Politics & Policy

Rev. Al Sharpton: Tax Rebel

MSNBC host joins a proud history of Americans who voted with their wallets.

Welcome, Reverend Al Sharpton, to a gathering of tax-protest legends that includes Evelyn Gregory, Wesley Snipes, Howard Jarvis, Lauryn Hill, and Tom the Tinker. Some were outlaws, some were lawful. Some gave all, all gave some; but none wanted to give at all. They were Americans who dared to stand against the infinite rapacity of government. Their victories were slight and fleeting; their defeats harsh and punishing. But their names come down to us with honor, and now one of those names is Al Sharpton.

The tale of his millions of dollars in unpaid taxes is, like many things about Sharpton, hair-raising. It would cause MSNBC to cancel Sharpton’s show, were the Lean Forward network inclined to hold its on-air talent to any standards of intellectual honesty or personal bearing. But there can be no doubt: For sheer rebel-yelling, law-nullifying, sovereign-citizen opposition to big government, the tea party (not just what Sharpton calls the “racist and homophobic” modern version but the Boston Harbor originals) has nothing on Al Sharpton.

The author of the 1996 memoir Go Tell Pharaoh and the 2003 presidential campaign trial balloon Al On America tells the New York Times he is working to pay down some of his $4.5 million in state and federal liens for unpaid taxes. There is not much evidence to support this claim (the newspaper points out that his debt to the state of New York has actually increased in recent years), and Sharpton’s apparent attempt to position himself as an unwitting tax rebel just won’t fly. Every tax deadbeat is a de facto tax protester.

Personal tax shirkers like Sharpton are indeed more direct in their attack on the state than lawful protesters such as Jarvis (creator of California’s 1978 Proposition 13 and spiritual head of the anti-tax movement that was crucial to Ronald Reagan’s election) and Gregory (whose landmark 1935 case Gregory v. Helvering turned on the right to minimize income-tax liability). Law-abiding political and legal foes of excessive taxes (who are included here not to disparage them but to make Sharpton’s Rothbardian view of the state more clear) merely argue for justice. Tax evaders engage in real civil, or criminal, disobedience, attempting to deprive the state of access to their personal property — which (in the state’s view) rightfully belongs to the state.

So Sharpton, a Baptist clergyman who claims to have been first ordained in a Pentecostal church at the age of 10, is not just looking for ways to skate on his public (and less forgivably, private) bills. He is laying claim to a history that includes the original cause of American independence and characters as vivid as Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose 20-year dispute over payments to the federal government flared into an armed standoff in the Silver State this spring. Since before there was a United States of America, Americans have been refusing to give their property to the government.

It is unclear how much pride Sharpton takes in having established his anarcho-capitalist credentials — though with the Rev it’s always smart to assume he feels a great deal of pride about everything he does. The squalid circumstances that the Grey Lady insists on reporting in detail are of a type most grown men would be ashamed to own. Russ Buettner reports how Sharpton faced financial challenges after a court ordered him to pay damages to a government official Sharpton defamed during his Tawana Brawley rape hoax:

He said he did not have enough money to pay all at once, and after years of a slow trickle of money from wage garnishments, Mr. Sharpton was forced to testify under oath about his finances.

He said he had no assets, save for a watch and a ring. Everything else, including some of his suits, was owned by a for-profit business, Revals Communications, he said. He testified that he put nearly all of his $73,000 in take-home pay from the National Action Network into Revals, which in turn paid many of his expenses, including his daughters’ private school tuition and some of the rent on his house. Even though state law prohibits nonprofits from making loans to officers, Mr. Sharpton said National Action Network had also once lent him money to cover his daughters’ tuition.

During the deposition, Mr. Sharpton coyly suggested he was not really sure who owned the Brooklyn house where he lived with his wife and two daughters. “Well, I haven’t checked the deed,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Sharpton knew his landlord, Bishop E. Bernard Jordan, quite well. Mr. Sharpton had performed the wedding ceremony of Mr. Jordan’s daughter at Zoe Ministries, the Upper West Side church where Mr. Jordan is the pastor. Mr. Jordan, who makes millions of dollars a year offering prophecies about his followers, and his wife, Debra, had been among only three couples to give the maximum allowable amount to Mr. Sharpton’s 1997 mayoral campaign, records show.

Where Sharpton’s tax revolt really gets tricky, however, is in his relationship with NBC-Universal. As the host of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, the Big Apple firebrand is professionally obligated to support a type of redistributionist, big-government politics that won’t sit with principled anti-tax behavior. Fellow tax rebels such as the actor Wesley Snipes (who was already a favorite of small-government movie fans thanks to his portrayal of villain Simon Phoenix in the libertarian classic Demolition Man) have acted consistently with their beliefs. Snipes grounded his refusal to pay income taxes in principles such as Larken Rose’s popular “§ 861” theory and an old idea that the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not properly ratified. These concepts have never borne legal weight (Snipes was acquitted on all felony charges but still ended up serving two years of a three-year sentence for misdemeanor charges of failing to file a tax return), but adherents seem to be sincere in their beliefs.

#page#Other protesters, such as one-time Fugees front woman Lauryn Hill, have been equally forthright. “I shuddered during sentencing when I kept hearing the term ‘make the IRS whole’ . . . make the IRS whole, knowing that I got into these very circumstances having to deal with the very energies of inequity and resistance that created and perpetuated these savage inequalities,” Hill wrote in 2013. “The entire time, I thought, who has made black people whole?! Who has made recompense for stealing, imposing, lying, murdering, criminalizing the traumatized, taking them against their wills, destroying their homes, dividing their communities, ‘trying’ to steal their destinies, their time, stagnating their development, I could go on and on.”

You can doubt the basis of Snipes’s theories, or dismiss Hill’s insinuation that a phenomenally successful entertainer from above the Mason-Dixon Line is entitled to compensation for historical suffering. Even legitimate anti-tax activists can be questioned. Good-government types make long and articulate arguments that California’s Prop 13 (which capped increases in property taxes) produced anti-libertarian outcomes by favoring the landed classes and centralizing education budgeting in Sacramento. (California voters, on the other hand, like Prop 13 just fine and have consistently voted to expand its protections while defeating all attempts to roll back the law.) Gregory v. Helvering, though it produced a gem of tax wisdom, is also controversial. “Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible,” Judge Learned Hand wrote in a celebrated circuit court ruling. “He is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.” But even this chestnut sticks in the throats of pro-tax zealots who equate the non-crime of “tax avoidance” with the recognized crime of tax evasion and demonize “Benedict Arnold CEOs” for trying to minimize their tax hit.

All of these arguments proceed from a principle, however; and it appears to be the opposite of any principle MSNBC, or for that matter Sharpton’s National Action Network, stands for. NAN urges members to sign up for the Affordable Care Act and lobbies for increased student-loan subsidies. MSNBC wants government action to destroy mankind’s primary source of energy and has made a long-term campaign of ending wealth inequality — and the network’s preferred means toward that goal don’t appear to include deregulation or ending the Federal Reserve. It is impossible to square any of these positions with not paying your taxes.

The inconsistencies in his position probably won’t hurt Sharpton. His detractors are unlikely to be surprised, while his supporters are immune to evidence against him. An insatiable sponge and grifter who landed in a court battle with his psychic buddy Bishop Jordan and even ended up having “friends” pay the defamation damages he owed, Sharpton isn’t the ideal figurehead for a new tax rebellion either.

Then again, history never gives us perfect heroes, and over the years American tax revolt has frequently mixed real ideological concerns with outright criminality. Leaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s were probing an important question: whether the Revolution’s tongue-twisting slogan “Taxation without representation is tyranny” was a denunciation of public seizure of private property in most cases or merely an objection to being taxed while having no voice in Parliament. They opposed an excise that predominantly hit small, rustic westerners and was crafted by Alexander Hamilton with a sophistry worthy of Jonathan Gruber — featuring incentives for early compliance, breaks for big distillers and an overarching goal of consolidating and codifying a private industry. They lived in a region where George Washington owned vast tracts of speculative real estate and had a strong incentive both to scatter local owners and to make a public demonstration of federal power.

But they were also a dangerous mob. In his history The Whiskey Rebellion, William Hogeland describes the pseudonymous or composite character Tom the Tinker, a “joyously violent” leader whose primary victims were not federal revenue agents but other distillers tempted to comply with the feds. “You might find a note posted on a tree outside your house, requiring you to publish in the Gazette your hatred of the whiskey tax and your commitment to the cause; otherwise, the note promised, your still would be mended,” Hogeland writes. “Tom had a macabre sense of humor and a literary bent: ‘mended’ meant shot full of holes or burned.” In his own published writings Tom “was always sorry to have been forced, by someone’s waywardness, to pay a visit. But nobody was exempt from his service, he reminded his readers. He asked his victims to imagine his fires making the hills give light to the vales.”

In The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, Thomas P. Slaughter goes further, describing the violent abuse of a tax collector by a group of tax rebels. After destroying his belongings and paperwork, the crowd forced him to “curse his commission of office,” stamp on his own personal effects and denounce his government employers, before turning on him physically:

The crowd still was not content that the tax man, the excise, and state authority had met with sufficient humiliation. So, they cut the hair off one side of [William] Graham’s head. They braided the other half in an unsightly and mocking manner, cut a hole in the cock of his hat, and fixed it sideways on his head with the pig-tail protruding from the hole. Then the mob exposed Graham to what were perhaps lewd “marks of ignominy.” . . . 

Unfortunately for the tax collector, communal sport with him as victim was not yet over. Indeed, the mob dressed his horse “in such a manner as to disfigure” it, and then paraded Graham back and forth across the three frontier counties in which he was supposed to collect the excise. Celebrants gaily but purposefully forced Graham to trudge through the mud to stills he had intended to visit in his official capacity, halting at each for a raucous ceremony and a “treat” of alcohol. At each stop they insulted Graham further and forced him to participate in the festivities.

With their veiled threats, mob agitation, mistreatment of interlopers and stentorian rhetoric, the tax rebels could almost be described as engaging in Sharptonian antics — with the important caveat that fewer people died in the Whiskey Rebellion than in just one of Sharpton’s riots. Two or three rebels were killed in a shootout at the home of big distiller John Neville in 1794. Nobody was murdered, and the rebellion dispersed peacefully after a 13,000-man militia, led part of the way by President Washington himself, marched into western Pennsylvania to put the uprising down. By comparison, Sharpton’s anti-Semitic 1995 protest against Freddie’s Fashion Mart in Harlem ended when one of Sharpton’s followers shot and killed seven innocent people before burning the store down.

But who knows? His 2013 book The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership is an ode to Sharpton’s many reinventions, from street-corner screamer to beloved elder statesman partying at the White House with Jay-Z and the president. Why not add “tax rebel” or even “doomsday prepper” to his portfolio? These would at least be consistent with his actions, which have made Sharpton’s contempt for the state’s taxing authority absolutely clear.

Welcome to the barricades, Rev.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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