Being a Quaker I don't really go in for Scripture, but certainly Jesus' arguably vague advice about paying tribute to Caesar and how that relates to tax resistance has been on my mind for quite some time. Caesar in this case being my new friends in the VT Office of the AG.
Today in Lamoille Superior Court was a Hearing on the Merits of the State's case against me: Vermont Department of Taxes vs. Pritsky, Docket no: 225-8-09 Lecv. The State petitioned that I be cited to show cause as to why I should not be required to file income taxes under Vermont Law (pursuant to 32 VSA § 5861, § 5863, and § 5864). As I noted when I was first served, we decided that I should not continue engaging in tax avoidance at the State level and would acquiesce to the Tax Department's requirements.
I'd been in communication with the Assistant AG, Will Baker, via letters (for a physical record) and then last Friday by phone (for more efficient interaction). It's been cordial and while he can't give me legal advice, he did lay things out for me very clearly and even proactively in some cases. After speaking with him I decided it was in my best interest to attend today's hearing, though it wasn't legally required.
The building on Hyde Park's quaint Main St is undergoing repairs to the front entrance, so we had to traipse to the back and get manually wanded instead of going through the regular metal detector. The building is old and to get upstairs to the courtroom you walk up significant number of stairs with lovely wooden railings. It smells of wood and varnish and just wonderful.
Ericka and I sat outside the courtroom for mere minutes when another person from the AG's office--Tim Collins filling in for Mr Baker who had to be in another jurisdiction--stepped out. We all went into a nice little side room to discuss things before the judge came back to the bench. Tim showed me a proposed order compelling me to file for TY2005-2008 and pay the $70.24 in court costs and what it cost the State to serve me. They originally asked if I would comply by 1 November, I countered with 15 November, we filled in the form and initialed, then the three of us headed into the almost-completely empty courtroom (there was one other person sitting in the back whose purpose was opaque).
This is not the first courtroom I've been in, though it's the first time I was present not in support of another dissenter but for myself. It's also the first time I've been in such a nice courtroom--compared to the utilitarian spaces where I've attended proceedings in DC, this was truly gorgeous and right out of any old court drama. We all sat in the audience seating for about 10 minutes in silence.
The bailiff came in and alerted us that the presiding judge, the Honorable Dennis R Pearson, was about to arrive, so Tim and I headed up to our respective desks in front of the bench. Court recorder came in and started a tape (no steno to save costs?), then we heard "all rise!"
Judge Pearson struck me as a tall man, though it could've just been the illusion of his being higher than we were. No robes, just a grey suit.
"Be seated. This is docket number..."
Tim indicated the AG's office and I had been in communication for some time, and this morning had come to an agreement about my filing. He requested to approach the bench with the order we'd gone over. The Judge asked, "Mr Pritsky, do you have any questions?"
"No, I do not, Your Honor."
"So ordered...Thank you for appearing today, Mr Pritsky, and please do make sure to file before November 15th."
"Yes, I will, Your Honor."
That was it. I shook hands with Tim and thanked him, and left as the Judge was already moving on to the next case.
Bailiff came downstairs with me and Ericka with the necessary documents and instructed the clerk to make a copy of the court order with Pearson's chicken scratchings (makes my handwriting look clear). Tim had said this would save the State from having to serve me again, since I was already there, so no more costs have to be added to my tab!
We drove home on a beautiful, crisp, sunny day with so many reds and oranges and yellows already giving us a traditional fall Vermont backdrop. Now we can focus on finishing up thing for Sam's imminent arrival and I have some more breathing room to gather all my documentation to make the State happy.
I admit to being nervous, having never been in such a position before, but I was more so before I'd talked to Will Baker and got a better sense of how things would work. And really, my time in the West Bank provides me with a bit of perspective: having the IDF shoot at one with rubber bullets, teargas, etc, makes one appreciate the civility of Vermont's Judiciary and even the Department of Taxes.
Much of this process has been amicable since I signaled I would not fight the State. I didn't retain counsel, which seemed a complete waste in this context, and everything went smoothly. Were I to continue my non-compliance things would go very differently, but this was a tactical retreat and I sought to avoid complications. Despite the fears oft expressed by others when I mention tax resistance, prison is never inevitable if you understand the long, methodical process and where the point of no return lies--no seeking jail time for me at this juncture.
As Thoreau wrote:
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.
I have other concerns to engage me today: the birth and care of my son being primary.
I never expected this particular tactic to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor bring the Military Industrial Complex to its knees. And while I'd hoped that maybe some people would join in WTR as part of the national boycott movement--particularly if they saw a coward like me who loathes change and confrontation get involved--I didn't delude myself into thinking 150 million Americans would suddenly stick it to The Tax Man.
One can say this experiment was a failure in that it didn't achieve unrealistic goals that I never set. Yet for me, as Quixotic as the exercise was, it was a success.
It allowed me to withdraw consent in a very tangible way, put my concerns on official record, prove to myself that I could take some risks, etc. The entire multi-year experience has also taught me quite a bit about many things: how different resisters live, how people react when you discuss tax resistance and other forms of dissent, how the interactions with state apparatus work, what my own limits are, and what ways I might adjust my approach in the future, amongst other things.
Gandhi wrote in his autobiography (about his experiments with the truth):
A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which injust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.
This is what I hope to teach my son. I did all the things a good citizen is supposed to do: I registered for the Selective Service when I was 18 despite my opposition to war, I paid my war taxes, I voted and followed society's laws; after having proven I could be obedient, and having despaired of ways to really build a more peaceful world, I began to disobey. And seeing how circumstances have changed in this country and in my own life, I stepped back and reassessed what I've been doing. I'm not beholden to one particular approach, because really are we not all experimenting as none of us hold a monopoly on the Truth?
Revenue Refusal was the very first Method of Nonviolent Action that I cataloged over at Pax Americana 2 years ago. I still believe it can be an integral part of an overall strategy of resistance and something that can effect change through collective economic strength.
In my own case it enabled me to redirect funds to more peaceful, constructive pursuits such as traveling to DC to lobby Congress and protest, and to bear witness and deliver aid and support to the people of Palestine. Your mileage may vary, but I hope more people do take the time to honestly consider whether they could engage in some form of tax resistance, whether it be the "extreme" or something more symbolic, like withholding a small amount from their taxes each year.
There are myriad ways to do this. And really if we believe in ending our wars and occupations while creating social justice at home in the form of universal healthcare and marriage equality and the like, can we not take such small risks as having a run in with revenuers?
So I fought the Law and the Law won. Yet it's not a zero-sum game, and I think I won something, too. I've won the opportunity to raise my son in a nonviolent tradition as I continue to muddle my way trying new things to help build a peaceful world for him.