International Gathering of Activists Talk Taxes, War, and Peace

Paul Sheldon attended the 12th International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns in Manchester, England, and wrote up some of his impressions. Excerpts:

…Wonderful people, some very good times, some very frustrating times.

Perhaps I spoke too much, but for me, there was very little in the way of direct action from this Conference group. This seems surprising, when I consider what I know of the wonderful examples of direct action that have been taken by so many of those who were present. There was a lost opportunity here. I should have stood up and cheered when, during the perennial discussion of why there were essentially no young people at this conference (thank you, Kristen, for being an exception), someone stated out loud that no young person could stand to attend something (often dull — my addition) as this was. Exactly one possible solution was offered… let’s get nifty interactive websites on sites where young people are active. Since this is an older group whose members tend to be ignorant of technology, [this] can take the form of “the answer” when nothing else seems possible. Peacepays is a great website… but it is not “the answer.” My question — what do we offer after the website? And just how great is that medium for us? I am dubious about how well we can ever compete on youth websites — our message is not inherently well suited to the medium, in the way that the way the U.S. Army has the best hi-tech video games in the world on their websites. How far can this take us — then what?

Our action needs to be “on the ground” and we offered not one stitch of that at this conference. Well, I walked around Fallowfield with my “War, No Way, Don’t Pay” shirt on, and a number of young folks clearly looked at it and got the message. As far as I know, that is the only hint that we gave to the many young people that were all around us in that town, that an international peace conference with some amazing people was being held that weekend, right in their midst.… Where was the real dialogue at the conference? It was preaching to a small group of the already converted. A group that will grow progressively smaller if we don’t take this to the streets and do some direct peaceful action. It is also what young people, in my experience, find most satisfying and appealing.…

You might say that much of what I say here is not directly relevant to our Conference topic of War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax Campaigns. I think we all realize that it is highly unlikely that war tax resistance/campaigns will ever be the “gateway” for young people to enter the peace movement. We need to start with a more direct and less intellectual focus. Out of Iraq — Now! At this point in the war, that is not a shocking statement in the U.S.. Or be gentler (but making the point, very visibly) if you are with a more conservative group. How can we get out of war? Present various options, and one of these is always taxes for peace not war. But don’t expect any active response from people hearing about WTR for the first time, or even for quite a while. Civil disobedience appears scary and difficult for most people. Personally, I believe that WTR is generally inappropriate for anyone new to the peace movement. I have on one or two occasions gently discouraged individuals whom I believed did not understand its full implications and were not prepared for what is required of war tax resisters. On the other hand, Mimi is a young Menonite whom I have spoken with considerably about this topic, and she became a war tax resister . Her commitment to pacifism was already well developed, and thus WTR was a new and additional avenue for her to express and witness to her beliefs. As a practical matter, in the United States peace tax campaigns are much more user-friendly to the vast majority of people and represent an easier place to start a discussion.

I am a person who believes in street speaking. Be a public Friend or whatever you are. Let our beliefs be known directly to the public. Not to be in someone’s face, not as a weirdo, but let it be known (gently) to whomever you meet. If, between now and the time of our next Conference , each of us enlisted one new person to our common cause, our members (well, we don’t have members really, do we?) would be dancing in the streets. We should not expect to ever be a large group, or even a young group. What we are struggling with now is simply to replace the old people with a new crop of experienced middle-aged people. I know that as individuals we are “activist” and willing to take risks. What wonderful people I met at the Conference. But our work does tend to be of the legalistic and formal variety, which does not engage young people. And to the extent that the Conference itself represented how we present ourselves to the world, it was not an enticing model.

I hear lot of frustration here, and I’ve heard some similar things from the war tax resistance movement in the U.S. (especially frustration at being unable to engage younger activists on a large scale, and occasional clumsy gestures at trying to jazz things up to appeal to the youngins).

I don’t share Paul’s enthusiasm for petitioning politicians or supporting peace tax legislation campaigns, but I do agree that direct action is a good way of engaging impatient peace activists. But in my opinion, war tax resistance is (or can be part of) a lifestyle of direct action — and we’d be wise to market it that way. Want to engage in direct action? Don’t wait for the next big rally to get arrested at a worthless die-in farce for the benefit of the evening news — start acting directly now and keep it up day after day.

If you are an American wage earner, you probably see your federal income taxes withheld automatically by your employer from each paycheck. If you want to become a tax resister, you have to get your employer to withhold less or to withhold nothing at all.

This is easily done. All you have to do is to file a new W-4 form with your employer that indicates a greater number of allowances (or you can file one that indicates that you are exempt from withholding).

But what happens at the end of the year when you file your tax return and the IRS notices that you owe them a lot of money? They may determine that your withholding is incorrect and they may send your employer what’s called a “lock-in letter.” What this amounts to is the IRS filing a new W-4 form for you and instructing your employer not to let you mess with it without the agency’s permission.

But a new TIGTA report found that in many cases, employers have ignored the lock-in letters, resulting in millions of dollars in underwithheld taxes. This takes some gumption. The way the law works, if an employer doesn’t comply with the lock-in letter, the employer can become liable for the taxes that the employee isn’t paying.

“In addition,” says the report, “taxpayers are generally not penalized for making false statements that result in the underwithholding of taxes.… In the Internal Revenue Manual was revised… As a result, during , only 29 Form W-4 civil penalties were assessed… and none were assessed in .”