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Tax Resistance: Woman Opposes War, IRS

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 14, 2006

Want your anti-war protest to get noticed? Don’t pay your taxes. 

Susan Quinlan’s been doing it for 25 years, and she’s attracted plenty of attention from the Internal Revenue Service, which showed up at her front door one day demanding she pay a portion of her earnings or face imprisonment. 

Quinlan refused to cooperate, the IRS slunk away and, 10 years later, she’s dodging federal tax laws as gamely as ever. 

Quinlan, 47, is an out-and-proud tax resister, a would-be taxpayer who refuses to pony up each April 15—or April 17 this year—in conscientious objection to federal expenditures on war. 

According to the National Priorities Project (NPP), a nonpartisan research group, the war in Iraq costs $272.6 billion and counting. In Berkeley alone, that’s $97.7 million, enough to send almost 13,000 kids to Head Start for a year, hire 1,693 additional teachers or pay for 880 new public housing units. 

About 28.5 percent of personal income taxes fund the military, the NPP says. The War Resisters League, a peace action organization, pegs the figure closer to 50 percent, when taking into account veterans’ benefits and interest on past military spending. 

It is estimated that tens of thousands of Americans refuse to pay dues in some form as protest, be it a 3 percent phone bill charge, a symbolic sum like $9.11 or all personal income.  

Penalties for tax resistance vary, and can include the issuance of notices, fines between 5 to 25 percent of what’s owed, plus interest, property seizures or, in rare cases, criminal action. 

Quinlan, a Berkeley resident, has retooled her life to keep negative consequences to a minimum. She doesn’t own property or maintain much cash in bank accounts and she declines jobs that require she withhold money from her paycheck. 

“My approach was, I don’t want to pay any taxes at all, which means adapting my lifestyle to make that possible,” Quinlan said.  

As a full-time volunteer peace advocate, Quinlan falls beneath the tax line this year and need not pay a dime. In the past, though, when she’s owed money, she’s had to navigate thorny legal territory to ensure her earnings steer clear of federal war coffers. 

One problem facing many aspiring resisters is that taxes are typically taken out of paychecks automatically, thwarting the opportunity to resist. Solutions include self-employment, contract work, or loading up on W-4 allowances that minimize per-paycheck deductions. When April 15 rolls around, many resisters either submit a 1040 then refuse to pay their taxes or eschew filing altogether. 

Quinlan opts for the latter. She hadn’t filed a federal income tax return since 1987, when the IRS came after her wages from a job she held at a nonprofit Latina employment agency. Rather than pay up, she quit, and would do it again, she said. 

“I loved that job, but my commitment to not pay for war came first,” she said. 

Does that mean she pockets the money and heads for the outlets? 

Definitely not, she said. Like many resisters, Quinlan redirects those tax dollars to local charities and community groups. 

“I always calculated what taxes would be owed because I do feel it’s important that I contribute to the community,” she said. “I just don’t want it to go to illegal, immoral, imperialistic wars.” 

Tax resistance as peace activism is nothing new. Examples in the United States date back to colonial times, when Quakers condemned taxation during the American Revolution and the Mexican-American War, saying they wouldn’t pay for killing, the War Resisters League website says. 

Henry David Thoreau famously spent a night in jail in 1846 for spurning a poll tax levied to fund military operations. Other luminaries who’ve said no to war taxes include Joan Baez, Gloria Steinem, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dorothy Day, David Dellinger and Noam Chomsky. 

In 1972, Oakland Mayoral Candidate Ron Dellums, then a congressmember, introduced a bill that would allow taxpayers to declare conscientious objector status. The bill has been reintroduced into each Congress since, last year by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).  

But until it passes—if ever—Quinlan and her tax-bucking ilk will continue to defy the law in the name of peace.  

“I write to Congress, I make phone calls, I march, but to me, this is just a bottom line,” Quinlan said, “I feel if I really want to be clear about standing up for peace, I need to take it to every step of my life.” 


Tax Day Events 

Bay Area Women in Black, a group of Jewish feminists and allies, will meet for a silent vigil at 35th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, to mourn the cost of war. Call Sandra Butler at 597-1070 or Sharon Dugan at 271-0825 for more information.  

The Oakland-based Northern California War Tax Resistance group will donate more than $8,000 to community groups working for peace, justice and human rights on Monday, April 17, at 1550 Fifth St. in Oakland (around the corner from West Oakland BART), from 6:30 to 8 p.m. From 8:15 to 10 p.m. the group will greet tax filers with an outdoor anti-war slide show and distribute flyers about how federal taxes are used for war at the West Oakland Post Office, 1675 Seventh St. For more information, go to or call 843-9877..