An Interview with Julia Butterfly Hill: Part 1
By Gar Smith
May 26, 2005
In 2003, Julia Butterfly Hill, the arboreal activist who spent two years living atop Luna, a threatened redwood tree, faced a new moment of truth. Hill had won a hefty lawsuit against a corporation that expropriated her tree-sitting fame to market cell phones in a TV ad. The government subsequently informed Hill that she had incurred a tax liability of more than $150,000. This news came as the Bush administration was balancing its soaring military costs by cutting $13 billion from Food Stamps, $93 billion from Medicare and $14.6 billion from veterans benefits.
|"Taxes are not inherently evil. When we come together as a community and collectively pool our resources, the good we can do is absolutely inspiring. On the other hand, the devastation we can wreak upon the planet and its people is horrific." -- Julia Butterfly Hill|
After careful deliberation, Hill strode to the steps of the SF Federal Building on October 15, 2004 and declared that she would no longer pay taxes to support "the largest death machine humankind has ever known." She announced plans to redirect more than $150,000 in Federal taxes to environmental and social causes. With that act, she initiated the largest individual act of war-tax redirection in US history.
Julia Butterfly Hill now heads Circle of Life in Oakland. The-Edge recently sat down for an hour-long chat with Hill in the loft of Circle of Life's home-office.
Tax Resistance and the Wages of Peace
Gar Smith: Could you talk a little about your family upbringing and how that brought you to your decision to refuse to pay federal taxes. I understand that your father was a minister.
Julia Butterfly Hill: Yes, my father was a traveling preacher. He and my mother were both raised Catholic and converted to Baptist and later became nondenominational so I was raised in a nondenominational evangelical upbringing. My father always taught from a place of "How does this book known as the Bible apply to who we are today?" He was really about teaching what it means to be a loving, committed, active spiritual person in the world.
That upbringing, I feel, has been very core to who I am because it has really become my foundation. How do I keep a core sense of the sacred as my foundation in everything I do and everything that I say?
GS: A lot of us grew up with that and it's not just a core feeling that we share as a family value but it's something we think of as a core set of beliefs that used to apply to this country as a nation. I'd like to hope that we could find our way back to that.
Two years ago, you stood on the steps of the Federal Building and issued your formal public statement about why you were resisting taxes -- joining people like Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky and others. What were the repercussions of that act?
JB: I have to say I "redirect" my taxes rather than "resisting" my taxes. Because I actually take the money that the IRS says goes to them and I give it to the places where our taxes should be going. And in my letter to the IRS I said: "I'm not refusing to pay my taxes. I'm actually paying them but I'm paying them where they belong because you refuse to do so." They are not directing our money where it should be going, they are being horrific stewards of that money.
If we had an investment with a fund-management system and they were doing a terrible job of investing our funds, we would pull those funds and re-invest them with a management fund that was stewarding our money properly. Yet, for some reason, we don't do that with our taxes and with the IRS and with our government. So I said, "Well, I'm sorry. You're not managing these funds appropriately and you're not balancing them wisely and you're not investing them properly, so I'm going to have to take this money from you and invest it myself.
GS: This is an argument that supports not just environmentalists and pacifists, but anybody with good business sense should not be investing in this "company."
JB: That's right! I majored in business in college and so I'm always looking at where is the wise investment -- in time, in energy and monetary resources. What is the smartest investment? And anyone who is a smart businessperson should look at how much is being invested in our government and where that is actually being spent. I don't think anyone but a select few people will think that the rate of return on that currently is a wise investment.
GS: What local organizations are you giving money to? How does that happen?
JB: I have learned so much in collaboration with War Resisters network. The Peoples Life Fund is one of the ways people can give money to help a myriad of causes (as well as help people who suffer negative responses from the government for taking this step of conscience and redirecting their taxes). I've directed this money to all the places where our money should be going -- after school, arts and cultural programs, community gardens. A huge portion of my funds (not only from my "redirection" but also from funds that I raise speaking at colleges) goes to Indigenous peoples in this country. All of the wealth in this country is built on what was stolen from the original peoples and then through slavery. I look to redirecting money back to where our money comes from -- from human and planetary resources. So a large portion has gone to support Native Peoples' subsistence, sovereignty and spirituality. I've redirected money into the Alternatives to Incarceration Program. I believe our Prison-Industrial Complex is a clear-cutting our diversity and clear-cutting our youth and our humanity. That's a big passion of mine.
And, of course, environmental protection. Particularly endangered, old-growth forest issues, wetlands (which are a very threatened area) and some prairie protection as well. The list goes on.
GS: I was at a War Resisters League meeting a couple of weeks ago at the St. Martin de Poores food kitchen in San Francisco and one of the startling statements that cropped up at the meeting was that at least 25 percent of American people don't pay taxes -- legally. And somebody asked: "Does that include corporations?" Well, of course not: the figure is much higher for corporations. It is possible to legally not pay taxes by using available deductions and small-business options. Are you trying to use any of those legal strategies or is this an outright redirection of tax money?
JB: I'm currently not employing the various forms of legal ways of tax [resistance] because, for me, it was important to take the conscious, conscientious, political stand. Not just to work within the system but to say that the system is inherently flawed and highly destructive. It was absolutely crucial that I also take a stand outside that system. It's a devastated system and, just as we look at a devastated ecosystem and think about how to restore it, the same thing applies with this [tax] system. That's part of why I've chosen to take this very public, political stand ...
|The pie chart above is drawn from the War Resisters League's line-by-line analysis of tables in the "Analytical Perspectives" book of the Budget of the US Government, Fiscal Year 2006. [www.warresisters.org/piechart.htm]|
The war in Iraq is costing America $4 billion a day, but the full impact of that spending doesn't show up in the $2.57 trillion federal budget. Nor does the impact of Washington's war spending show up in the familiar federal "Tax Pie" chart that the IRS sends out with their annual income tax mailings.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan attempted to keep his campaign pledge to "balance the budget" without raising taxes. To do this, Reagan's advisors created a new "Unified Budget" that, for the first time, included Social Security and other trust funds in the federal budget. The Reagan administration redesigned the familiar "Tax Pie" graphic accordingly. This fiscal hoax not only made the deficit appear smaller, it also hid the mounting costs of Reagan's military spending and the overall burden of war's financial impact. (Interestingly, this precedent-breaking act goes unmentioned in the Treasury Department's official "History of the US Tax System." [www.treas.gov/education/fact-sheets/taxes/ustax.shtml]
This bogus graphic is still used today but, as George W. Bush recently confessed, his war spending has bankrupted the trillion-dollar trust fund. In Bush's words: "There is no trust." To see the fiscal impact of Bush's confession, strip the nonexistent trust funds from the pie graph (see above). The result: the military's claim on the budget expands from 17 percent to 30 percent. Add the continuing costs of all prior military expenditures and the military's cut quickly climbs to 48 percent of the budget pie.
Taxes are not inherently evil. When we come together as a community and collectively pool our resources, the good we can do is absolutely inspiring. On the other hand, the devastation we can wreak upon the planet and its people is horrific. And currently [the US tax] system is doing that. Because of that, it is absolutely crucial that more and more of us take the political stand and say it's time to transform the system.
GS: Has your public statement inspired others to consider this as a moral option?
JB: It's been incredible how many people have come out of the most surprising places saying "I want to know more about this! Is it safe to do? Is it not safe to do?" [There are] organizations like War Resisters and the network of the War Tax Resistance community I can direct people to. I became well-known for living in a tree for over two years, but that tree-sit -- although it was the longest in history -- was only able to be that tree-sit because of wonderful history of a movement that built it to a place where we could carry out an action like that.
It's exactly the same with [the war-tax resistance] movement. For over 30 years, the war-resistance community has been saying "Here's the plethora, the rainbow, of information. You can sit with that information and find out what most resonates for you and cultivate from that list a way for you to take your next step." It's great to have that network to be able to direct people into.
GS: Now for a question about the response from the other side of the spectrum. How has the government responded?
JB: Well, I knew when I took this action that the government was going to do one of two things: they were either going to come down quick and hard or they were going to ignore me. And I felt the same would probably happen within the media. The media pretty much ignored me. The IRS responded very, very quickly.
My lawyer asked me: "What did you do to upset them? They never respond that quickly? What did you do?" And I said, "I think it's partly because of who I am and partly because of the letter I wrote." He got back to me and said: "Yes, you're right. I asked them: you're right."
At this point, I've gotten through the first round of hearings. They've gone well. It's "in the process." In this process, anything can happen. There can be compromises that are reached; there can be an endless amount of paperwork that never turns into anything at all (just back-and-forth paperwork and lawyers talking to each other); or there can be a mandate into court.
It's been a joy for me. Every time I see another newspaper headline about yet more war and devastation happening, there's such a joy for me -- even being caught in the "process" right now, as noxious and time-consuming as that can be. There is such a sense of liberation and joy every time I see one of those headlines and know that I can say: "I am not contributing to that. I'm contributing to a healthy world and a happy planet and a world that works for all."
A little bit of headache and some legal fees and whatever may come it's absolutely worth it to me every time I walk down the street and I'm able to say: "I'm contributing to a different headline.
GS: The great American pacifist A. J. Muste once said: "People are drafted through the Selective Service; money is drafted through the Internal Revenue Service." So, you've "liberated" your money (or, at least it's standing its own -- against the assault of a government that would take it hostage). What are your thoughts about the environmental rationale for refusing taxes and, also, the spiritual nature of it?
JB: I was in Luna when the war, under the Clinton administration, broke out in Yugoslavia. I was praying on how to help because I felt it so deeply. I'm that kind of person: I feel the interconnection of issues very deeply and very profoundly. I'm not just an "environmentalist." I'm not just a "joyous vegan." I'm not just a "war-tax redirector." I'm not these segments. I'm about the interconnection.
And as I was praying I saw a bulls-eye. At that time [in Yugoslavia], people were running out on bridges with bulls-eyes painted on their shirts because their communities were being targeted by the US and other [NATO] countries. What the people were saying is: "Hey, you're turning us into targets. This isn't some war on some evil dictator."
The answer that came to me is that, in the war of politics, power and profit, all of life becomes a target. And what people need to realize is that [given] where our taxes are currently going, we are actually supporting an unprecedented war on the planet and all of the life on it -- the human life, the plant life, the animal life. We are a global community and this war being perpetuated with our money, under our name if we pay taxes under our name, under our watch, for this unprecedented war. It's happening to the forest. It's happening to ecosystems across the country. It's happening around the world.
The devastation of Iraq! That land that is now being devastated by war under the guise of "freedom and liberation" used to be known, in Biblical times, as one of the most decadently rich, life-giving areas in the entire region. And now it's a desert wasteland because war does not discriminate -- it affects everything. And now, with our money, we're having a war on kids, we're having a war on education, we're having a war on elders, we're having a war on healthcare, we're having a war on the planet and all of its life-giving systems. We're having a war on our global family around the world.
Every time that we pay taxes or spend a penny on anything, we're either voting for that war or we're voting for peace and healing. And, if we want to stand up and say: "Shame on the Bush administration! Shame on these corporations! Shame! Shame! Shame!" we have to remember, as we point our fingers at the Bush administration, that there's three fingers pointing back at us.
If we are not holding ourselves accountable, I don't feel that we actually have the right to say "Shame!" unless we include ourselves in that shame. I would rather include ourselves in a stand -- in a real stand for peace, for healing, for justice -- where we are actually living it, not just talking about it.
See: An Edge Interview with Julia Butterfly: Part 2
Eco-morality, the Book of Revelations and the Politics of Jesus
There are dozens of ways to legally resist war taxes. For more information, contact the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee: www.nwtrcc.org, the War Resisters League: www.wrl.org, and the Northern California War Tax Resistance: www.nowartax.org, (510) 843-9877.
For more information contact: