The Making of an Activist

| Profiles

by Peter Smith

I was a product of the 50s: Civil Defense drills, the Red Menace, McCarthyism, super patriotism, Korean War, etc. I joined NROTC in college so my parents would not have to pay my tuition and books. I had two younger sisters they needed to send to college. I did not like Navy life and resigned after spending the required four years in service, although my politics were as right wing as ever. While I was in the Navy we had to endure countless counter-insurgency lectures, as the military advisors were already starting their work in Vietnam. I arrived at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1964 and immediately joined a group called Young Christian Students (YCS), since it was the only student group at the Catholic Center.

The YCS group at Wisconsin was very reflective and at the same time very action oriented. We were encouraged to take on projects that would help alleviate some injustice at the University. Some of these projects were next to impossible. One of my friends and I tried to figure out how to stop students from wasting so much food in the dining hall. But, by tackling projects which seemed unattainable, I learned that it is not success that is important, but commitment to do what seems to be right and constant questioning of that commitment by dialogue with those who hold other views. Although I didn’t know it then, this commitment and questioning is at the heart of the nonviolent lifestyle.

It was during this time of intense reflection/action that we heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been beaten and attacked by police dogs when he and a small group of his followers had tried to march from Selma to Montgomery. This news electrified the nation, and young people from all over the country piled on buses to travel to Alabama to march with him. But the buses were all redirected to Washington, D.C. Dr. King only wanted those trained in nonviolent direct action to be with him. He was afraid that untrained hotheads would retaliate violently against his oppressors, and the civil rights movement would lose its moral high ground.

The YCS group rented a bus and traveled to Montgomery when Dr. King decided to open the march on its last day to all who supported his movement. That march was a conversion experience for me. I had to overcome my fear and engage in my first nonviolent direct action. The line of march was several people abreast and stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. We flowed out into the square in front of the Alabama capitol with its confederate flag flying high overhead and spent the afternoon listening to speeches by very committed individuals, including Dr. King himself.

I was to hear Dr. King again in Chicago a few years later, when he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, and I was moved to the core by his simple eloquence. His message of non-violence rooted in Christian principles, his courage to stand up for what he believed in when the odds seemed insurmountable, motivated me to dedicate my life to non-violent struggle against racism and other forms of injustice.

The student body at Wisconsin had many confrontations with CIA officials, military recruiters, and DOW Chemical Company representatives. Often the smell of tear gas would accompany me on my way home from class. I engaged in several direct actions involving ROTC at Wisconsin. Many of my friends were burning their draft cards and/or fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft, but since I had already served, I was exempt from the draft. After graduating in 1968, and starting a teaching job at a predominantly black college in New Orleans, I found it hard to keep up my resistance to the war. Then I heard about war tax resistance and that the government was drafting my tax dollars to kill Vietnamese. I started with phone tax refusal, but soon escalated to refusing the military portion of the income tax — it was over 60% in those days. I had three small children, so it was important that my wife supported our resisting war taxes. By that time I had moved to South Bend, Indiana, and found that many Notre Dame students were ready to take action against the war. We set up a small draft counseling office and held many demonstrations on campus and in town. I first committed civil disobedience during the May Day, 1970, “Shut Down Washington” events and experienced 14 hours and a macing in the D.C. jail.

Although I offered to start paying taxes as a good faith gesture after Nixon ended the war, it soon became clear that there was no reduction in military spending. My wife and I have been refusing to voluntarily pay the military portion of our income taxes ever since. We file the 1040 each year but refuse to send the payment. Because my wife is self-employed, and I claimed 10 allowances on my W-4 form, we avoided withholding on the refused amount. Unlike other war tax resisters, we have never succeeded in shielding our bank accounts and salaries from the IRS. They have collected everything they claim we owe plus penalties and interest. They have garnished wages, seized bank accounts and my IRA, put liens on my house, and even taken insurance payments due to my wife’s medical practice.

However, I have found it very empowering to be able to say “No” to the government as it has continued to wage wars in Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Colombia, Iraq, and many other places. In answer to the many who have questioned the effectiveness of our resistance, we point to the way it has helped us stay active as citizens over the years. We tell folks that the penalties and interest are used to pay IRS employees and don’t end up in the general fund. Also, the power of nonviolence is at work. The comptroller who tried to get me fired when my wages were first seized wrote a note expressing his respect for my stand when he retired.

When I vigil on the corner every Monday or refuse to pay the military portion of my income tax each year, Dr. King’s example is always before me, pointing out the way of nonviolence with its belief in the innate ability of people to change their minds and hearts when confronted with the power of truth and love.

Peter Smith is active with Michiana War Tax Refusers. He is a webmaster for NWTRCC and served on NWTRCC’s Administrative Committee from 2002–2005.