World / April 12, 2024

These Americans Won’t Pay for the War on Gaza

As the Biden administration continues to give weapons to Israel, thousands of people across the country are protesting by refusing to pay their taxes.

Lucy Dean Stockton

A rally in solidarity with Palestine near the White House.

(Probal Rashid / Getty Images)

Sarah Gambino does not want to pay for the war on Gaza. “Enough is enough. Like, I’m not going to be part of this anymore,” the 36-year-old Arizona resident said. After attending protests and calling lawmakers to no avail, Gambino decided that refusing to pay her taxes to the IRS this year was the logical next step to express her discontent with Joe Biden’s mishandling of the war. “I never really realized to what extent our tax dollars are being exploited and essentially being spent on war crimes for all to see.”

Since October 7, Israel has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, most of whom are women and children, often with weapons supplied by the United States. Millions of Americans have taken to the streets, called their representatives, and voted “uncommitted” in presidential primaries to voice their objection to US support of Israel’s assault on Gaza. But instead of heeding calls to curtail military aid to Israel, Biden is calling to authorize another $18 billion arms transfer to the country. Now, many Americans like Gambino are looking to hit the war machine where it hurts.

They won’t be the first objectors to do so. Americans have withheld their taxes in protest of the nation’s wars throughout the country’s history, from faith-based Quaker movements to Vietnam War protesters. Henry David Thoreau famously spent a night in prison for refusing to pay his in service of the Mexican-American War: the inspiration behind his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Joan Baez and Noam Chomsky both resisted paying the entirety of their taxes in the mid-1960s. The practice was widespread enough in the 1960s, according to Molly Michelmore, a historian at Washington and Lee University, that the Nixon administration reportedly established a secretive IRS department to crack down. But the movement has been dwindling in the decades since. as the hippies aged and the George W. Bush–era anti-war protests faced a cultural backlash once Obama was elected. In the last six months, the war on Gaza has reinvigorated both the anti-war and anti-war-tax movements.

Lincoln Rice, the outreach coordinator at the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC), has been withholding his taxes for over 20 years. He said that interest in this form of civil disobedience has been “the highest [he’s] seen it during [his] lifetime.” Since Israel’s invasion of Gaza, visits to his organization’s website and Instagram account, which educate people about the practice of tax resistance, have increased exponentially. Rice estimates that there are 10,000 active war tax resisters in the US today, and that newcomers could raise that number much higher.

The resurgent interest is primarily driven by a younger generation refusing to pay their taxes for the first time in response to Biden’s support of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. But young people I spoke with for this story also voiced frustration with what they see as a general misallocation of tax dollars. In other words, while money is going to fund the supply of more arms to Israel, not enough is going to important social services like education, social welfare, and unemployment assistance.

Quinn, a California resident who requested to withhold her last name in fear of losing her job, felt similarly. “The whole idea of taxes was to provide social safety nets,” she said. But now, “the money that is supposedly being used for other purposes, and actually create those safety nets,” such as community food kitchens and mutual aid groups. People’s growing frustration with the tax code is about more than just the war on Gaza, even if that has been the progenitor for some people. “I think people are getting tired. There’s too many complaints where people can’t even make basic ends meet.”

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For Gambino, who left her hometown in the Hudson Valley as the cost of living grew untenable and unemployment benefits became hard to access, the cost of war is a further insult alongside a lack of homeowners assistance and other safety systems. “I’m just beyond disgusted with how this country is run, how working-class and marginalized people are basically stepped on, and used for the greater good of the elitist class,” she said. “And all of the past and present atrocities that are going on using our tax dollars.”

Early estimates from the War Resisters League, another anti-war group that teaches people how to successfully resist paying taxes that fund wars, estimates that the US government spent a total of 43 percent of its federal funds in 2023 to finance international wars past and present, a number that is projected to reach 45 percent by 2025. Similarly, the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit focused on war spending and general budget accountability, estimates that the country could spend well over $1 trillion on its various military commitments in discretionary spending by 2025. Meanwhile, other domestic budgets—which pay for housing programs, public education, public health, and environmental protection, among other services—account for less than half of that, at $499 billion. Effectively, this means that $69 out of every $100 federal dollars in the current discretionary spending budget that Biden recently proposed will go toward Pentagon funding, nuclear weapons, veterans programs, and border protection.

Many people I spoke with are refusing to pay their taxes to relieve their own conscience, as paying taxes would signal complicity in the war. The average taxpayer contributed around $5,000 toward US militarism in 2023. But others also believe that the tax withholding can really make a difference. Part of the mission is to “gum up the system” by drawing the IRS’s attention to the issue, said Kandra Herman-Parks, a tax preparer who has withheld her own taxes for years. Many tax resisters have even higher aspirations: starving the war machine altogether by redirecting funds toward other community priorities.

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Across the country, NWTRCC and local anti-war organizations are planning to host “redirection ceremonies” where activists will publicly commit tens of thousands of withheld federal tax dollars to underfunded organizations, in cities like Oakland, California; Harrisonburg, Virginia; and Boston, Massachusetts. It’s hard to know how much money is actually withheld from the IRS, since people hesitate to share that information, but Rice said sending those funds elsewhere can make a big difference. “The financial impact is much greater for the organizations that we’re redirecting federal income taxes to, than it is for the federal government.”

Refusing to pay all or a portion of one’s required tax dues is a civil crime and comes with risks. Rice said that these risks can change depending on how much people choose to symbolically withhold and the way they do it. Some war tax resisters make an income below the poverty line; others withhold varying percentages of their tax requirement, from 1 percent (representative of the funding committed to maintaining our nuclear arsenal) up to 45 percent (the total cost of war-related financing). He encourages people who are resisting to file their taxes on paper rather than online, and attach a letter voicing their reason for withholding to signal to the IRS that the withholding is an intentional protest.

In some cases, the risks can catch up with people. Rice leads introductory virtual sessions for people curious about war tax resistance, and includes information on the risks of resisting, which could result in IRS audits, monetary penalties, wage garnishment, liens, or, in rare cases, imprisonment. In a recent session, amid dozens of audience questions about tax qualifications and precautions, Rice reminded the resister-curious that the chance of escalation is very low: In most cases, the IRS doesn’t seem interested in drawing further attention to the practice.

“In the past, the more public someone was [about war tax resistance], it definitely led to more interactions or the possibility that someone would be singled out to be garnished,” he said. But since the IRS has been persistently defunded in the recent decades, he’s noticed that they’ve pursued even fewer cases of war tax resisters.

When people do run into problems with tax enforcement, they can turn to organizations like the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee for legal assistance and, in some cases, even a mutual aid fund to help pay debts. The groups We the People and the Tax Resistance Collective were both formed to support tax resistance in response to the invasion of Gaza, and are especially interested in teaching younger people about the process through social media.

Some resister organizers consider the push to bring more young people on board as critical to their mission, because they argue that the risks of tax refusal can be further mitigated with larger scale. The IRS is already overwhelmed by the task of chasing down higher-earning tax evaders and catching up with a backlog of filings from the pandemic, and so organizers reason that the chances of tax protesters’ facing a penalty is lower than it’s been in the past.

And the more people do it, the safer it is for everyone. Herman-Parks, the tax preparer, spoke plainly about the risk but also what she perceives as the power in numbers. “I want to do more tax resistance, but I don’t want to do it alone. I want to do it in a community. And I don’t feel like it’s worth our time, if you’re doing it alone,” she said. “If we’re all doing it together, then we can have a huge impact—and safety in numbers.”

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Lucy Dean Stockton

Lucy Dean Stockton is a New York City–based editor and reporter focused on climate and privatization. She works at The Lever and previously worked at The Nation and More Perfect Union.

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