Death Of Taxes: An Old Protest Tactic Revived For A New President

Recent circumstances have some starting to think about refusing to pay taxes, but it's a complicated matter

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Feb 01, 2017 at 12:06 PM ET

Tax day is rarely met with excitement, but for many Americans, the arrival of their W-2 and 1099 forms comes at an especially tense time this year. For starters, the wildly unpopular new President of the United States is embroiled in a tax scandal of his own and has stated that Americans’ tax dollars will be going to fund the planned border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. In response, some are saying that they will protest by following in President Trump’s footsteps: not paying taxes to the federal government.

“I am serious about not paying taxes,” said Samantha Redmond, a 26-year-old civil engineer from Minnesota told Vocativ in a Twitter message. “The wall is nothing but a hateful divisive symbol and it would be a complete waste of 20 billion dollars or however much it’s going to cost.”

How exactly she plans on making her stance into a reality — and one that doesn’t land her in trouble with the law — is something she’s not quite clear on just yet. But Redmond is not alone in her newfound interest in exploring this method of protest.

Erica Weiland is a social media consultant for the 35-year-old National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee and says that there has been increased number of people contacting the organization and following it on social media since the inauguration. She’s also observed an increase in people expressing a general interest in protesting this way, including some celebrities like Mia Farrow and the rapper Kool A.D.

“I think this growing movement is going to be able to, hopefully, throw a wrench in the gears and get this incitement towards hostility against immigrants and refugees,” Weiland said. NWTRCC on Wednesday issued a call to action to deliberately refuse to pay taxes to protest Trump’s policies. The committee said in a press release that they will “provide information and support to all people of conscience who openly refuse payment of some or all of their federal income taxes to the IRS and instead send refused taxes to groups targeted by Trump administration policies.”

Tax resistance has been used as a form of civic disobedience throughout history, dating as far back as the first century during the Roman Empire. The U.S. has a pretty rich history of tax resistance, the earliest example of which may be the Boston Tea Party. Suffragettes later followed, and some opponents of the Vietnam War also used this as a means of protest.

During that time, singer Joan Baez publicly announced that she would refuse to pay her income tax, leading the charge as estimated tens of thousands of other citizens refused to pay the federal phone tax (traditionally used to finance war expenditures).

“It was a very clever trick: to withdraw the amount of the federal tax in your phone bill. It was supposed to create a mess among your phone companies and the I.R.S,” Romain Huret, a professor of American history at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris and the author of the 2014 book “American Tax Resisters,” told Vocativ by e-mail. “The amount was so small that it cost a lot to the IRS to get the money back. Sometimes, IRS’ officials supported tax resisters! So we have to take tax resistance very seriously.”

War tax resisters opposed to the U.S. involvement in wars overseas have been continuing to commit this act of civic disobedience for years, though they have been relatively small in number.

“Resistance as a means is quite exceptional,” Huret said. “Americans are one of the most compliant people on earth in terms of taxation.”

According to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, approximately 10,000 Americans refuse to pay taxes every year in relation to their anti-war beliefs. (They note, however, that they are only able to give a rough estimate due to the personal nature of paying taxes and how many people may keep this matter private, especially for fear of retribution.) While the refusal to pay federal income taxes has been a fringe movement, so has public protests against an American president, which rarely sets records  — until this point, at least.

As an everyday American, refusing to pay taxes — even just federal ones — can be more complicated than it sounds. One legal and low-risk method that skirts an audit — which could lead to garnished wages, property seizure, or having wages taken directly from one’s bank account — is by earning so little money that one’s income is not taxable. Other ways that tax resisters go about withholding can vary in amount withheld, legality and method: using tax avoidance techniques via W-4 allowances, not paying back taxes already incurred, refusing to file tax returns altogether, and “redirecting” their federal taxes due in favor of making donations to charity.

And the results of this refusal can vary.

In addition to working for NWTRCC, Weiland has been a war tax resister since 2009. Every year, she files her tax honestly and has yet to have the IRS collect on her.

“We have many stories of resisters in our network, people who have resisted for many, many, many years not hear from the IRS,” she told Vocativ. “And then on the other hand people who have the IRS consistently collect on them through levying bank accounts or garnishing their wages through their employer. So there’s just no way to know whether the IRS will try to get money from me, but that’s a risk. What I think is important is the act of resisting, of refusing to hand over the money voluntarily.”

Given that there have been people jailed, ordered to court, and who faced property seizures (though it is rare, and even less common than it was in the 1970s), there certainly is some level of risk at play.

“It’s important to know what the risks are that you’re taking, but you also shouldn’t get bogged down in them,” Weiland said. “That’s a choice that each person needs to make for themselves.”

“Resistance as a means is quite exceptional. Americans are one of the most compliant people on earth in terms of taxation.” —Romain Huret, American history professor

So far, she says she has only received letters from the IRS, “reminding me that I haven’t paid [and] telling me about the interests and penalties added to my taxes owed for the year.”

They’re likely no different than those Adam*, a 57-year-old Illinois writer and consultant who owes three years in back taxes, has been receiving. But rather than beginning the process of paying them off this year as he planned to, Adam (who asked we use a pseudonym) has decided that he will instead choose to pay what is owed to the ACLU and other “resistance orgs” that will help fight the Trump administration.

“Resisting in the streets and on social media and through my elected representatives is not enough,” he told Vocativ over Twitter DM. “These times call for bolder and more creative acts of civil disobedience.”

He also noted though he has paid taxes throughout the course of his adult life, saying “I’m not the type who won’t pay because I’m against what my taxes are mostly used for, military atrocities or whatever. I’ve always paid though sometimes abhorred the uses of funds.”

Whether or not as many people as are tweeting “boycott taxes this year?” and @-ing President Trump “I’m not paying my taxes until you do” is something only time will tell. The social stigma of tax resistance is one that lingers and has been historically regarded as an “un-American” or “un-patriotic” action.

But given the extraordinary circumstances in which the executive orders of the President of the United States are themselves being deemed unconstitutional, it’s not too hard to imagine many following through.

“We’re stronger as a movement and stronger as a community if we resist together for support and for knowledge on how to resist,” Weiland said, noting that border militarization certainly falls within the purview of NWTRCC’s concern.

“Civic disobedience is legitimate as soon as the federal government does not respect its own moral and superior law anymore,” Huret said. “What an impressive perspective — a tax resister (as an end) denounced by tax resisters (as a means).”

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