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In Vermont, War-Tax Resistance Dies Hard

Local Matters


Published April 2, 2008 at 5:47 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Janet Hicks

One summer day about 30 years ago, Janet Hicks was putting up tomato sauce in her kitchen when she heard a knock at the door. Outside stood a man wearing black shoes and an ID badge.

"He said, 'Are you Janet Hicks?' "she recalls. "I said, 'Yes.' He said he was from the IRS.

"And I said, 'Oh, I've been expecting you for a few years. Come on in.'"

The agent had come to collect the taxes that Hicks, in an act of civil disobedience, had decided she would no longer pay. Since the visit from the IRS, Hicks has taken care of some of her state and local fiscal obligations. But as of last week, the Burlington cook still hadn't paid a cent of the federal income tax she owes.

The daughter of a World War II veteran, Hicks will once again withhold a portion of her taxes this year to protest her country's militaristic presence in the world.

War-tax resistance in the United States dates back at least to the 1940s, when a group of Chicago pacifists called the Peacemakers created a Tax Refusal Committee. Since then, war-tax resistance has taken different forms. Some resisters refuse to file federal returns altogether, or opt to pay only their state taxes. Others avoid incurring a tax bill by living cheaply. Some deduct specific percentages in protest over military appropriations, while others withhold negligible sums in symbolic protest.

However they practice it, tax resisters tend to operate outside of the traditional economic system. Hicks' frugal lifestyle enables her to avoid paying income tax. Robert Riversong, of Warren, used to transfer his savings to a girlfriend's account and buy money orders from a gas station whenever he needed to pay bills. And Bob Bady, who lives in Brattleboro, stopped practicing as a registered nurse in the late 1980s after the IRS threatened to seize his wages.

Still, the IRS had its way with Bady. In 1989, 19 years after he stopped filing tax returns, agents seized his Massachusetts home. "There have been consequences to being a war-tax resister," Bady admits. "But then, supporting America's military policy of exploitation also has consequences. I feel better for having decided to choose consequences that were in line with my belief."

Beyond the truly committed, this particular activism hardly rises to the level of a political movement. For one thing, it has never had an effect on foreign policy, and because the federal government doesn't recognize arbitrary deductions by individual taxpayers, it has no impact on the Pentagon's budget. In any event, with a federal budget of more than $2 trillion, it would be difficult to link the absence of a few tanks or an aircraft carrier to war-tax resistance.

But for fiscal refuseniks such as Riversong, war-tax resistance holds philosophical, not just strategic, significance. Riversong was on his way to prison from an antinuclear protest in Connecticut in 1979 when he wrote an impromptu letter to the IRS. As he explained on a recent afternoon at the Warren Store, Riversong, a designer-builder and active participant in the Vermont secessionist movement, hasn't paid his taxes since.

While it's hard to know how many people have ideological reasons for not paying their taxes, it's nearly impossible to know how many garden-variety tax evaders are engaged in a form of protest against government policy.

Brenda Vovakes, director of compliance at the Vermont Department of Taxes, says her agency began pursuing delinquent taxes more aggressively back in 2000. Since then, the state has recouped $20,000 or $30,000 annually in unpaid state taxes. As for war-tax resistors, "It's really not a big movement here," she says. "Or maybe I don't know who they all are?"

Five years into an unpopular war, war-tax resistance isn't entirely dead, of course. Since 1972, the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act has been on the table. If passed, it would allow conscientious objectors to earmark their taxes for non-military spending. Janet Hicks, who was 21 when the bill was first introduced, says she'd be "thrilled" if it ever passed. Not likely: Congress last held hearings on the act in 1995, and it currently has just 33 cosponsors - none of them from Vermont.

Meanwhile, the national antiwar group Code Pink has launched a nationwide tax boycott. By April 5, the organization hopes to get 100,000 people to pledge to withhold their taxes this year. As of Monday evening, fewer than 2100 people had signed up. That doesn't surprise Robert Riversong.

Riversong, who burned his draft card during the Vietnam War, wonders what such symbolic efforts can really accomplish at this point.

"Millions of people protested the Iraq war before it began, and it had no impact," he asserts. "Until we shift the paradigm of our culture, nothing is going to change."