Not With Their Money
By Mike Butts
APRIL 12, 1999:
"There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to [it]." --Henry David Thoreau
This can't be the home of a 47-year-old practicing physician. It sits in the middle of a poor East Austin neighborhood, fitting in nicely with the other slightly tattered rent houses on its block. The front porch steps could use some paint, and the wood siding would benefit from an overhaul.
The house's plain interior contains a dining table with six mix-and-mix chairs. A garage-sale brown sofa with cat-scratched arms anchors the living room. It's the home of Dr. Paula Rogge, an emergency room physician. A house where prostitutes have solicited visiting friends before they could get out of their cars. Where Rogge's bedroom was converted from a large storage closet. And where her schoolteacher roommate chips in with half the rent.
Rogge's 1980 Toyota, parked on the street, is paid for. She has no mutual funds, IRA, or retirement plan. Today she wears the same clothes she wore yesterday, along with worn, black basketball shoes. Once, while serving as a doctor at the Eastside Family Practice, she asked that her salary be lowered to $100 a week.
Rogge calls herself middle class. She makes enough money working temporary ER jobs around the state to pay for trips home to Illinois, her graduate film school work at UT, and even a student-movie postproduction party.
She lives in East Austin because she decided a long time ago that she wanted to integrate her community and "integrate myself." She's not interested in making a lot of money, accumulating assets, or savings, because if she doesn't have money or assets there's nothing for the IRS to take. Her contract ER jobs allow her to stay a step ahead of that agency.
A war tax resister since 1981, Rogge doesn't want her money going to help the United States wage war against the people of Iraq, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, or any other country. "If I were to pay taxes for war, it would go against everything I've worked for as a doctor," Rogge says.
A few gray strands mix in with Rogge's shoulder-length, brown hair. She wears large-frame glasses and demonstrates a humility and straightforwardness uncommon to many physicians. It is hard to imagine anyone calling her Dr. Rogge, and she doesn't refer to herself that way.
"I feel sorry for a lot of those MDs because they're kind of locked into that lifestyle," Rogge says of physicians in the private practice fast lane. "They get locked into the big mortgage and the car payments. I left full-time medicine five years ago -- and I feel my life is really rich. I've given up the financial security in exchange for the freedom and it's been really wonderful."
Rogge is one of four war tax resisters in Austin who refuse to pay part or all of their income taxes because funding the military is inconsistent with their spiritually based believe in nonviolence. The group, called the Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation (ACOMT), consists of three Quakers and one Catholic, all single. One of about 50 such groups and an estimated 8,000-10,000 war tax resisters nationwide, they formed officially in the mid-Eighties, making ACOMT the only organized group of its kind in Texas. The local group has roots that go back to the Vietnam War era.
"We don't feel that we ourselves would pick up weapons, so we don't feel as though we can pay for other people to do that," says Austin war tax resister Susan Van Haitsma.
In the United States, war tax resistance goes back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau's famous night in jail for refusing to pay taxes that supported the Spanish-American War. But war tax resistance in the U.S. did not become a full-fledged movement until World War II, when the federal government extended taxation to help pay for the war. Involvement in war tax resistance since then has been up and down, depending mostly on U.S. involvement in wars and the unpopularity of those wars. The movement escalated during the Vietnam War.
As a young student in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Rogge witnessed a local peace group's annual leafletting of the post office on tax day. The group's flyer had a pie chart that showed the percentage of federal tax dollars that went to military spending. (The War Resisters League says 49% of the fiscal year 1999 federal budget goes to past and current military spending, while the federal government claims only 15% goes to the military.) "That really made an impression on me, that they would try to show people the connection between their taxes and what they were paying for," Rogge says.
She began war tax resistance in her first year of medical residency. "In my second year of doing this I decided to be open about it and I wrote a letter to the editor at tax time," says Rogge, who worked at a migrant clinic in Harlingen. "It was kind of a scary thing to do. I sensed a change in the medical staff and their attitude toward me. But a lot of people came out of the woodwork and told me they agreed with me and thought there were alternatives to war."
In 1990 the IRS seized Rogge's car, a 1980 Toyota Corolla. The IRS auctioned the vehicle to a used-car dealer as Rogge and 20 supporters protested. But a sympathetic doctor who knew Rogge bought the car from the dealer and returned it to her.
Most war tax resisters are open with the IRS about why they do not pay taxes and even file taxes with explanations of their refusal. Consequently they face little threat of being jailed. But there remains the possibility of having wages garnered. And living on lower incomes creates anxiety.
"I met with the IRS last spring, and they threatened to take me to court if I didn't tell them what assets I had," Rogge says. "I basically told them I didn't have any. It's a little scary entering middle age and realizing I don't have any savings, I don't have any retirement. Most of us are living day to day. I have chosen not to accumulate money because I couldn't honestly tell the IRS that I have no assets if I did."
Alternatives exist for war tax resisters to cope with old age or medical hardships, such as Quaker or Mennonite escrow accounts, peace funds, or communal living. But faith is as much a strategy against the future as anything.
War tax resisters have no quarrel with the IRS, a feeling that is not shared by the agency. "It's not that we are trying to get in conflict with the IRS," Van Haitsma says. "In fact we try to establish a human relationship with any agent we come in contact with."
Austin IRS spokesman Kenneth Vargas says, "We wouldn't directly comment on a specific group, but just because someone doesn't like the way tax money is spent, that's not the issue. Taxes still need to be collected."
Unlike tax evasion groups, the Austin group supports taxation. They just don't support paying for the military. So most of them file their taxes, and all of them figure out what they owe in taxes and give those funds to groups they feel are "life affirming." A picture of Rogge and Thad Crouch, another Austin war tax resister, giving a $1,600 check to the Texas Homeless Network appears on the cover of the national war tax resister organization's August newsletter. Even Van Haitsma, who has made only about $5,000 a year since 1990, donates her "taxes" to nonviolent and non-military social organizations.
Van Haitsma has resisted paying taxes since 1985. In 1990 she quit her job, got rid of her car, and stopped filing income taxes. She lives in a vintage, UT-area house and helps update it in exchange for rent. She cleans houses for her cash income and wears hand-me-down clothes, which enable her to keep her clothing budget to $50 a year. "I wanted to just remove myself from the whole system," says Van Haitsma, a serene and slender 41-year-old. "It's a very rewarding lifestyle. It puts me in touch with people of different income levels in Austin, and I enjoy having that interaction."
Van Haitsma's income is below the taxable level, but she is still required to pay Social Security tax. She says she's ambivalent about not paying Social Security, but her plan is never to use it. And since a percentage of Social Security taxes goes into treasury bonds that "find their way into the military," paying Social Security would be against her beliefs anyway.
Crouch, 29, is prematurely bald and wears a dark brown goatee. He served in the U.S. Army for two years. As a soldier in Fort Benning, Ga., on two or three occasions, he, not knowing of its history of training Latin American military members in torture and other human rights violations, assisted in training soldiers in the School of the Americas.
After leaving the service, Crouch studied criminal justice and aspired to a career in the FBI or CIA. Later he joined Pax Christi, a Catholic peace group, and became interested in pursuing the Jesuit priesthood. One evening at a Pax Christi meeting at Loyola University in New Orleans, he listened to a Haitian refugee speak. In part of his talk, the Haitian referred to the atrocities committed by School of the Americas' graduates and declared the importance of closing it down.
"It was like falling in ice-cold water," Crouch says. "The country I would have died for and killed for betrayed me. The very principles I thought I was upholding -- we were doing the exact opposite."
"I spend my life energy to make my money," says Crouch, a former youth minister. "So what I do with my money is what I do with my life energy, and I don't want my life energy going to the School of the Americas."
Nor does ACOMT member Helen Sanders, who didn't want to use her real name for this story. Sanders has resisted paying war taxes since 1989. She files but doesn't pay about 30% of what she owes, the amount she says constitutes the military part of the federal budget. The IRS garnished her wages for nine months in '93 and '94, and she would "not be surprised if they do it again in the next six to eight months."
"Mostly I just get warning letters," Sanders says. "We don't know what the amount of money is, and it varies across the years. But when a certain threshold is crossed, they really come after you, and for me that happened in October '93."
Sanders says her purpose as a tax resister is not just political. When people tell her she can't change what the military does, she tells them her main purpose is not to change the military but to follow her conscience. "All I'm responsible for is what my money goes to," she says. "That's all I have control over."
War tax resisters believe their resistance can and will result in change. "Every change for the good we've had in this century and before has come about because people were willing to take risks for their convictions," Rogge says. "Maybe not now, maybe not 100 years from now, but someone will find some inspiration for what we're doing."
Rogge's efforts do not end with tax resistance. "It's not enough to follow my conscience and refuse to pay for war," Rogge says. "I have to actually look for alternatives to war, alternative ways for defending people, or people will continue with war because that's the only solution that they have found."
For Crouch, the purpose is clear: "I'm not doing this just so I can be some kind of pure person. I'm doing it to inspire change and maybe make some people think."
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