War Tax Resistance in Richmond, Virginia

In a book by Robert D. Holsworth came out, based on his experiences, observations, and interviews with people connected with the Richmond (Virginia) Peace Education Center: Let your life speak: a study of politics, religion, and antinuclear weapons activism (University of Wisconsin Press).

Here are some excerpts from that book concerning war tax resistance as it was encountered in that community during .

A War Tax Alternatives Group (WARTAG) was meeting to acquaint people with the possibility of tax resistance and to support those already engaged in it. It… was composed almost entirely of religiously motivated activists.

When you speak to members of an activist group which is relatively small, people continually refer you to other members of the community… If tax resistance was mentioned, people regularly told me to “get in touch with Father Bob Quirin because he knows the history of it in the city.”

Approximately two dozen people [in the local peace community] are refusing to pay what they label war taxes. Most are simply refusing to pay the federal tax on their phone bill, since it was enacted to help defray the costs of the Vietnam War and remains committed to the military. Each month they include a letter to this effect when they send their check to the telephone company. A few people have taken tax resistance much further and have refused to pay about 40 percent of their income tax during the past two years and have instead placed their monies in a world peace tax fund escrow account not recognized by the government. Steve Hodges, coordinator of the Richmond Peace Education Center, has not only resisted payment, but has transformed his stand into a vehicle of public education, granting interviews to local print and broadcast reporters about his decision.

The development of tax resistance indicates how the Richmond activists have tried to apply these ideas about civil disobedience. Given their commitment to assuming personal responsibility, about two dozen people in the peace community have seriously considered withholding or have actually withheld a percentage of their federal income tax and placed it in a peace escrow fund as a protest against the use of tax monies to pay for nuclear weapons. Originally, a number of those involved resisted taxes as a matter of conscience and did not intend to persuade others to join them. Harold Houghton, a Quaker who teaches mathematics at a local high school, one year withheld 36 percent of his tax. He justified his decision by saying, “I feel that I must live morally, I cannot kill and neither can I pretend that my money does not pay for killing.” Despite this commitment, Harold refrained from informing many of his acquaintances of his decision. “I don’t tell people at work, ‘Listen, this is what I’m doing, how do you respond?’ Perhaps this is related to my concern about job security, but I think that I would just be terribly uncomfortable saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m not paying my taxes and this is why.’ I just don’t want to confront people in that manner and I don’t want to invade their privacy.”

Harold Houghton did participate in the War Tax Alternatives Group. For the first few years of its existence, WARTAG was basically a mutual support organization. It brought together tax resisters and those contemplating it to share thoughts and experiences with like-minded people. The group also organized seminars at local churches that explained to potential tax resisters the rationale for the act, the various legal and illegal mechanisms that could be used to register a protest about government spending priorities, and the penalties that were possible for war tax resistance. By the middle of , WARTAG — under the impetus of Steve Hodges — began to move in other directions as well. Its activities were more highly publicized within the peace community and became a form of internal education. The group worked to increase the visibility of the issue by recruiting others to write letters of protest even if they were not actively resisting taxes themselves. Members began to pass out literature at the post office on April 15 when citizens were filing last-minute returns. WARTAG also sought to recruit more tax resisters by drafting a resolution and circulating a petition in which those who signed agreed to resist a level of taxes if one hundred others in the area did the same.

These efforts to widen the scope of WARTAG achieved, at most, minimal success. Within the peace community itself, activists discussed both tax resistance and the general issue of civil disobedience. Steve Hodges’ tax protest compelled the board of directors of the Richmond Peace Education Center to decide whether it would put a lien on his salary if the Internal Revenue Service issued this demand. The board ultimately stated that it supported individual acts of conscience such as Steve’s, though it could not, as a tax-exempt organization, actually endorse civil disobedience. In other forums, activists debated whether tax resistance was the best possible way of bringing the movement to public attention.

Besides the internal discussion that tax resistance generated, protesters received a measure of public attention. Newspaper articles and television interviews permitted them to explain their rationale for their actions and to indicate their personal beliefs to a wider audience, and a few churches invited some of the resisters to discuss their perspective in Sunday-school classes or other special programs. But despite these accomplishments, tax resistance never extended much beyond its core group or caught on as a pressing issue of discussion in the wider community.

Harold Houghton… experienced the distress that can arise from trying to express one’s opposition to nuclear weapons policy and to construct a successful marriage at the same time. While Debra Houghton supported Harold’s decision to resist taxes — a step actually taken in the year before their wedding — the couple found the combination of fear and anxiety that permeated their young marriage almost impossible to handle. Unlike some forms of protest, a person resisting war taxes has no control over the timing of the consequences or the exact nature of the penalties. The Internal Revenue Service might choose to ignore it for years or take immediate action to garnish the salary of the resister and impose other fines. Interested in starting a family, the Houghtons would have been more comfortable facing a definite penalty at a specified time in the future. Instead, the computer-generated letters sent by the IRS at irregular intervals evoked fears of a catastrophic outcome to the protest. Harold mentioned that “when one of those bills arrives in the mail, your whole life gets blown into a nightmarish thing.” Debra experienced similar fears, recalling dreams “in which people came at night and moved us out of our house.” Eventually, Debra and Harold Houghton decided not to pursue this witness to its full limits. They paid the taxes that had been withheld, plus the interest and penalties that had accrued. Doing so, in Harold’s words, “left a very bitter taste in my mouth. Writing the check and then mailing it seemed like an act of capitulation.” At a minimum, it demonstrated how difficult it can sometimes be to harmonize the full complement of one’s professed moral commitments.

Undoubtedly, tax resisters in Richmond have made progress in transforming lonely statements of personal conscience into a broader public action. They have also been attentive to developing strategies that will allow supporters of the movement to participate at a variety of levels, ranging from legal protest to civil disobedience. Yet there are some inherent limitations to tax resistance that may never be surmounted. One of the most critical is that the government can dampen enthusiasm for the strategy without engaging in heavy-handed public reprisals. If tax resistance ever threatened to become more widespread, there would be no need to arrest people in the streets or drag them from their homes while the neighbors watched. Sending a computer-generated letter from the Internal Revenue Service assessing a penalty of five hundred dollars for a frivolous deduction would adequately serve the government’s purpose. It might no dissuade those people who were already resisting, but it would certainly discourage other people from taking a war tax deduction and, most important, it would do so without casting the U.S. government in a particularly malevolent light before the rest of the American population.*

* In fact, by the Internal Revenue Service had decided to crack down on what was a small yet growing number of tax resisters by imposing a five-hundred-dollar fine for a frivolous deduction. Articles in the movement journals which focused on tax resistance now spent much time addressing the question of how to respond if one received such a penalty and how groups could pressure Congress to alter the tax code so that statements of conscience would not be considered frivolous. The outcome of these efforts is currently uncertain, but the situation does reveal the considerable discretionary power of the government in general and the Internal Revenue Service in particular. I should also mention, however, that the IRS had occasionally resorted to heavy-handed reprisals such as the auctioning of homes, which, when publicized, probably work to the benefit of the movement.

There were several other off-hand mentions of war tax resistance throughout the book as well.