Robin Brookes Journal
Speaking tour in the USA between 16th and 26th February 2007
At the invitation of New York Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, Robin Brookes was invited on a tour of the eastern seaboard of the United States to talk about Peace Tax Seven and our case. His diary follows:
FIRST STOP - YONKERS, NY - 16/02
Two feet of snow. I stay with John and Nana Randall at their home
ON TO WASHINGTON DC - 17-19/02
The next morning John drove us to Washington to attend Marian Franz’s memorial. Marian was a Mennonite and the first Executive Director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund (NCPTF). She campaigned tirelessly over 25 years, winning friendship and admiration from the congressmen she approached. She was instrumental in the formation of Conscience and Peace Tax International and went to nearly every international conference on peace tax. Many tributes came from friends and family. Bill Price recalled that he told Marian that he was a scientist working for the air force. She asked in a hurt voice “How can you do that Bill?”
Shortly after he retired and started the organisation World Peacemakers.
I stayed with Alan Gamble, new Executive Director of NCPTF. The next morning we went to a breakaway Mennonite group to join their service and talk afterwards about the peace issues. One declared Bush as a ‘dry drunk’, pointing to AA expert assessment that Bush might have stopped drinking, but his addiction carries on and manifests itself in his approach to politics and the kind of decisions he is making.
I interviewed Alan on videotape for about 25 minutes and I hope this will provide valuable material for Joe’s full length documentary. We discussed the problem of not knowing how many people are living below the taxable level to avoid paying for war. In America the main tax is income, there is no VAT but sometimes sales tax. Telephone tax was raised to fund the Vietnam War, but has largely been scrapped. So income tax is the main source and keeping below the threshold makes more sense in the US than in the UK. We debated whether a request sent around Quaker (and in the US, Mennonite) meetings would elicit the numbers involved, although that would not reach all below tax earners. One of the NCPTF’s arguments to the government is that they would collect more taxes if there was a peace fund, because highly qualified people would once again feel able to start earning more again. I am sure we could use the same argument, so to have an idea of the numbers would be useful.
NCPTF have produced a very good booklet ‘Stories of Religious Freedom and Conscience in the United States’ which tells the personal stories of people who resisted taxes or have kept their income below taxable level. The latter stories gave this booklet a broader appeal and sent out a positive message. Conscience UK’s booklet does not tell the stories of low earners and I think it is another side of the issue which ought to be communicated in Britain.
I have brought back a number of NCPTF leaflets including one ‘Stages of Conscientious Objection to Military Taxes’ which takes the reader through five stages towards tax resistance, so giving them different levels by which they can support the campaign. Supporters at talks I have given have asked me what they can do besides withholding and this offers some answers. This gets around the all or nothing of war tax resistance.
In the afternoon we went to the Quaker Meeting House which owns the offices Alan works in. We did an interview on videotape lasting 23 minutes. After that we walked around Washington, first up Massachusetts Avenue where the Mosque and most embassies are. We passed the erstwhile Iranian Embassy, very empty with its plaque ripped from the wall. We looked at Khalil Gibran’s monument and took more film. The British Embassy looked too boring for a photograph, but it is on film. After taking a bus back downtown, we passed Gandhi’s monument which I filmed.
Next we went to the Kennedy Center where we got a cup of tea and delicious cake. As evening drew in we walked around the park taking in Lincoln’s monument, the Korean War monument - unfortunately too dark to take pictures of the eerie figures crossing the landscape. Then on to Roosevelt’s massive monument and finally to Thomas Jefferson’s. There is a museum underneath with some interesting displays and a time-line of Jefferson’s period, putting him into context with the world at that time. All the presidents’ monuments bore stirring and noble quotations - marvelous words. I am left with the feeling that all around the capital, literally written in stone are the ideals of this nation and a record of its finest moments. There to be rediscovered when this nation has recovered its sanity.
The next morning we went to the central station from where we toured the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, Senate offices, Capitol Hill. I took some film of all these. We then went to the Smithsonian Botanical Museum and walked around some of the conservatories, not quite Kew but very pleasant. After that we went to the National Museum of the American Indian where we saw a short multimedia presentation and looked at some exhibits each area dedicated to a different tribe. There is much still to see there and the building is a very striking design looking like a rocky outcrop from Arizona. Love of the natural world pervaded the whole museum, outside as well where there was a ‘wild’ garden with pond and ducks.
ON TO PHILADELPHIA - 19/02
After finding some lunch in the vast ‘dining hall’ below Washington Station - another beautiful piece of architecture, we took an Amtrak train to Philly. Then we got on a heavily engineered local train to Pendle Hill where we gave a talk in the evening. We had an unexpectedly good turnout. It had been a busy fortnight and the Friends in Residence thought that not many would have the energy to turn out. In the event we got 30 or so, all very interested. Alan led with a resume of the national campaign and then I gave an account of the Peace Tax Seven’s case. Then we answered questions and a lively discussion ensued. I met Steve Olshewsky who is a vigorous campaigner for a peace tax and a keen lobbyist.
We stayed the night at Pendle Hill which is a lovely rural setting with old, low level buildings and lots of lovely trees - one being tapped for maple syrup. They run a mix of courses which residents choose from, unlike Woodbrooke which runs set courses.
The next morning John Mayer took us to Swarthmore College a short distance away to see the Peace Collection. This is a vast collection on several subterranean floors, probably the largest in the world. I gave Wendy Chmielewski the curator, one of our PT7 badges because she mentioned the large collection of ‘buttons’ they have. She has asked for as much documentation about our campaign as we can send her. We also visited the Friends Historical Library which is similarly vast with material from all over the world. They are currently absorbed with challenging the film ‘Amazing Grace’ for not giving much of a mention of Quakers in the story of the abolition of the slave trade.
Next stop was Friends Center in Philly where we talked to some of the staff over a ‘paper bag’ lunch. They included PYM staff members, area representatives of NCPT and Joan Broadfield who I had met at Pendle Hill the evening before.
Joan drove us to Princeton in the evening where we spoke to a Quaker meeting and had a pot luck dinner. The group of Friends were more critical than I had previously spoken to, which made for a livelier debate. I spent that night at the home of Ted and Eileen Taylor. In the morning Eileen showed me around Princeton campus before taking me to the train station.
TO NEW YORK - 21/02
I arrived at Grand Central Station in Manhattan where I was met by Naomi Greenberg who describes herself as a Jewish Quaker. She took me to the Empire State Building. I was impressed by the quality of building which was miraculously built in 13½ months, I had no idea how adorned with Art Deco details it is. There was marble and gilt everywhere, some floors were being renovated. We went to the 86th floor to the balcony which we could walk around and look out over New York in every direction. I could pick out the Chrysler building (no time to go there), the UN building (or there), Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge and in the distance the Statue of Liberty. I ‘minted’ an Empire State coin from a cent which was a novel diversion, I thought defacing coins was illegal but there we go. We then went to the observatory at the very top for an even more spectacular view.
After lunch in a diner we went to the Guggenheim museum, unfortunately wrapped in scaffolding, but the inside was wonderful and full of pictures I had seen in books only for real. There was a very nice little Kandinsky gallery off the main spiral. I stayed with Naomi at her flat in Queens.
DAN JENKINS’ HEARING - 22/02
In the morning we made our way to the Federal Court in Manhattan where we joined a meeting for worship in the cafeteria. This was a moving start to the proceedings. About 30 were present including his Attorney Fred Detmer and other legal advisor Andy von Salis, both Quakers.
Dan was appealing a lower court decision that dismissed his defence for withholding taxes and fined him $5,000. Dan’s basic argument is that he wants to pay his taxes but that he also seeks an accommodation for his religious conscience and faith. Similar to our argument, but they have no Human Rights Law, so this is under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993. Dan has put a new slant on this argument, claiming that the 9th amendment of the US Constitution protects the pre-existing rights ‘of the people’ and that the New York State Constitution has (in the distant past) exempted those persons with religious ‘scruples of conscience’ from supplying armament or personal service to military activity. Apparently the history of this goes back to the war of independence, so it was a novel argument.
Dan’s case was supported by New York Yearly Meeting in that they had prepared a 20 page amicus brief detailing Quaker belief and history in regard to not participating in war or paying for it. A representative from NYYM was in court.
The hearing took place in a huge courtroom and was by British standards short. Lawyers on both sides were given a fixed time - about 20 minutes - in which to present their case and Fred was given not one, rarely awarded extension to his time but two. The three judges listened carefully to his arguments and asked sensible questions. When Fred presented Dan’s argument that the 9th amendment throws a different light on a case which has otherwise been heard before, two of them nodded in agreement. We all came away feeling positive about the hearing. I hoped that at least they would drop the punitive fine which dates back to the 60's when hundreds of cases for withholding taxes were brought and the courts established a fine to stop ‘trivial’ cases being brought. This insulting term is in fact a legal term meaning that the plaintiff is bringing a case which has been heard before and which has no significantly new argument to justify a re-opening. I would have thought Dan’s 9th amendment argument would have qualified, but unfortunately that was not to be the case and two weeks later his appeal was rejected.
TO WASSAIC BY TRAIN AND ON TO CANAAN - 22/02
I traveled north into New York State that evening, as far as the Harlem line would go and was picked up by Jens Braun to go and stay with him and his family in Canaan. This is on the border with Massachusetts. They are currently building a new community home under the Quaker Intentional Villages Project. Jens and his brother bought 64 acres with a view to forming an ecologically sustainable community. He restored the run down house to live in while constructing first the communal house which will house one family, the communal kitchen area, extra accommodation and washing machines etc. Then the six families will build small houses in a village layout. The houses would have limited accommodation and self catering facilities, enough to create personal space but no more. Visitors would stay in the communal house, some meals would be shared there also. It was an idyllic country setting, already Jens, his brother and their families are raising sheep and Tamworth pigs.
In the morning we went to Hancock Shaker Village which is now a museum. We toured the famous round barn which was very efficient but apparently so expensive that Shakers never again repeated the experiment. We then toured the communal house. What a treat it was to see lots of original Shaker furniture, gadgets and utensils in the setting of their original rooms. I am only sorry my camera ran out of battery before I had photographed barely half the house. We were not able to go to the workshop because it was snowed in. Shame, but then Jens took us on a drive around Mount Lebanon Community which is now a school and ordinary village. I was surprised to learn that there is still a living Shaker community in Main and that there are two new members there - Shakerism is not dead yet!
ON TO PURCHASE MEETING HOUSE - 23/02
In the afternoon we went on to the main event of the trip, New York Yearly Meeting Conference on Conscientious Objection to Military Taxes (COMT, as opposed to COMS which is CO to Military Service). So far hundreds, probably thousands of Americans have gone to court to defend their action in withholding taxes from the IRS. No-one has taken the government to court in the way that PT7 are doing. This is because the US legal system is very different from ours. Over this weekend about 20 people, mostly Quaker but not all, discussed possible ways to bring a case. They looked at bringing a group case or a class action. The latter would be very expensive, involving a lot of research.
To put the weekend’s discussions into a nutshell it was decided to work towards bringing a group action, involving a variety of people of all ages, walks of life, religion and none, from different states etc. About 10 all together. Besides the 10 who have yet all to be found, many more will be involved in publicity, fund-raising, legal and historical research. The wider context of this action includes campaigning in our meetings and churches to raise awareness and support; lobbying congress; writing personal statements of conscience.
This last item is a programme already started in NYYM and other Yearly Meetings in the US. Making a statement of conscience is something we can all do - including in Britain. It is personally helpful and provides proof of intent if the individual goes on to withhold taxes or join the case against the government; it is cumulative in that it builds participation in the campaign and from people who might otherwise not withhold taxes. I hope that we might develop this idea ourselves.
Towards the end of the conference we broke into small groups to discuss each aspect more thoroughly. One group dealt with ‘Prospective Parties’, the others: ‘Preparing Communities’, ‘Research and International Law’, ‘Communication and Media’, ‘Funding and Finance’. The participants and groups will continue to develop their strategy and will meet again in June to take their plans forward. I am impressed by their energy and organisation and I am sure they will succeed - by some route.
I stayed with John and Nana once more and the next day I managed to get in one more videotaped interview before going to the airport. John drove me over to Rosa Packard who has withheld taxes for 25 years. I had a delightful interview with her lasting about 25 minutes. I left America having found new friends and forged stronger links between organisations. Many are looking forward to the 12th International Conference on War Tax Resistance and Peace Tax in 2008 in Britain and I look forward to seeing them again.
Robin Brookes, March 2007