William Ruhaak believes that his conscience-based objection to military spending should allow him to not pay the $2,399 in taxes, interest and penalty that he owes for 2007. The Tax Court didn’t agree so he took his case to the Seventh Circuit, which issued its opinion in May. Mr. Ruhaak is willing to pay. He will turn the money over to organizations fostering peace or pay it to the government, provided it is earmarked for non-military purposes. I was inclined to give this opinion short shrift possibly making fun of Mr. Ruhaak, who seems to think he is dealing with the United Way rather than the United States. Besides I personally think a lot of that military spending is money well spent. Then it occurred to me that this was the kind of thing that Tom Cahill would do.
I met Tom Cahill in 2007 at the first board retreat of an organization then called Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR). Tom along with Don Collins, Stephen Donaldson (a/k/a “Donny the Punk) and founder Russell Smith had been one of the ealiest members of an organization called People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Person (POSRIP). Tom and Donny had both engaged in minor civil disobedience and refused to pay fines which ended them up in jail, where they were brutally gang raped. Other early members of POSRIP were ex-convicts, who were always a little skeptical of Tom because he had never done serious time in prison. (Donny had taken his civil disobedience to higher levels and been incarcerated long enough to qualify as a convict).Tom had been relatively inactive in POSRIP in the preceding years, spending more time on harassing logging companies cutting down old growth redwoods near his home in Mendocino County.
Stephen had taken the organization to another level. He had arranged for it to be incorporated in the State of New York and applied to the IRS for recognition as an exempt organization under 501(c)(3). He had changed the name to something much more punchy with a shorter acronym. He had even recruited a CPA to be on the board. That would be me. Much more importantlyÂ he had recruited Ellen Spertus, then a graduate student in artificial intelligence at MIT. She had arranged for SPR to have this new-fangled thing called a website. The presence on the web was much more impressive than the “office”, a cubby-hole sized section of a fairly sketchy apartment in Harlem. Then Donny died at the age of 50. He died of AIDS probably contracted in prison. Hence the need for the board retreat.
Tom and I quickly bonded at the retreat. Tom thought that my recruitment was a big breakthrough for SPR. Now the Establishment was getting involved. What can you say about an organiztion that has me as its most mainstream member? God, help them. At the retreat it was determined that Don Collins would be the president and executive director.Â Headquarters relocated to his apartment in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles. I hate to skip over Don’s two years of leadership, but this piece is about Tom. Don retired and the mantle of leadership fell on Tom. Headquarters moved to a loft in a barn at a commune in Fort Bragg, California, where Tom still lives for a couple of hundred bucks a month and eight hours a week of labor.
How SPR was discovered by people like Lara Stemple, the next executive director, who turned it into a credible professional human rights organization is another story. That website had something to do with it. I’ll just share two stories about Tom, who was still president during the process. In 2001 I drove to Washington with Tom and Bob Dumond, a psychologist for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. We were attending a conference on prison rape sponsored by Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and SPR.Â We met with a Republican political operative who was working with a broad coalition on something called the Prison Rape Elimination Act. “Met with” might not be the right phrase, it turned out the meeting was for us to be instructed. He had two main concerns. One was to let us know that ACLU’s desire to repeal the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act was a non-starter. Like we three had a lot of pull with the ACLU. The other was to tell Tom not to mention the Kennedy assassination in his speech to the conference. Tom believes that since the assassination the United States has been a corporate fascist dictatorship. Needless to say Tom mentioned the Kennedy assassination in his speech.
The Prison Rape Elimination Bill was finally signed in 2003. Tom, just back from a trip to the Middle East, was invited to the signing. I’m not sure what I would do right after I met the president, but here is what Tom did:
Outside the Northwest Gate of the White House that September morning, despite my loss of composure, I immediatly donned my Human Shields t-shirt and Veterans For Peace cap and walked directly next door to the Treasury Department where I attempted to challenge the Office of Foreign Assets Control that oversees sanctions against Iraq and has fined two of the twenty of us Americans who were human shields in Baghdad during the bombing.
I believe that Tom was the only United States Air Force veteran who served as a human shield in Iraq.
Stop Prisoner Rape has been renamed Just Detention International. It is now a substantial human rights organization with actual offices in Los Angeles and Washington. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 did not eliminate prison rape. The Justice Department is required to set standards and human rights activists go toe to toe with recalcitrant corrections officials in the corridors of power about how tight the standards should be. Other corrections officials, who think preventing violent victimization in their facilities is part of their job, invite JDI into their prisons to help make them safer. It is not the type of thing the likes of Tom Cahill should be running, as he well knows. They have named a fellowship after him, though.
My son and I spent a few days at Tom’s place last summer during our cross country road trip. William returned there on his own last month after attending a creative writing workshop at Gonzaga Universtiy. The kid is 17 and wants to do creative writing. God help him. I told him I was writing this and asked him to come up with a pithy phrase to describe Tom. He said “He’s a good guy.”
So I guess I won’t make fun of William Ruhaak. I’ll even admire him. I wouldn’t mind chipping in a few dollars extra for the Navy Seals who showed people it is a very, very bad idea to organize passenger jets crashing into our office buildings so Mr. Ruhaak’s funds could be earmarked for the Center for Disease Control. I also won’t blame the IRS, the Tax Court and the Seventh Circuit, which, of course, ruled against him, for being a little aggravated with him. I’ll just close with the poem that inspired the title:
(To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)
By Bonaro W. Overstreet
You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.