Journeys Begin with the First Step

| Profiles

by DeCourcy Squire

DeCourcey SquireIt is late winter in the 1950s. My father is closeted with lots of receipts, trying to figure out the taxes. Although he is a brilliant mathematician, he finds arithmetic, especially in these pre-calculator days, tedious and it makes him cross. My brother and I tiptoe around, careful not to disturb him. Despite the stress, my parents are strong supporters of a progressive income tax which helps the government pay for programs to promote the common good. Years later, they will decline to take an exemption that would allow them not to pay school taxes. Their example instills in me a strong sense of social responsibility-but how to express this takes me on a different path.

It is January 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. I am on the steps of the Antioch Inn in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where my friend Gene introduces me to Wally Nelson. Wally is a nonviolent activist who served time in prison during World War II because of his pacifist convictions. As he explains his philosophy of personal responsibility and the mechanics of his tax resistance, it immediately makes sense to me. Later that spring I begin a six-month stint at the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) farm in Voluntown, Connecticut. There I encounter other tax resisters and activists, take part in nonviolent direct actions, and get involved with Peacemakers, of which the Nelsons, Ernest and Marion Bromley, and Rev. Maurice MacCrackin, all staunch war tax resisters, are guiding lights.

I emerge from CNVA a vegetarian, tax resister, feminist, pacifist-activist, prison abolitionist, and with a philosophy that combines individual responsibility with community involvement and collective action. This is an emergence rather than a transformation: I have grown in the courage to do the things I feel are right, but it feels as if these are things I have known and believed in for a long time. For the next 25 years I live on an income below the taxable level, both as a war tax resistance strategy and as part of a commitment to simple living. From the time of my first telephone in 1970, I refuse to pay the federal excise tax. Every few years I get a letter from IRS about this, but when I respond with a letter explaining my refusal and the added information that I do not have bank account, car, or house for them to seize, they go away again.

Rochester 1972: Our little band of tax resisters hands out nickels of tax-resisted money at bus stops when the fare is threatening to go up-this is where our tax dollars should be going. Then on to Boston: I am part of a women’s collective which bails people out of jail using money placed in escrow by war tax resisters.

In the 1970s it is not hard to live on a nontaxable income while sharing expenses in communal households. In 1980 I move to Nebraska where the cost of living is even cheaper. I am working on the abolition of the death penalty and supporting myself by teaching adult basic education. When the funding for adult basic education dries up, I start looking around for another occupation I can do part-time to fund my activism. I end up going back to school to become a physical therapist.

What I find in the 1990s is that even working part-time as a physical therapist, I am making more than a taxable income. To prevent withholding, I put down extra allowances on my W-4. This is a tactic which sent my friend John Leininger to jail in the 1970s, but the rules have changed somewhat. I put money into a socially responsible IRA; I make major (tax deductible) donations to organizations I used to be only able to donate a pittance to and become a life member in several; I find ways to use part of my income for work-related purposes. I have less money left to live on than when I made a nontaxable income. I spend hours with many receipts, stressing about whether or not I have gotten my income down to a nontaxable level. I think of my father.

I move to Minneapolis. The cost of living is higher. There are a couple of years when I end up “owing” the government money. I send money orders instead to government programs of which I approve, such as the Indian Public Health Service. We have a war tax resistance support group. Each April 15th we go with our signs and flyers to the post office, which is open until midnight for people to file their returns. Cars stream past while post office workers stand outside with large barrels to collect the envelopes. Inside people frantically fill out forms and schedules. It reminds me of crowds of last minute Christmas shoppers. I find myself wishing that we were all united together, citizens gladly contributing our money to the common good. Why can’t paying taxes, even if stressful, feel as good as making donations and giving gifts?

The IRS starts harassing me for money. I write, I phone, I explain my conscientious objection. Although I do not convince any of the agents with whom I converse (and never get a face-to-face meeting), each phone call and letter, to my surprise, seems to delay things yet further. Eventually in the fall of 1998 they begin to steal money from my paycheck. I feel robbed, invaded, helpless in a way that having my apartment broken into did not make me feel. I resign from my job because I need to move to help take care of my parents who are in failing health.

The new millennium begins. I am in Atlanta, which is expensive. I am helping to take care of my parents, which is expensive. I am struggling to fill out my taxes and knowing that I have not gotten my income to a nontaxable level. It occurs to me briefly how much easier it would be just to pay the taxes. I am emotionally drained and tired. There is not a war on. I feel demoralized from the garnisheeing in Minneapolis.

But when it comes down to it, I cannot do it. Is my weariness more important than the lives of people who will be killed in far away wars? True there is no official war just then, but the money is going to prepare for future wars, it is funding the School of the Americas and new weapons systems. I cannot unknow this. I compose one of my tax resistance letters.

In the years that follow, there is indeed a war to demonstrate against and to refuse to pay for. I am relieved that I did not give in to my moment of weakness when I was at such a low ebb. I write my yearly letters to IRS and continue to refuse to pay. But I am submerged in the care of my parents. I get letters from IRS, eventually threatening to garnishee my wages again. My parents die. In 2008 in lieu of taxes I am able to send a large donation to MADRE for their work with women in Iraq. In January 2009 the IRS begins taking huge hunks of my paycheck. I am not ready to leave my job. I am grateful that none of my money went to IRS during the horrifying Bush years, to pay for war, for torture, for the erosion of human rights and civil liberties. But I still don’t see that there is a radically changed budget priority that would justify beginning to contribute to the national coffers.

So for now, I live frugally on the money I began putting by when I started getting the warnings of the garnisheeing. I contact the phone company about my ongoing resistance to the federal excise tax. When I talk to friends and co-workers about my tax resistance, I try to distinguish it from the people who just hate taxes. I am committed to continuing to do what is within my power to direct my money and efforts towards building a better world, and for me tax resistance is still the first step in that process.

From the July/August 2009 issue of More Than a Paycheck.