The Great Anti-War Films An Act of Conscience

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