Sunday, October 5, 2014

How A Nice, Middle Class Girl Became A War Tax Resister

Remarks to the 29th Annual Gathering of New England War Tax Resisters & Supporters                     Oct 4, 2014    The New School      Kennebunk, Maine

The title of my talk today is: How a nice, middle class girl become a war tax resister, and my choice of words is deliberate.

As a privileged member of the ruling class in the empire of the United States, I was brought up to be nice. My New England grandmother told me a few things that stayed with me: Fools’ names and fools’ faces are often seen in public places. And, pretty is as pretty does. These things were meant to elaborate the concept of nice behavior: don’t call attention to yourself, be discreet in word and deed, and know that your actions speak louder than your hairstyle or grooming or attire. Although those things should also be nice.

My grandparents voted Republican and went to church on Sundays. At home they might drink and even curse, but in public they were pillars of the community: she on the public library board of directors, he in Augusta at the state house, representing. My father, their only child, was a little less nice, a little more rowdy. But he passed on the wise words of his father, a World War I vet who walked with a limp and died young of heart failure after being gassed while laying in killing field in France, wounded at 19. My grandfather told his son, No war is a good war. Don’t believe them when they tell you the next war is a good war. There is no such thing. But he paid his taxes. As did my grandmother after he died.

My other grandparents were very poor, migrant farm workers out of Oklahoma. They nurtured a deep distrust of all forms of government. But my grandmother was in thrall to the authority of evangelical preachers, and both she and her husband understood that to render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s was a necessity of living in this country. My California grandfather was drafted into WWII, leaving two children and a wife to fight in the Pacific theater. He was among the first troops sent into Nagasaki after it was destroyed by an atomic bomb. When he returned home he never spoke of it. He never spoke of much of anything in my experience. My California grandparents both worked hard, bought land and built a home, though my grandfather refused his GI bill benefits. But he paid his taxes. As did his widow after him.

My father and mother debated politics at the dinner table, and for years they were Republicans. Mostly because they thought of the Democratic Party as racist. They voted for Richard Nixon twice, and defended the Vietnam war – for a while. In the end, the civil rights movement changed their thinking. My father warned me that the US would become a police state in my lifetime. He ran for city council in our small town in California, and after he retired to Maine he ran for the state legislature. He probably cheated a little on his federal income taxes, but he paid them. After he died, my mother had a tax accountant help her pay her taxes. She had lost any scrap of faith she might have once held in the federal government, but she was afraid of authority. She didn’t actually care all that much about being nice. She had survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, gotten a college education as an adult, and lived the middle class life in a split level with a view of the Pacific Ocean and four rebellious children. She wasn’t going to rock the boat.

When my middle son was a college student we visited him together, my mother and I. He was reading Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky, and we both wanted to read it after he was finished. My mother took it home with her and for months I would ask if she had finished it yet so that I could have my turn. She was a voracious reader, and it was a slim volume. Eventually she sent it along with the confession: It was very difficult to read this book, because I was overwhelmed by feelings of shame on every page. While I was busy raising kids and paying the mortgage and getting supper on the table, this was being done in my name. And, I looked the other way.

I, too, looked the other way when Reagan used my tax dollars to terrorize our neighbors in Central America. I filed a 1040 form year after year as I worked to keep bread on the table and a roof over our heads, while the US toppled democratically elected governments around the globe, installing friendly dictators instead. I paid state and local taxes in Los Angeles as the LAPD, a notoriously racist policing organization, beat up Rodney King and countless others like him. I paid a lot of taxes the year 9/11 was allowed to happen and Bush Jr. announced that we would retaliate against a country whose harbors would no longer be safe. Didn’t he know that Afghanistan, which we invaded and bombed and have been occupying ever since, was a landlocked country? Ok, maybe Bush didn’t know. But surely his speechwriters did?

I was a history major at Bowdoin, a scholarship student. I studied the tax revolt that become the war for independence from the empire of Great Britain. I now see that we are the inheritors of their imperial mantle, an upstart colony with mad natural resources that, like Carthage, grew up to eclipse the mother country. The British Parliament and Crown made the mistake of overtaxing their colonial subjects to pay for wars that started on one continent and finished on another. In college I also studied the revolutions of Europe, people rising up against the French monarchy which had bankrupted the nation waging wars, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its boot on their necks. I studied how the Ottoman Empire bankrupted itself piling up debt to wage wars defending its far flung colonies, and how Europe and the US scrambling to grab those colonies led to the war my Maine grandfather suffered in. I studied how the people of India used creative nonviolent methods to kick out the British, and how much violence they endured as the price of freedom. I studied how the civil rights movement in this country organized to struggle together to achieve their ideals, making history when a teenaged girl and then a grown woman refused to give in to apartheid on the bus.
Rosa Parks, arrested for a second time and charged with violating a law against boycotts.
But I still went to work – as a journalist, an arbitration administrator, an advertising executive, and then as a small business owner – and I still paid my taxes.

In 1994, I left the business world and became a public school teacher. It was a great job for me because I’ve always been fascinated by learning and I enjoy working in a field that allows me to be creative. Surviving the bureaucracy became my challenge and, so far, I have. But there was a major bump in the road, a bump which educated me mightily. And I believe it led, indirectly, to my becoming a war tax resister.

In 2000 the state of Maine decided that in order to continue working as a public school employee I would need to give my fingerprints to the FBI database. It was not that I or other employees had been accused of a crime – in this case, child molestation – but we were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.

This seemed to me and to many others a clear violation of the Constitution, and a struggle ensued. The Maine legislature twice rescinded the law, but the governor twice vetoed their legislation. I learned about organizing and resistance from my children’s teacher, Bernie Huebner, who resigned from teaching the gifted and talented students of our district, a job he loved. Eventually I, too, resigned from my job in protest of this gross violation of privacy and the rule of law. But after a year working in the private sector a family health crisis sent me back to public education. With inky fingers I again filled out a W-4 form claiming my allowances for dependents and rendering up a hefty portion of every paycheck to Uncle Sam, who was bombing any number of civilians and funding any number of warlords on any given day with my hard earned money.

I had protested the first Gulf War with an infant in my arms, astonished at how quickly sabre rattling and chauvinism swept through my community in central Maine. As the second round of fighting Saddam Hussein for control of Iraq’s oil fields approached, I found myself one evening clutching a candle on the Margaret Chase Smith Bridge in Skowhegan, shivering in the chilly March twilight. I’d been joining a group standing each Sunday afternoon with signs against the impending shock and awe campaign being pushed through Congress and the United Nations. That particular Sunday the US was very close to concluding a decade of sanctions against Iraq that had killed thousands of innocent children. The bombs would begin falling on Baghdad quite soon.

A nice man stood beside me on the bridge and saw that my sign was about to blow away in the wind. He grabbed it and held it, a plastic lid with NO WAR rendered in duct tape, and we talked. A young man driving by parked his car and came back on foot to ask why we were standing there. He had a cousin in the Army, and a friend about to ship out for Kuwait. Why were we against this war against a vicious dictator who gassed his own people?

My husband to be, Mark Roman, whom I had just met told the young man: When I was your age the government was trying to draft me to fight in Vietnam. I watched the Bay of Tonkin coverage on tv and I became aware that the government was lying to me. That’s what it feels like now, too. The government is pushing to go to war based on lies. It sounds the same now as it did back then.

Mark and I have been together now for 11 years. We’re married and we file a joint tax return. For the first several years together we filed our 1040 and we protested Bush’s, then Obama’s, wars. We stood on bridges and marched down highways. Along with many others here in Maine we waged the Bring Our War $$ Home campaign. Responding to the economic downturn in 2008, we pointed out that domestic budgets were being slashed to pay for a few hours or days of US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. We helped pass resolutions at the local and state level calling on Congress to stop spending 51%, then 54%, then 57% of its annual allowance on the Pentagon and its greedy contractors, so wealthy they are statistically the .001% income bracket. We visited our so-called representatives with our demand to fund butter, not guns. We wrote about it in the newspaper, talked about it on local access tv, and spoke about it in public squares. I began to get involved with Codepink when I saw women like me confronting war criminals like Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld in Congressional hearings broadcast on C-SPAN.

We stopped being nice. On one of the anniversaries of shock & awe Mark and I got arrested at the White House for failure to disperse. I hovered behind Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner with a pink sign that said GIVE US OUR $$$$$ BACK as he testified about where the taxpayers’ bailout of his Wall St. buddies had gone. I crashed Chellie Pingree’s posh fundraiser in a towering pink wig, and handed out Bring Our War $$ Home leaflets to her supporters. I helped organize Draw-a-thons and printed posters and t-shirts and learned to make videos and speeches and how to manage email listservs.

But I still paid my taxes.

It was during Obama’s first administration that my husband and I decided to heed the call of war tax resisters like Larry Dansinger, and take the risk of putting – or not putting, as the case may be – our money where our mouth is. Showing no taxable income isn’t an option for us because I still want to work as a school teacher. Mark is self-employed and each April 15 we usually wrote a hefty check for the amount of federal income taxes owed in addition to what has already been withheld from my paychecks all year. Writing that check is what we stopped doing. Larry’s advice was to keep it all above board, to let the IRS know what we were doing and why, and in his words “make them come after it.” That they have done, twice garnishing Mark’s social security benefits and sending innumerable threatening letters. We have piled up fines and interest, and I’m sure there will be more fun to come. I worry about leaving this as a giant problem for my heirs when I’m gone. As we “know” there are only two sure things in this life: death, and taxes.

Before Mark shares the letter we send the IRS along with our 1040 form each year, I’ll leave you with one last family story. Last summer I visited my uncle in Australia, they first time I had made that journey since he emigrated when I was a kid. He and his wife are folkies, musicians with a wide circle of friends who emigrated from various parts of the British Isles, mostly, and are lefty leaning. One of their friends asked me tentatively if I would be offended by the Australian perception that I live in something approaching a totalitarian state. I said that I would not take offense, and that I spent a good part of my spare time agitating against military spending. Also that my husband and I are war tax resisters. This news frightened them. They reacted with shock. How could I get away with that? Wasn’t it dangerous? Why didn’t we end up in federal prison?

I acknowledged that it’s not without risks but that it goes at least partway to settling the moral queasiness of being a tax paying citizen of the US empire. I like to think the taxes that I do pay go to education and health care, housing and job training, environmental protection and sustainable energy development – not to  revenue for General Dynamics, Halliburton, Blackwater and the rest of the war profiteers. I know the real portion of the federal budget spent on nuclear weapons research plus the Pentagon (including the NSA) plus caring poorly for veterans is way more than 50% -- probably more like 2/3. But I take comfort in knowing that I take a stand and insist that this could be, and should be, a republic and a democracy, as promised.

Because right now what we have is taxation without representation. And you know where that kind of thing leads.


Seth Berner said...

Many people don't pay taxes because they are trying to cheat or because they don't believe in taxation. A small but growing number of people do believe in taxation but don't support half our tax dollars paying for war (but not paying to help our soldiers). I have been a war tax resister for a long time but had never been at a WTR conference before. It was great to be with other principled people. And great to hear how Lisa became energized into the amazing activist she is, including war tax resistance. If you agree that taxes should be used for schools, health care, aid to the needy, green technology, etc and not the destruction of people and cultures ask for more information on how to be part of a protest movement. It is safer than you think, and quite satisfying.

Richard Morse said...

Proud to know ya, Lisa - I used to be a war tax protester in the '80s, then spent a couple decades living in Europe. Maybe it's time for me to stop cooperating again...

Seth Berner said...

Lisa, why would you not post the comment I submitted days ago?

Lisa Savage said...

Seth, Because I have a full time job. Blogging is my hobby, and I get to it when I have time.

Lisa Savage said...

Richard, thanks for your encouraging words. It would be fun to see you again after all these years. I don't get to LA much anymore but give a holler if you're in New England. How many of the San Jose St. crowd became resisters do you think --- just me and you?

Joni said...

I've often heard your name over the years, it's great to get the background. You're an excellent writer by the way~or maybe it's just the New Englander in me that guess, a combination of the two.
In any case, i've been wanting to be a war tax resister for many years and each year i get closer to committing to it, i know it comes with possible consequences. I've viewed different sites over the years but am wondering if there's one you recommend.
Codepink put out an email yesterday with a link to this post of your blog, you'll probably see an influx. Knowing your busy, i won't hold my breath on a response.
You're a true Patriot Lisa, if even half the people mobilized to Revolution there may be hope for People, Planet and Peace.
Thank You for being the wonderful inspiration you are.

Lisa Savage said...

Hi Joni, Thank you for your kind words. I think the site for advice on becoming a war tax resister that I would recommend is the National War Tax Resistance Committee: Best of luck in moving forward with your plans!

Unknown said...

I have a co worker and her whole family is military both father and brother serve in the navy . She is a supporter of the Republican Party because they support men in the military . I said yeah they support the men in the military to fight their fake wars but as soon as they get back either in a body bag or maimed where is the party then to give those men the support they need . Many of our vets are homeless , have mental health issues and are physically handicapped . War is so not worth . said...

I started weeping last night watching Amy interview two families of black sons murdered in custody. And I couldn't stop . . . until I started trying to think about what "good" people could "do" instead of "nothing." (Can't remember who I'm quoting, but the statement was about how evil thrives in the absence of proaction.) I've known for some time that the murder epidemic within in our policing and correctional systems, as well as the gun-related atrocity that grows here like moss on a rock, merely trickles down from our ghastly foreign policy which dates back almost to 1776. Our people -- as Ta-Nehisi Coates might put it, those of us who believe ourselves to be white -- have built this country on an endless string of crimes against humanity which I don't have to enumerate for this audience. Thoughts led me to two modes of inquiry: Who are we and why are we like this? and What does it take to stage a wide-scale tax revolt with pledges toward a critical mass? I know it's been tried before, but nothing beyond. Dear god, I'm just a sickly 74 year old grandma, but I can't bear being part of this. I feel we have come to the last battle between darkness and light, and the evil even confounds these polar opposites with the so-called "white race" which imagines itself the bringer of light and owner of civilization as its major doomseeker. That's all I can write now, but hope this resonates.