Above Photo: A protester urges Donald Trump to release his own tax returns. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The new president has driven some to make a statement with their bank accounts – despite fears such a protest could send demonstrators to jail
Andrew Newman always pays his taxes, even if he hates what the government is doing with them. But not this year. For him, Donald Trumpis the dealbreaker. He’ll pay his city and state taxes but will refuse to pay federal income tax as a cry of civil disobedience against the president and his new administration.
Newman is not alone. A nascent movement has been detected to revive the popularity of tax resistance – last seen en masse in America during the Vietnam war but which has been, sporadically, a tradition in the US and beyond going back many centuries.
“My tax money will be going towards putting up a wall on the Mexican border instead of helping sick people. It will contribute to the destruction of the environment and maybe more nuclear weapons. I think there will be a redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy elite and Trump’s campaign for the working man and woman was an absolute fraud. If you pay taxes you are implicated in the system,” said Newman, an associate professor of English and history at Stony Brook University on Long Island, part of the State University of New York.
“The government wants our money and if a lot of people were thinking about this kind of peaceful protest, it would get their attention,” he added.
Newman, 48, regrets that his 2016 taxes have already been automatically taken out of his paycheck. He intends to write to the government accusing the Trump administration of a planned misuse of those public funds. Then he will change his 2017 arrangements so that he will get a bill from the Internal Revenue Service, instead, and will refuse to pay it, donating the money to causes he deems more socially responsible.
He will be following the example of one of his heroes, Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay tax that would fund wars and slavery and was jailed for it in 1846, and whose famous essay, Civil Disobedience, Newman often reads to his students. Martin Luther King Jr was a huge admirer or Thoreau’s argument about civil disobedience, and Mahatma Gandhi led salt tax protests and resistance that helped spur independence for India.
“I’ve been discussing this with friends and colleagues and they are extremely interested,” he said. “People are very responsive but they also say ‘I don’t want to go to jail.’”
He is far more likely simply to be fined and charged interest on the unpaid taxes by the IRS.
“There have been very few people who have spent time in jail for not paying taxes as an explicit act of political resistance,” said Ruth Benn, coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, a campaign group that encourages federal tax boycotts in the name of peace and advises citizens on how to go about it.
The committee was created in 1982, around the time Benn stopped paying her federal income tax, as a protest against the nuclear arms race during the cold war.
“I’ve never been taken to court,” she said. IRS agents have questioned her a couple of times, most recently in 2009, saying she owed $40,000 in back taxes. They once took a small amount of money from her bank account, she said, but the consequences have been few – though IRS letters in her mailbox still “put fear in my heart”, she said.
Even after the cold war, Benn has kept up her action because of what she sees as excess spending on the military – which Trump has pledged to boost – as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the militarization of the police.
Benn said enthusiasm for tax resistance appeared to be growing in the Trump era, though cautiously. Visits to the committee’s rudimentary website have doubled in recent weeks to about 1,500 a day. The committee estimates that about 8,000 people a year refuse to pay US federal income tax as an act of civil disobedience, and that number is expected to rise.
Among famous faces, Mia Farrow has tweeted about tax resistance. Gloria Steinem is also planning to take part in the movement.
In an email to the Guardian, Steinem said: “In 1968, we refused to pay the 10% of our Federal income tax dollars that funded the war in Vietnam, and included a letter to the IRS saying so. In February before tax time on March 15, 500 or so of us listed our names in ads that we published in the New York Times, together with a quote [from] Thoreau on Civil Disobedience, and an invitation to join us.”
She added: “I’m going to do this again by sending what I think should go to Planned Parenthood, deducting it from my Federal IRS return, and including a letter saying so. Though it’s a smaller sum than Vietnam, we won’t just be keeping it or using some to pay for expensive NYT ads, and can add whatever each of us is able to in order to support Planned Parenthood.”
Anti-Trump rallies are being planned nationwide for 15 April, which is normally tax day, even though this year returns are due on 18 April. The theme will be to demand that the president release his federal tax records, something he has resolutely refused to do.
Kirsten Taylor, 50, a contemporary arts fundraiser in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is especially anxious to see Donald Trump’s tax returns.
“I’m not really a political activist but I feel like Trump’s taxes are his kryptonite. I want a campaign of non-payment in the style of ‘I’ll show you mine when you show me yours’. I’m desperate for someone to figure out a way to get him to disclose his returns. I think they would show he should not be president.”
Taylor is passionate about refusing to pay federal income tax until Trump releases his returns – but is currently undecided about whether she can afford it, with two children in college needing her support, she said.
“If a wealthy benefactor could afford to pay people’s fines and legal expenses, that would be amazing,” she said, citing the example of the progressive documentary maker Michael Moore offering to pay any fines for Republican members of the electoral college who would agree to vote against Trump.
Robinson, a New York playwright in her late 20s who preferred not to share her full identity because of fear of repercussions from her current employer, has found a useful loophole.
As an artist, she is able to create her own company into which she is paid as a writer and then pays out her own salary, pension fund contributions, agent’s fees and the like.
Not long after Trump was elected, Robinson sat down with her accountant and discussed legal ways to pay negligible federal income tax, instead making extra payments into her tax-deferred pension plan and still paying her local and state taxes and Medicaid and Medicare contributions.
“This is my way of saying to Trump: you think you’re the only one who knows how to use the tax laws to your advantage?” she said.
The Quakers have yet to throw their weight behind the new wave of interest, despite officially urging the boycotting of federal taxes during the Vietnam war and espousing tax resistance as a pacifist strategy during their 17th-century beginnings, in both Britain and America.
Meanwhile, there is talk in California of the state becoming an “organized non-payer” of its dues to the federal government and urging non-compliance with the federal tax code if Trump cuts off federal funding to its “sanctuary cities” – Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento – if they do not cooperate with demands to hand over undocumented immigrants.
But some people are bound to get the collywobbles when they look at Randy Kehler. He spent 10 weeks in a county jail in Massachusetts in the early 1990s after years of very publicly refusing to pay taxes in protest at war spending (he also spent 22 months in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with the Vietnam war draft).
In 1989, the feds had tried to seize his house. In a long legal battle, he ended up behind bars, only getting out when the authorities finally auctioned off his and his wife’s house.
“But friends built us a better one and we’ve lived in it ever since,” he said.
Kehler said it was not easy to foretell what effect a mass tax resistance would have on the Trump administration.
“If you’re waiting for a guaranteed result, you could be waiting a long time. But it is all part of a mass of acts of conscience by ordinary people that is important. Go do it. You’re highly unlikely to end up in jail like me,” he said.