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

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While the current political climate may have created a spike in interest in war tax resistance, many war tax resisters interviewed for this story made it clear that their opposition isn't grounded in partisanship but is based on a life of pacifism inspired by flashpoints like Vietnam War, the 1980s nuclear arms race, American military involvement in Central America, and the more recent wars in Iraq.

Like Nippert, resisters tend to start out as activists and protesters in anti-war movements and then, ultimately, they ask themselves, "If I'm so against war, then why am I paying for it?" "These are all conscious people who have chosen to stay out of the system," Benn says.

Smith, the tax resister from Indiana, served in the military for four years in the early 1960s. "During the Vietnam War I knew that what the government needed to fight the war was money and people. I knew that I could resist with my money and so I did," he says.

For others, the catalyst was even more personal. Peace activist Cindy Sheehan, best known for her monthlong 2005 tent encampment protest outside President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch, lost her son Casey to the Iraq war in April 2014 and stopped paying federal income tax.

"After Casey was killed in the Iraq War, I looked at my then-husband and said, 'That is the last time I am paying taxes.' I am not filing or paying taxes to this government because they took something from us that they can never repay," she says. "For years, I had funded the murder of so many people, including my own son."

She has ongoing federal liens against her for any future assets she may acquire, but the magistrate in her IRS hearing took a sympathetic stance. "The judge looked up at me at the end of the hearing and said, 'What you've done sounds like a real reasonable response to something that happened to you that was so unreasonable,'" she recalls.

Many tax resisters view what they do as a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. But the 8,000 war tax resisters don't necessarily believe that they will stop all war. Not any more, at least.

Most of the people I spoke to for this article are now in their late 60s; they started their resistance wide-eyed and bell-bottomed, intending to starve the "war machine." Now, most admit that's not going to happen.

"I don't want to totally give up on change but I don't expect it in my lifetime. What we do is going to someday turn things around. Like any conscientious objector, I think I have a role in showing another way. Through my tax resistance I am trying to show what is important," Benn says.

War tax resistance is idiosyncratic; there isn't a prescribed way to do it. Resisters do all they can to make it difficult for the IRS to collect what is owed. But for most, being a war tax resister translates to creating a simple, asset-free life.

Nationwide, NWTRCC affiliate groups offer counseling to those interested in committing war tax resistance. Participants are guided to reflect on what they believe and to articulate what they are looking for from their resistance. Then, they commit to the course of action that's best for their life situation and their tolerance for risk.

Sordean, the volunteer war tax resistance counselor in Berkeley, California, is self-employed and lives below the taxable income limit. Sordean files a 1040 tax form every year, but he doesn't include a check. He sends a letter of resistance with his form.

In the 1990s, he got creative and sent palm-sized helium canisters that "looked like little cruise missiles" attached to his 1040, along with a letter of protest to the IRS, his senators and the Clinton White House. (Warning: Don't try this in the post-9/11 era.)

War tax resisters who do receive a paycheck often hike up their withholding exemptions and end up having little or no money taken from their pay. Some people file and withhold $10.40 from the total owed, and they attach letters demanding a decrease in military spending in an act of symbolic resistance.

Like many resisters, Nippert put all of his assets in his wife's name so that the house can't be seized by the IRS. He doesn't make enough money on the raspberry farm or in the stained glass shop to have to pay personal income tax.

Every war tax resister I talked to donates the money that would have been paid in taxes either to charities or one of 50 funds, such as the People's Life Fund, that redistribute the money for "life-affirming purposes."

Ann Barron, a resister since 2014 from San Diego, says, "I love paying taxes, but not for war. I pay my taxes but not to the U.S. government."

The war tax resisters view what they do as patriotic. They openly commit civil disobedience, spawned by a love of country.

Tax resistance isn't easy. Most resisters live in fear and experience financial uncertainty. The IRS wants the money it is owed and agents will do everything they can to get it, including placing liens on assets, seizing bank and retirement accounts, and garnishing wages. For many resisters, the hassle and risk is worth the sacrifice.

"It's been worth it for me. One of the things about war tax resistance is that you have control over yourself. You can say no to the government and that's not something many people can do because they feel kind of forced into paying. It is empowering for me," Smith says.

Nippert doesn't worry so much about the IRS coming after him. "If you can be sympathetic to the IRS, it is getting much, much harder for them to collect taxes even for big amounts of money because the federal government is giving them less and less to work with," he says. "I know that I am low priority when they can't even collect from people who owe a lot."

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