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Trump’s refusal to release his taxes focuses new attention on longtime tax resisters

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The IRS clearly does not agree. (The IRS did not respond to our questions about tax resistance.) IRS Code 6702 requires the agency to maintain a list of "frivolous filings," which, according to the agency, "describes and responds to some of the common frivolous tax arguments made by those who oppose compliance with federal tax laws." The IRS can fine a filer up to $5,000 just for attaching a letter of protest or writing directly on a tax form about any of the "frivolous" filing issues. War tax resistance is on the list.

"One doesn't like to hear the word frivolous about an action we take so seriously, but I know it isn't intended as a diss to us in particular," says Ruth Benn, the National Coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC, pronounced "New Trick"), a group founded in 1982 in response to nuclear proliferation. "Since they started the frivolous filing penalties as a result of war tax resistance, a lot of us did an action we called 'cabbage patch filing.' People filed dozens of 1040s instead of filing just one. The goal was to slow down the system."

One person's frivolity is another's necessity. Kesh (who asked to be identified by her first name) is a 38-year-old Baltimore service industry worker didn't pay taxes last year because she couldn't afford it.

"Because I couldn't afford to pay for my insurance last year, they charged me a penalty for that – a penalty for being poor," she says of the fine she would have to pay for not having health care under the Affordable Care Act.

Then she started to wonder where the money went.

"I know that my tax money is going to the police and I can walk down the street and get shot," she says. Though local police forces are primarily funded through local and state governments, police departments do receive federal funding. And as an African-American woman in Baltimore, where Freddie Gray's death in police custody in 2015 led to a police curfew that was enforced by the National Guard, Kesh was more concerned about the militarization of the police in her neighborhood than a far-away war.

The election of Trump made all of this worse. "I'm all the groups that are hated. I've decided to come to earth in this body and be black, be a woman, gay, so you know, I get hit on every side of it. I was a teenaged mother, I'm a single mom – I'm all the things [Trump and Republicans] hate."

Unlike the other resisters, Kesh is new to this. She doesn't know where it will lead her yet – hence her decision not to use her name. She has not taken any workshops or been formally advised, and she is at risk of being targeted by the IRS.

So it's difficult to think of anyone's decision to defy one of our fundamental civic duties as frivolous. But even some tax resisters think this way.

"Some people who don't pay taxes are just fruitcakes in terms of the reasons they're using to avoid paying taxes," says Peter Smith, a war tax resister from Indiana. "You know, like things that are never going to work."

For instance, there are some people in the states' rights crowd who believe the 9th amendment protects them from the overreach of the federal government's ability to collect income tax. For some odd reason, some filers claim that if they write the phrase "nunc pro tunc" on their 1040 form, they won't have to pay income tax.

"But the people who are out there who are honestly conscientious objectors and have legitimate reasons, we respect them and we say go for it," Smith says.

Some people, for instance, refuse to pay their first $5,000 in federal tax because of what they refer to as a "Black Tax," a version of self-imposed reparations for the 40 acres and mule promised by Gen. Sherman at the end of the Civil War (a promise rescinded by Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson).

Still, military spending is the most common issue. NWTRCC publishes an annual analysis of the federal budget in which they determine that about 50 percent of the federal budget goes toward current military spending, debt on past wars, upkeep of the nuclear arsenal, and funding for homeland security. War tax resisters, like Nippert, use this figure as a guidepost when paying (or not paying) their federal income tax. But under Trump, military spending is poised to spike.

"Interest in tax resistance has been unusually active because of Trump's election," says Benn. "We saw a huge jump in our web stats since the inauguration. It is tax time and we have a president we don't like. I mean, we aren't like the Women's March with hundreds of thousands of people coming out. But, around the country, we are finding more interest in our workshops where there will be 20 people attending instead of the usual two. Local networks that don't usually contact us have been unusually active. Some of the groups out there who are anti-Trump have come to us for ideas."

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