The Great Anti-War Films An Act of Conscience

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In
my ongoing series
of anti-war film reviews
, most of the films are set in the context
of a particular war. Some highlight the senseless death on the battlefield
and underline the callousness and ineptitude of politicians and
military commanders. Others tell stories of people who are affected
by war, but not a single shot is fired.

Robbie
Lepzer's piercing documentary film An Act of Conscience does
not depict any warfare or examine the lives of those directly affected
by it. Instead it tells the true story of Randy Kehler and Betsy
Corner of Colrain, Massachusetts, who are so philosophically opposed
to the wars of the State that they risk losing their home.

In
1977, Randy and Betsy openly stop paying federal income taxes because
of their conviction that they cannot in good conscience contribute
any of their income towards the production and employment of weapons
of destruction.

In
March 1989, the federal government seizes ownership of the home
and puts it up for auction in an attempt to recover $27,000 in back
taxes, penalties and interest. Supporters of the couple and their
twelve-year-old daughter pledge $35,000 in food and community services
for the area's poor. The Feds reject this gesture. Perhaps that
is not surprising; the government would rather confiscate your tax
dollars for its social-spending boondoggles than allow private citizens
to take care of one another on a voluntary basis.

When
not a single monetary bid is received, the IRS purchases the home
for $5100. What a racket! They steal a family's home for pennies
on the dollar, pennies that they pilfered by force to begin with.
Robert Goldsmith of the IRS said, "One of the things you have
to understand is that the United States government, as represented
by the Internal Revenue Service … is not a punitive organization.
Our job is to collect taxes." Newsflash, Mr. Goldsmith: all
government by its very nature is punitive.

Nine
months after the auction, the Feds serve a formal eviction notice
and charge Randy and Betsy with illegally occupying US government
property. The couple argues that the government's military policies
violate international law and hence their refusal to support those
policies with their tax dollars is protected by the Nuremberg Treaty.
In November 1991, the US District Court rejects the argument and
issues a federal court order demanding they leave their house. They
don't leave, of course, so on December 3, 1991, US Marshals and
IRS agents (AKA Jack Booted Thugs) seize the home and arrest Randy
Kehler for violating the order. The very next day, supporters of
Randy and Betsy reoccupy the house, exposing themselves to arrest.

Now
in jail after being sentenced to up to six months for contempt of
court, Randy Kehler, who had spent two years in prison for refusing
to be drafted during the Vietnam War, explains how he copes with
incarceration:

What
is the most helpful is simply remembering that killing is wrong;
remember what killing looks like; what it's like in the eyes
of somebody who's lost a child or a husband or a lover or companion
in war. Nobody can tell me that's right. And if that's not
right, then to refuse to be part of that must be right.

Meanwhile,
twelve affinity groups occupy the house 24/7 on a rotating basis.
On February 12, 1992, the JBTs return to the house to arrest seven
supporters and empty the home of all its contents. Later that day,
they hold a second public auction. Speaking at a press conference
outside the federal building where the auction will take place,
Betsy Corner reiterates her position:

We
know that we are doing the right thing. Randy and I do not accept
the legitimacy of this sale … we don't accept that it's legitimate
to pay for war, to pay for killing, to give our property up
for killing. It's our responsibility to act on what is right.

The
house is sold to the highest bidder for $5400. Once the Feds leave
the house, supporters immediately reoccupy it.

The
next day, Danny Franklin and Terry Charnesky stop by to inspect
"their" house, where they are confronted (peacefully)
by Randy, Betsy and their supporters. Terry, who it soon becomes
apparent is running the show, attempts to justify colluding with
the federal government to steal a family's home: "I'll never
be able to get a house for $114,000 or $189,000. It was an opportunity,
and if I didn't get it, someone else would, ya know?"

True
enough, but does that make it right?

Later,
Terry the Opportunist and Betsy the Scrupulous discuss the matter:

Betsy:
It is my house. I don't understand how you could feel
like it really would be your house.

Terry:
If you wanted to stay here, why didn't you pay the taxes so
that your daughter could stay here, if you were thinking about
her?

Betsy:
Because I think about her and I think about all the kids that
have been killed by our bombs and our mines…. I've had friends
who have been down in countries where US-paid-for mines have
killed kids … so for my own child, I do everything I can, but
I can't pay for these weapons that I know have been used to
kill a lot of kids.

Terry:
Well don't you think that without a military, we couldn't have
a country? (I knew it! She was coached by the neocons!) You
know, I don't agree with killing or anything either, but I'm
an American. I pay my taxes. I bought this house with my tax
money … that's just America — it was founded on taxes and it's
always going to be that way.

Poor
Terry. Perhaps she is just a victim of umpteen years of government
schooling and twenty-odd years of intensive television viewing.

During
the next two months, supporters of Kehler and Corner continue to
occupy the house while the family stays with neighbors across the
road. On April 15, 1992, the affinity group leaves the house to
join a tax protest at an IRS compound in a nearby town. Danny Franklin,
Terry Charnesky and their cabal of thieves take the opportunity
to occupy the house themselves.

A
day later, Terry and her minions are heard to utter racial slurs
about "that funny Chinese man outside" who turns out to
be a Buddhist monk who has arrived to lend peaceful encouragement.

Aaron
Falbel, a freelance writer and fellow war-tax resister underscores
the crux of the dispute:

This
is not a battle between two different families. It's not us
against them. What we're protesting is the priorities of our
government. The government cannot confiscate someone's house
— steal someone's house — take advantage of a couple
who is desperate for housing, put them in there, pit them against
us, all because they want money for their war toys.

But
how were Randy, Betsy and their supporters able to continue their
protest on the land just outside the house? In a twist worthy of
the most ingenious Hollywood script, the land surrounding the house
is not owned by Franklin and Charnesky, but by the Valley Community
Land Trust, a private non-profit organization that leased the land
to Randy and Betsy. Because of this quirk in the standoff, supporters
build a small cabin just outside the house and the affinity groups
continue their constant vigil.

Two
months later, in June of 1992, some cops show up — not to arrest
anyone, but simply to "take names" for the local District
Attorney.

As
the face-off wears on, cracks being to appear in the supporters'
coalition. Some want to retake the house. Others consider the forcible
reoccupation of the house a "war tactic" and are therefore
understandably opposed. Randy Kehler favors continuing the vigil,
but not taking the house back.

Despite
the ongoing clash over the legal status of the Valley Community
Land Trust land, on May 28, 1993, the Franklin County Superior court
issues an injunction prohibiting the protesters from continuing
their vigil outside the disputed home.

On
June 6, 1993, the remaining supporters meet to discuss their next
move. Wally Johnson, an organic farmer, pleads the case for continued
action:

I
was thinking as I was walking over here, what type of struggle
are we in? A struggle to demonstrate freedom. And freedom —
you don't vote for it, you don't shoot for it, you don't tell
other people what to do about it — freedom is what you do yourself.

Those
who are willing to subject themselves to arrest stay on the land.
Four days later, the remaining stalwarts are arrested. Still defiant
(but peaceful), they refuse to walk; instead they remain limp, and
it takes four officers to carry each resister to the paddy wagon.

One
of the women arrested explains why she is willing to submit herself
to incarceration:

If
we recognize that little place in ourselves that says, u2018It does
not matter what you do to my body. It does not matter what you
do to my job or my things. You can't take away my inner belief;
you cannot take away my conviction. There's no way you can rip
that out of me. There's nothing you can do to take that
away.'

By
September 1993, after 21 months, the vigil comes to an end.

The
solution to this problem ultimately comes outside the government
system as Franklin and Charnesky enter into private negotiations
with the Valley Community Land Trust. On December 31, 1993, they
agree to sell the house to the Trust and drop all lawsuits. Randy
and Betsy have the option to move back into their house, but opt
instead to live with Betsy's mother in a new home on Trust land.
And they continue to refuse to pay federal war tax.

Though
Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner can certainly be considered heroes
for taking a stand against the powerful federal government and the
malevolent IRS, they unfortunately only get it half right. You see,
the couple agrees with the principal of taxation, but is
morally opposed to the way the federal government uses tax
money. They do pay state and local taxes.

They
think their taxes should go toward butter instead of guns; toward
housing, health care and education instead of tanks, bombs and mines.
Therein lies the faulty nature of their reasoning: for once they
grant the government the power to steal money from individuals to
pay for programs they support, they grant tacit power to
the same government to pay for programs they oppose. Said another
way, once you grant the State the power to do something for
you, you also grant it the power to do something to you.

Still,
they deserve much credit and respect. They file a federal tax return
each year, but withhold payment. Instead they send the money that
Uncle Sam demands to groups that help victims of war. And after
all, war is the biggest government program of all.

The
folk singer Pete Seeger appears in the film and tells a story that
is a wonderful lesson for us all:

(There
is) a big seesaw. At one end of the seesaw is a basket of rocks
that's down on the ground. At the other end of the seesaw is
a basket half-full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons and
we're tryin' to fill up that basket. Of course, most people
are laughing at us. u2018Don't you see? The sand is leaking out
of the basket as fast as you're puttin' it in.' We say, u2018That's
true, but we're getting' more people with teaspoons all the
time.' Some day you're going to see that whole basket full of
sand, and that whole seesaw's gonna go (the other way) just
like that. People will say, u2018Gee, how did it happen so sudden,
us and our goddamn teaspoons.'

Let's
keep using our teaspoons in whatever way we can to keep filling
that basket with sand and some day we will tip the seesaw in favor
of peace between free people over the wars of the State.

An
Act of Conscience
premiered at the 1997 Sundance
Film Festival
. You may see it on the Sundance
Channel
on Thursday, January 31 at 10:30am ET or order
the video
.

The
Great Anti-War Films:

January
30, 2002

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The
Valley News.

Rick
Gee Archives

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