Death Tax

Your money is paying for a bloody war. Theirs isn't.

Defunding the war in Iraq begins at home if you're John Schwiebert, a 68-year-old pastor at Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church in Northeast Portland.

This week, while the rest of us scrape together money to feed insatiable Uncle Sam, Schwiebert and his 62-year-old wife, Pat, one "seriously pissed-off granny" (see "Surge Protection Brigade," WW, Feb. 21, 2007), won't be filing federal taxes at all.

Instead, in an effort to prevent their money from paying for bloodshed overseas, they're redirecting the $3,500 they figure they owe the Internal Revenue Service to a government without a standing army—in this case, Multnomah County. (Although they say they oppose filing federal taxes, the Schwieberts don't object to paying state and local ones.)

"We don't want to keep it for ourselves; we feel like it's public money," Schwiebert says in the sunroom of the home he shares with six adults, a 99-year-old mansion in Northeast known as the 18th Avenue Peace House.

If the Schwieberts' actions seem extreme, consider this: They're not alone.

The IRS says it doesn't track how many conscientious objectors don't pay their federal taxes every year. But Ruth Benn, an organizer for the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee from Park Slope, Brooklyn, estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 Americans protest U.S. military policy by withholding all or part of their taxes. And John Grueschow of Southeast Portland says that number includes at least 30 people from the Oregon Community for War Tax Resistance.

Benn says she noticed an uptick in the total number of war tax resisters just before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. And now, after leveling off, the numbers are beginning to rise again in the fifth year of the war.

Although the IRS doesn't count tax-withholding war protesters, it does count their taxes. And it tends to miss the money. After all, the U.S. government faces $2.9 trillion in bills next year, and the Department of Defense's budget alone constitutes nearly one-fifth of that—about $600 billion in 2008. (That doesn't include the cost of paying for veterans' benefits and other indirect expenses of war. Other groups like the War Resisters League estimate that slightly more than half of the federal budget covers military-related expenses.)

"The IRS's longstanding position is that individuals may not withhold their income, excise or other taxes in protest against U.S. government policies," writes IRS spokesman Bill Steiner in an email. "Individuals who protest against the war in this fashion can expect to receive bills for what they owe, as well as an assessment of interest and penalties where appropriate."

The Schwieberts know this firsthand, since they've been withholding at least part of their taxes to protest defense policy for 30 years. In 1985, tax collectors tried to seize the couple's former five-bedroom Portland home, which was saved from auction by a friend who clandestinely paid the IRS lien. And beginning in January, the feds started garnishing $1,400 a month from John Schwiebert's $3,000 monthly pension in an attempt to collect the $7,500 the couple owes from 2002 and 2003.

"We're paying a heavy price right now for doing this," Schwiebert says. Even though the feds are still collecting his back taxes, he says his stand raises public awareness of how they spend citizens' tax money.

John Grueschow, a longtime coordinator for the Northwest Military and Draft Counseling Project, which helps soldiers who want to leave the service, also stopped filing federal taxes as a conscientious objector in 1997. "It was ridiculous to do all that peace and justice work and then pay for war through taxes," he says.

For nine years, he gave his money to an antiwar escrow fund that supports antiwar groups like PDX Recruiter Watch, a nonprofit organization devoted to counter-recruiting in area high schools.

Ann Huntwork, 75, and her husband, Bruce, who also live in the 18th Avenue Peace House, have been war tax resisters the Vietnam era in 1973. Together they owe thousands of dollars in back taxes, and the U.S. government is now regularly deducting $205 a month from their $1,600-a-month Social Security benefits.

But Huntwork isn't crying. "We are just delighted that we will be dead before they collect it all," she says.

—News intern Jocelyn Brady contributed to this report.

The Oregon Community for War Tax Resistance is holding a public ceremony at the U.S. Bank Meeting Room of the Central Library on Saturday, April 14, from 3 to 5:30 pm, when the group will present money from the antiwar escrow fund to various nonprofit organizations opposing militarism.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.