NOT SO CERTAIN
By Calvin Rey Moen
Death and Taxes
Produced by the National War Tax Resistance
2010, 30 minutes, $10–$20 sliding scale
What if we all stopped paying taxes?
That’s the question Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings pose in the first few minutes of this engaging short film by the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC). The answers, according to many of the interviewees, are exciting indeed. Most have to do with ending U.S.-led wars and occupations and making a bold statement to the U.S. government about where money should be directed.
More than any other question, though, Death and Taxes answers the question, “Why?” Almost all of the 28 interviewees explain the reasons they decided to resist and in what way. This makes it the ideal introduction to war tax resistance because, through the personal testimony of so many passionate, committed activists, the viewer begins to answer this question for him- or herself.
Many of the tax resisters feel a need to make real change, and redirecting their taxes is not only a way to express their opposition to war but a direct action that takes away the means to wage it. “I think there’s a lot of real frustration and a lot of anger and sorrow,” says Lily D of Brooklyn, “but people don’t know how to translate that into practical action.”
Perhaps the best known tax resister in the film, Julia Butterfly Hill calls on us to do more than protest in the streets. She recalls helping shut down the San Francisco financial district at the start of the Iraq War and realizing that most of her fellow protesters would continue to provide financial support to the war they were demonstrating against. This led her to resist more than $150,000 in taxes on money she received in a lawsuit settlement.
If that’s not enough inspiration, it turns out there are legal ways to resist war tax. Eszter Freeman, of Sonoma County Taxes for Peace in California, paid her tax one year with a coffin to protest war in El Salvador. She included all the pertinent routing numbers, and the IRS cashed it, broken dolls, blood, and all.
It’s also legal to live below the taxable income level. Ruthie Woodring provides an amazing example of nonviolent, environmentally responsible, and simple living. She and her partner, who live in Northampton, Mass., founded Pedal People, a workers’ collective whose members haul trash behind their bicycles. Woodring doesn’t pay federal income tax because she never owes any, and each collective member decides individually whether to file. The bonus to having your own trash-hauling business: Woodring buys almost nothing.
Even within extralegal tax actions there are varying levels of risk, explains Ruth Benn of NWTRCC. She suggests starting out resisting the phone tax (a 3 percent federal excise tax on local telephone service) in order to get used to receiving letters from the Internal Revenue Service. For Daniel Woodham, this was like a “gateway” action: In subsequent years he refused to pay the military portion (about half) of his income tax and then all of his income tax. He explains, “I couldn’t in good faith pay even half of my income tax knowing that half of that was going for the military.”
Others choose to resist a symbolic amount, including with their payment a letter explaining the missing amount to the IRS. According to Sachiko Chernin, also of Sonoma County Taxes for Peace, whenever the check amount does not equal the amount on the tax form, someone must handle the return manually, increasing the chance that an actual person is reading the letter of protest.
Of course, there is some risk involved, and the film does briefly touch on consequences, while stressing that war tax resisters’ “crimes” are rarely prosecuted and that they are seldom arrested. The film relates briefly the story of Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner, whose home in Colrain, Mass., was seized by the IRS. Rather than give up easily, Kehler and Corner’s supporters helped occupy the house and made numerous non-monetary bids (e.g., food for the homeless, massages for IRS workers) when the house went up for auction.
Interviewees explain that there is always a series of stages to the IRS collection process. At each stage, the war tax resister has a choice—it is never an all-or-nothing commitment. If and when the IRS does finally seize the money or property, some resisters express satisfaction that it was not handed over voluntarily.
I did want the film to include more instruction, to make the most of the momentum initiated by the testimonies and be a starter kit for the beginning war tax resister. However, as an introductory film, it is meant to be screened as part of a workshop or discussion, and presumably there would be pamphlets and copies of the comprehensive War Tax Resistance guide to help people get started.
It’s said that death and taxes are certain things, but this film illustrates that there are choices available where many of us have assumed there were none.
Calvin Rey Moen is the editor of WIN.