Ammon Hennacy on Tax Refusal

was the first of two workshops I’m helping to put on at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair with Northern California War Tax Resistance.

After the workshop, I browsed the tables a bit. There was a bit of everything you could ask for in terms of radical literature and punk rock aesthetic clothing, and plenty of amusements of other sorts. Outside I caught part of a shouting match between two Marxists one of whose factions had collaborated in the repression of the other at some point in some place. Inside, you could find carefully preserved relics of such infighting going back a hundred years or more. There was a “bargain bin” dedicated to miscellaneous works of, by, and about Lenin for a buck a pop. There were old pamphlets with titles like The People Will Quickly Extinguish the Imperialist Running Dogs and Their Lackeys for Making Fun of Our Glorious Tin-Eared Verbiage.

At one of these tables I found a Catholic Worker pamphlet called Two Agitators: Peter Maurin — Ammon Hennacy. Here’s Dorothy Day’s description of Ammon Hennacy from the Introduction:

Ammon… will tell you the story of his life at the drop of a hat, because he feels that so much of it illustrates what he is trying to convey in the way of ideas. I may be crediting him with a virtue which he does not possess, but it seems to me that there is a profound humility too, in Ammon’s talk of himself. Like all prophets, he has a keen sense of the emergency — “now is the time” and what each man does now is going to have its effect on history. With Peter Maurin this meant constant repetition and great terseness of expression in the written word. With Ammon this humility meant, “What I can do, every man can do, if he will put fear far from him.” Ammon often says that he has the virtue of courage and knowledge, but lacks love; he knows how critical his attitude is about others. It is true he judges, but without malice.

The context of Hennacy’s self-criticism here is his belief that the “one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi” is someone who combines equal and generous portions of love, courage, and wisdom. He very much wanted to be this one-in-a-million.

Hennacy’s first essay in the pamphlet concerns the time he spent in prison in for speaking out against U.S. participation in World War Ⅰ. It includes this delightful anecdote:

The editor of the prison paper, Good Words, asked me to give him something to print. I told him that was what I got in for, printing things in papers, and that my ideas were too radical for him. He insisted so I gave this quote which, believe it or not, appeared in a box underneath the editorial caption of the Department of Justice on : “A prison is the only house in a slave state where a free man can abide with honor.” Thoreau. This had the o.k. of the warden and was not sneaked in. The ignorant official thought it praised prisons.

The second of Hennacy’s essays is “Tax Refusal and Life on the Land,” some excerpts from which I reproduce below:

Before World War Ⅱ income taxes were not paid by those in the lower brackets so it was not a problem to think about. I was still too nervous from jail to work steadily, so to get the jail out of my system my wife and I started from New York City on (the anniversary of my entrance into solitary in Atlanta in ) with packs on our backs and $100 in our pockets. We never asked for rides but took them if offered and went 22,000 miles in every state in the union distributing pacifist propaganda, with stickers “Stop the Next War Now.” We stopped to work most of the time, but on my birthday, , we bought 10 acres with $100 down near Waukesha, Wisconsin, built one room in the woods, and another next year. I helped Carmen get born there June 17, 1927, and Sharon on Oct. 23, 1929. (The very day the depression started) I had led in a strike in a dairy where I worked and lost my job. Friends suggested that I become a social worker in Milwaukee. I thought this work was too bourgeois, but for me it was either take relief or hand it out. I told my examiners for the job that I was an anarchist and would break rules when I thought it best to do so. They needed male social workers badly it seemed and I got a job with the county of Milwaukee. I organized a union and was active in pacifist circles.

In a client locked me up in a room and came after me with a butcher knife because I would not give him something that he didn’t have coming. After a time I dared him to knife me (I didn’t double dare him) and I shook hands with him. He put the knife away and we became friends. My boss was a Catholic and head of the American Legion in Wisconsin. He wanted me to take this man to court. I refused for he had been in jail twice for knifing social workers and had done time for it, and had not learned anything. My boss thought I should get acquianted “with those crazy Catholics in New York.” I asked Father Kennedy in the same block, editor of the Herald-Citizen about the Catholic Worker and he gave me a copy. Then I became acquainted with Nina Polcyn and Dave Host and worked with the CW House formed there the next year, where my daughters sang Christmas carols, and I took Muriel Lester, the English pacifist to bless our CW house. I met Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin that same year as they spoke in Milwaukee. I liked their pacifism and radicalism but not their church. In fact I sold CW’s every Sunday in front of churches but would not go inside except to get warm.

When World War Ⅱ came the American Legion wanted to have me fired from my job because I sold CW’s on the street. I had a private hearing for an hour with a court stenographer taking notes before the Corporation Counsel. I told him that I would not quit my job nor would I cease selling CW’s on the street, and that I would insist on a public hearing. They dropped the charges that week. However, when the time came for me to register for the draft on I openly refused to do so and resigned my job. I thought I would get 5 years but the government had secretly made a rule that those over 45 would not be prosecuted. I was 48, and was only in jail a few hours. My wife and daughters were in the west at that time so I went to Denver and got a job at a dairy. Selling CW’s on the street I was imprisoned incommunicado for 4 days for not carrying a draft card, and I was rearrested a week later for selling CW’s at the same place.

On the withholding tax went into effect. About the only place where a person could work without paying taxes for war was on a farm. For here the tax was to be paid at the end of the year. The brackets had been lowered so that even a dishwasher in a restaurant had to pay about a dollar a day for war. The New York Times in a recent editorial declared that 83% of the income tax went for past, present or future wars.

I found work on a farm near Albuquerque with a farmer whose wife was a Quaker and at the end of the year when I refused to pay my tax I was fired but got a job with another farmer. I also sold CW’s on the streets in Albuquerque for 4½ years and the police never bothered me.

I moved to Phoenix in . Here the tax man was a Quaker and I was at once arrested for picketing the tax ofice in . Again in I picketed the tax office and fasted for 5 days because it was 5 years since we had dropped the bomb at Hiroshima. I turned in a report to the tax office, not as my duty or their right, but as a courtesy to my enemy, the State, saying: “This is my name, this is where I live, this is what I made. Try and get it.” I had sent all of my money to my daughters who were taking music at Northwestern University.

Finally in I came to New York City and the Catholic Worker as my daughters had graduated, and since then I have not earned enough by speaking to owe any tax. The tax men have been here several times to investigate my income and have called me into the tax office when I have been picketing them. I can get 5 years for each of the 12 times that I have refused to pay my income tax. Young toughs have threatened me at times as I have picketed in New York City. Now on I will fast as it is 14 years since Hiroshima. I do this as a penance for the sin of our country in continuing atomic testing and warfare.…

, I received a notice that I owe $2.15 interest and penalty on my $192 tax bill for and unless paid within ten days my property and wages will be attached. This is an old runaround and I am not worrying. Today I ate the first Irish potatoes from our garden, which is more important in the life of man than paying taxes. The persimmon tree which the Old Pioneer’s daughter-in-law gave me last winter now bears premature fruit. Watermelon, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions are doing fine.

One day when I was soapboxing at Broad and Wall Streets a man asked me what came first with me: Catholicism or anarchism? I replied that Catholicism came First and daily Mass and Communion. Second, to live poor as we did at the CW. Third, to love your enemy, for as Dorothy quotes some saint: “You love God as much as you love the person you love the least.” Fourth, to bring this out in some association with others. Fifth, Don’t be a parasite, which of course cuts out all Wall Street. Sixth, to be an anarchist for if one lived a dedicated life and put first things first, to vote for one millionaire or another whose business was to return evil for evil in courts, prisons and war, was a poor way of being a Christian. Seventh, in order to be efective in the spiritual and radical life I do not smoke, drink, eat meat, or take medicine.

Selling CW’s at 43rd and Lexington a cop arrested me for selling papers without a license. I told him that according to the Supreme Court decision in the forties the Jehovah Witnesses had won the right to sell papers without a license. He said to tell it to the judge. The magistrate let me out on my own name for trial in three weeks. I went back next Friday and another cop said I had to have a license but I talked him out of it. The next Friday Eileen Fantino and Birtha Tisius stood on one corner and I was on my regular corner when the first cop arrested me when the girls were not looking. Dorothy came up to help and finally discovered that I was in jail. They sold CW’s all afternoon and Jackson MacLow, an anarchist friend came along and helped also. They were not arrested. I got 5 days in jail or a $10 fine and as I never would pay money to the state I did the time on Rikers Island. The American Civil Liberties Union wanted to use me as an example to provide freedom for those who always moved on when told to do so. After six months, although losing the first appeal, the highest court in the state affirmed my right to sell the CW and my book as I was not doing it for profit.

Across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral a policeman told me that I should not sell “that Communist paper.” I told him it was not a Communist paper, and if it was I had the right to sell it there, and I showed him a press clipping of the court decision.

“I don’t care anything about the law. If I don’t want you here I’ll have you pinched, and you’ll be in jail, you won’t be here. If the judge lets you out as you say, I’ll arrest you again, and if he frees you, I’ll arrest you again. I’ll wear you out.”

“What if I wear you out?” I replied.

He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. You have to be ready to die or you are not ready to live. I was never bothered again on that corner.

In there came the first air raid drill in New York City. The state law says that if you do not take part you can get a year in jail and $500 fine. I called up Ralph DeGia of the War Resister’s League and other pacifists and we told the authorities that we would openly refuse to take part in their war game and would sit in the City Hall Park. Television and radio gave our message as we handed out our leaflets. 29 of us were arrested. Dorothy, being a better basic radical than I, persuaded me to plead guilty instead of not guilty. We Catholic Workers and some atheistic anarchists pled guilty and the others carried the case on appeal and it is still in the courts. We all got suspended sentences. The next year we had our demonstration in Washington Square and 19 of us got 5 days in jail. Those of us who pled guilty served them. In there were only 12 of us in the demonstration in the park across from our house on Chrystie Street and we got 30 days in jail from a Catholic judge who told us to read the Bible. Dorothy spoke about the terrible conditions in the woman’s prison on NightBeat on television, and I spoke twice on the same program later. So in when 9 of us were arrested while picketing the Atomic Energy Commission near Columbus Circle during the air raid drill our sentence was suspended. In five of us who had been demonstrating annually were accompanied by 14 others at City Hall Park during the drill and we got 10 days in jail, after waiting 5 days in jail for our trial. The newcomers got a suspended sentence. This time when the judge asked me about “rendering unto Caesar” I answered that Caesar was getting too much and God was getting very little so I would render unto God by disobeying Caesar as St. Peter did.

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