January 18, 2010
Dear President Obama,
Last year, on or around November 5th, one of your Revenue Officers hand delivered an envelope to my family’s home, addressed to me. The Internal Revenue Service has decided I owe them about $30,000, and the handwritten letter inside carefully detailed missing tax returns, requests for payment, and deadlines and threats about future actions if I decline to pay. Unfortunately, the officer, Matt Corewitz, dropped the envelope at the front door, which hasn’t been used by anyone since the house was bought nearly 40 years ago. If it hadn’t been spotted by my sister as she walked her dog, it would probably still be there today, with the full gravity of its threats of levy and seizure and summons languishing powerless in the snow. I guess the good news is that the house isn’t under surveillance (yet), or surely Officer Corewitz would have known to take his letter to the door that everyone uses. But I’m not writing to you to recommend hiring more competent revenue agents, or to put a camera on the house, or even to thank you for the friendly reminder about my delinquent payments. I’m writing to tell you about war tax resistance, or why the IRS hasn’t heard from me since 1998.
I was told by the agent’s letter that I was “required” to respond by December 4th, but I felt that the day we set aside to honor Dr. King was a more appropriate day to get in touch, so I waited. Let me explain: I know you’re familiar with the tactic of civil disobedience and its vital role in the struggle for civil rights in this country. Even as I type this letter, I’m imagining you standing at a podium somewhere, intoning gracefully in your inimitable style about Dr. King’s dream and the importance of the movement that he led. But if you’re like most politicians – and you are – then you’ll be careful, today and every day, to avoid any reference to or any reflection upon Dr. King’s speech at the Riverside Church, also referred to as “Beyond Vietnam” and “A Time to Break the Silence.” I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about, even if you don’t appear to think about it much. It’s the one where he states, “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government.” It’s been more than 40 years since Dr. King spoke his inconvenient truth about the threat the U.S. government poses to peace and justice worldwide, and in that time, nothing has changed to alter the fundamental truth of what he said. Now you lead that government, and so I write to tell you why I can not in good conscience comply with your agent’s request to send money, now or ever.
Dr. King told his audience at the Riverside Church that “every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” For me, that has meant not only participating in peaceful demonstrations against my government’s policies, but also taking direct action in certain instances and committing nonviolent civil disobedience in others. It also includes nonpayment of taxes, because of the overwhelming amount of money being spent on war by your government, and the administrations that preceded yours. Dr. King wrote that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” I would quibble with the good Dr. King on his use of the word ‘defense’ there, but other than that, he seems to be on point, and the warning he gave in 1967 certainly seems prophetic today, as our consumer culture collapses around us, leaving us with mountains of debt, crumbling infrastructure, terminal cynicism, and a vague but persistent sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Your expansion of the Bush administration’s war in Afghanistan and your decision to prolong the occupation of Iraq, among numerous other crimes that I’ll get to in a minute, put the blame for our continuing spiritual death spiral squarely on your narrow shoulders.
Although the $30,000 I allegedly owe probably wouldn’t even cover the bar tab at the party AIG threw with its bailout money (you didn’t think I’d write a letter like this without throwing that in there, did you?), it’s still a considerable sum for people like me who are committed to the struggle for social and economic justice. I don’t make that kind of dough in a good year, and the only way I’d ever see a sum like that all in one place at one time would be if an ATM blew up in my face. But even if I had the 30 grand, the IRS is the last group of people I’d give it to. OK, well, really the top executives of Goldman Sachs are the last people I’d give it to, but the Treasury Department is a close second, and you could make the case that there’s not a whole lot separating the two these days.
If I had that kind of money at my disposal, I’d send some of it to the people in Haiti, who are trying to dig out from under the wreckage of an earthquake, but also trying to break free from the misery that has been their lot since before Toussaint L’Ouverture rose up against the slave masters. The U.S. government, ever fearful of that example, has responded to Haiti’s yearning for freedom with its frequent military interventions, its support of the reviled Duvalier dictatorships, its ouster of the democratically-elected Aristide government, and its insistence upon the World Bank and IMF’s neoliberal policies for the Haitian economy, which are as much to blame for the plight of Port-Au-Prince today as any natural disaster is.
I’d send some to Gaza, where the population suffers collective punishment at the hands of the occupying Israeli Defense Forces. As you played golf in Hawaii in the days leading up to your inauguration, the Palestinian population was mercilessly shelled, with Israeli war crimes climaxing in the hours right before you took your oath of office. And, as ever, U.S. taxpayer funds paid for all the bombs and bullets tearing into Gaza one year ago this month.
Some of the money would have to go to Colombia, where your Democratic Party predecessor, Bill Clinton, initiated “Plan Colombia,” as part of your government’s multibillion dollar (and totally ludicrous) “War on Drugs.” I’ve spoken to peasants in Colombia who have had their vegetable crops fumigated by U.S. taxpayer-funded spraying. I’ve met widows of trade union workers assassinated by right-wing Colombian paramilitaries, who enjoy an unusual degree of impunity, considering the fact that more unionists are murdered each year in Colombia than in the rest of the countries of the world combined. All paid for by the U.S. Treasury, and somberly acknowledged by the State Department each year in its report to the Congress on human rights violations around the world.
I’d give some to people and organizations right here in Boston, who work to mitigate the effects of the “War on the Poor,” which has been waged ruthlessly and tirelessly in this country since it was stolen from the original inhabitants. But because I don’t have the money, I’m going to continue to donate my time and energy to these causes, and speak out against and demonstrate my opposition to these injustices.
Dr. King said that “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He declared that the call of this revolution is “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men,” which was the only way to defeat the “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” that plague mankind. I am going to spend the rest of my days trying to get on the right side of the world revolution. Unfortunately for you, and Revenue Officer Corewitz and his colleagues at the IRS, that means there won’t be any checks from me until the policies of the U.S. government undergo the same transformational change. I hope someday you’ll join us.
I’ll leave you with an image. Last night, in a basement bar not far from where I live, a poet from your hometown of Chicago performed a show in honor of Dr. King. He read his own poems, of course, but also some of Dr. King’s words, and words from people who had influenced the martyred preacher’s thinking. One of those people was Gandhi, and the poet sang of the power of satyagraha, “the Force which is born of Truth and Love,” as he fronted a four-piece jazz combo that fed off the intensity of the imagery he was creating. And finally the poet read from the work of a local hero of sorts, although he’s gained quite a following since he took his sabbatical at the side of Walden Pond, just down the road from here. And as the dreadlocked poet from Chicago’s projects spat out the words of Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” infusing the old transcendentalist’s message with the fierce urgency of now, over the beat of the drums, the thump of the bass, and the moan of the saxophone, the people cheered.