Project and $500 to a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.)
In the end, Elizabeth's mother entered the winning bid for the house at $15,633. The town clerk and town selectman, who bid at the first auction, entered the only other bid of $8,000. The latter two were clearly miffed at having lost such a "bargain." (One war tax resister described them as "a picture of greed thwarted.") The clerk, clearly irate, asked, "Why was it okay for her [Elizabeth's] mother to bid, but not for me?"
A week later, Arthur Harvey reflected on the clerk's comment, questioning in turn the propriety of the town officials' taking advantage of a family in a weakened financial position. "That does not seem to me to be a proper thing for a town official to do," he said.
Elizabeth Gravalos thinks the answer to the town clerk's question is obvious: "The two of them were trying to take our house from under us, whereas my mother was trying to help us out, to help us continue our way of life here." Though Gravalos had dissuaded her mother from bidding at the first auction, she did not try to stop her at the second. "It was harder to lose the blueberry field [at the first auction] than I thought. I just didn't feel I was ready to lose the house," she admitted.
Harvey and Gravalos calculated that the house was worth somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 and suggested that $13,000 would be a reasonable bid. Max and Emily were in favor of a friendly bid; Max especially did not want to have to move. "The alternative," Arthur noted, "would be to go the Randy and Betsy route and not countenance a friendly bid and then risk eviction. We, as a family, decided not to go that route." (He was referring to Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, war tax resisters from Colrain, MA, whose supporters maintained an 18-month-long occupation/vigil after Kehler was arrested in 1991 and his and Corner's house was auctioned off by the IRS.)
In the end, Arthur admitted, the auction "was something of a letdown." The IRS got a fair amount of money, $39,460 in all more money, he speculated, than it would have gotten if the family had filed and paid taxes all along. Gravalos reflected, "Betsy and Randy did a better job at resisting the IRS than we did. But each family has to draw its own line. I really did not want to stage an occupation [as they did]."
So what does it mean for war tax resistance when the IRS manages to walk away with such a considerable sum? Interestingly, Gravalos and Harvey do not think of themselves as having failed. Along the spectrum of war tax civil disobedience, they are tax resisters rather than tax refusers. (War tax resisters do not willfully hand over money to the Pentagon, but if the government nonetheless forcibly seizes money from them, they take those lumps, as it were; war tax refusers tend to put up more of a fight and are unwilling to let the government collect any money or assets whatsoever.) But they believe both resisters and refusers provide witness to the backward priorities of the federal government. "When it comes to war tax resistance," Gravalos adds, "anything is better than nothing." Their 51 years (between them) of resistance to military spending and the redirection through the years of those war tax dollars is not to be scoffed at. And what of the future? Gravalos and Harvey do not hesitate when they are asked whether or not they will continue their war tax resistance. Says Arthur, "We will continue our stand of non-cooperation, but we will certainly make sure not to find ourselves in such a position where we own so much property." And Elizabeth adds, "I do feel that the risks of paying taxes are greater than the risks of refusing to pay them."
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