This year, San Luis Obispo resident David Gross signed and mailed his tax return forms just like any other red-blooded American citizen.
The only thing he didn’t sign or send the IRS? A check.
Gross, who is a self-employed technical writer in the software industry, hasn’t paid federal income tax for the last 18 years as a form of conscientious protest and resistance. Not paying taxes to make a political, moral, or ideological stand has been around in America for hundreds of years. And while to some people it may seem extreme, to Gross tax resistance is a practical approach to taking a stand that has a quantifiable impact.
“I like it because it’s me putting my money where my mouth is,” Gross told New Times.
While the number of Americans participating in tax resistance is small, according to Gross, it may be growing in wake of the 2016 elections, which left many liberal and progressive Americans seeking a way to resist the new conservative administration.
Regardless of the number of individuals choosing to conscientiously resist paying taxes, the IRS isn’t treating those individuals any differently than any other citizen who doesn’t pay up. In response to questions from New Times, IRS officials pointed to a 2016 agency report that classified the refusal to pay taxes on religious or moral grounds as a “frivolous argument.”
“Taxpayers may not rely on frivolous arguments to avoid or evade federal taxes,” the report stated.
Gross’ journey to tax resistance began long before Trump’s election. He said he became interested in the concept in 2003 after the United States invaded Iraq. Gross opposed the war but felt he was still passively supporting it by funding the conflict with his federal taxes.
“I was part of the process. Part of the invasion, really,” Gross said. “I had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror. I had a hard time getting to sleep at night. … I realized that in order to feel comfortable with myself, I needed to stop this collaboration with what was happening.”
Gross hasn’t looked back since. While he still pays his state taxes, Gross said he owes about $54,000 to the IRS as a result of his tax resistance. He has become a vocal advocate for the issue, blogging, lecturing, and even writing a book on the subject.
According to the nonprofit National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), many Quakers refused to pay war taxes or join the Army during the Revolutionary War because of their pacifist religion. In 1846, author Henry David Thoreau was jailed after he famously refused to pay his annual $1.50 state poll tax in Massachusetts to protest the Mexican-American War and the expansion of slavery into the American Southwest.
While many people might shy from tax resistance for fear of suffering the same fate as Thoreau, the NWTRCC notes on its website that there were just 57 federal cases brought against tax resisters between 1942 and 2010.
“The IRS sometimes gets a fearsome reputation, but in fact it is often a paper tiger,” the website states. “Keep in mind that there is a difference between what they can do and what they will do. Their bark is often much worse than their bite.”
But that paper tiger can still have teeth. Gross said for him, those fangs usually show in the form of stern letters, and occasionally, seizure of funds from his bank accounts. Gross told New Times that the IRS has seized an estimated $6,072 from him in the years since he began his tax resistance.
Not everyone is willing to take that risk. According to both Gross and the NWTRCC, there is more than just one form of tax resistance. Some actions are as small as writing a note or letter of protest along with a tax check. Other resisters chose to only pay a portion of their federal taxes.
While putting an exact number on just how many individuals are participating in tax resistance as a form of protest in America is difficult (estimates are about 10,000 people), Gross said there was no doubt that he’s seen more interest in the practice since the election of Donald Trump.
“Our situation is so qualitatively different than it’s been before that it requires a qualitatively different response on the part of the citizenry,” Gross said. “More people are definitely considering tax resistance.”
While many tax resisters are against war and military actions in places like Syria and Yemen and saber rattling with North Korea, Gross said others resist to protest Trump’s plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico and defund Planned Parenthood, or even as a pressure tactic to get the president to releases his own tax forms, which he has repeatedly refused to do since his campaign.
The increased attention, Gross said, has carried over from April 18, when the issue of tax resistance usually sees a bump in coverage from the media as the federal filing deadline approaches.
“That’s sort of our 15 minutes of fame each year,” he said. “This year, it was much longer.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.