Ways to Support Imprisoned Tax Resisters

Rallies outside the courthouse or prison are one way of supporting resisters who are looking at doing time for taking their stand (see The Picket Line for ), and supporting their families while they’re being held captive is another (see The Picket Line for ).

Other ways to show support are to accompany resisters as they go to prison, to visit them or correspond with them while they are inside, and to be there to meet them when they are released. Today I’ll give some examples of these ways of showing support for imprisoned tax resisters.

Accompanying resisters to prison

  • When elderly council tax rebel Sylvia Hardy was threatened with jail in , her supporters organized a convoy of cars to accompany her to the jail as a show of support.
  • In , Annuity Tax resisters in Edinburgh, Scotland, would go to prison in a parade of protesters. One description of such a procession read:

    [H]e was marched off to the Calton Jail, accompanied by the usual hasty muster of people carrying flags and poles, having placards on which were a variety of devices and inscriptions… His daughter, a fine young woman, in a fit of heroic indignation which overmastered her grief and the natural timidity of her sex, seized one of the flags, and would have walked before her father to prison with the crowd, but was prevented by him and the interference of the humane bystanders.

  • When Kate Harvey went to prison for her resistance as part of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, fellow-resisters Charlotte Despard and Mary Anderson accompanied her to the prison gates. When Elizabeth Knight was imprisoned on similar charges, she was accompanied to Holloway by resisters Florence Underwood and Isabel Tippett.

Visiting resisters in prison

  • Thomas Story, an English Quaker who was visiting the American colonies, was able to help two Quakers from Rhode Island who were in prison for not paying a militia exemption tax after having been drafted and refusing to fight. Story helped them hold a Quaker meeting in the prison itself, and also (having some legal experience) tried to assist them in court.
  • When Zerah Colburn Whipple was imprisoned for failing to pay a war tax in , it was a comfort to him to have friends on the outside trying to get in. He wrote: “Our friend John J. Copp, proved himself a true friend indeed. Knowing that I would be lonely in the jail, he visited me every day after he learned that I was there, and when the keeper refused him admission, he demanded it as his right to visit his client, and claimed the right to see me alone too, which was granted.”
  • The Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign helped to organize prison visits to people who had been imprisoned in the Poll Tax rebellion.

Corresponding with imprisoned resisters

I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with the Prison Literature Project in Berkeley, California. Most of the letters we get are from prisoners requesting books — which makes sense, because that’s the sort of letter we explicitly ask for. But a pretty hefty percentage of the letters we get are just expressing gratitude for the books and letters we previously sent — heartfelt, often heartbreaking gratitude, especially since many of the prisoners are of limited means and can barely afford to put a stamp on a letter.

This impresses on me how meaningful it is for people behind bars to get letters from friends outside.

  • The Anarchist Black Cross of New York City held a letter-writing evening for imprisoned war tax resister Carlos Steward in .
  • Brian Wright was the first person thrown in prison for Poll Tax resistance, during the rebellion in the United Kingdom, in . While there he received over 800 cards and letters from supporters. The Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign made it a policy to ensure that at least one personal letter per prisoner per week came from someone in the campaign.
  • When Kate Harvey had barricaded herself in her own home to try to defeat government attempts to seize her property for taxes, a supporter sent her a poem to keep her mood up:

    Good luck, my friend, I wish to thee,
    In thy brave fight ’gainst tyranny.
    Bracken Hill Siege will bring good cheer
    To those who hold our Freedom dear,
    And fight the good fight far and near.

    And when oppression is out-done,
    And Liberty, at last, is won,
    When women civic rights possess,
    They’ll think, I hope, with thankfulness,
    Of those who bore the battle’s stress.

  • When a Colorado doctor was jailed for refusing to pay federal income taxes that fund weapons of mass destruction, it was reported that “[l]etters of approval have been pouring in to Dr. Evans, and since he is only allowed to write very few, his mother in Philadelphia has taken up the task of acknowledging them, sending at the same time a typewritten sheet explaining the affair in detail.”

Welcoming resisters back from prison

  • The campaign to resist Thatcher’s Poll Tax organized a march to Brixton Prison, which held most of the resisters then in custody. Police attacked the march and arrested 135 people. “That evening,” says campaign volunteer Danny Burns, “volunteers were sent to every police station to welcome those who were released on bail.” This served not only to show solidarity, but also to make the arrested people aware of the legal support available to them and to encourage them to cooperate in their defense.
  • When Constance Andrews of the Women’s Tax Resistance League was released after having been jailed for a week for failure to pay a dog license tax, “a very large crowd — described in the local press as ‘an immense gathering’ — collected outside the prison to cheer Miss Andrews on her release.” A procession with suffrage banners walked along with Andrews as she walked from the prison to a reception held in her honor.
  • When Mark Wilks was released from prison for failure to pay his wife’s income tax in , the Women’s Tax Resistance League held a reception for the Wilkses, saying that “not only do they wish to do honour to those who have made such a brave stand for tax resistance, but to use the occasion, as one of many others, to keep before the public mind the necessity for the alteration of the laws.”
  • Katsuki James Otsuka served a 120-day sentence for refusing to pay war taxes to the U.S. government (and then refusing to pay the fine he was given for his initial refusal) in . A group of supporters demonstrated outside the prison at the time of his anticipated release, though “four carloads of state police” broke up the demonstration at one point, smashing a picket sign that read “You did right in refusing to pay taxes for A-bombs.”
  • During the white supremacist rebellion against the Reconstruction state government in Louisiana a man named Edward Booth was imprisoned for 24 hours for refusing to pay a license tax.

    [I]t was agreed among his immediate personal friends, the members of the tax resisting association and their sympathizers, to make a grand demonstration, at the hour of his release, and escort him to his place of business, to show their sympathies, and in what approbation he was held for having become the object of an oppression, in the defence of his personal rights.

    Before the hour of his release, a large concourse of people assembled before the doors of the prison, to hail the deliverance of the prisoner, and the anteroom was thronged with friends anxious to proffer the hand of sympathy and condolence. … Mr. Booth filed out of the room and stepped into a carriage in waiting, amid rousing cheers and a stirring air from the band. The carriage led off, followed by the band and the large concourse of people, who gradually fell into an orderly line of twos, to the number of about 400.

    The marchers hung an effigy of the Reconstruction governor from a lamp post while loudly cheering. When the procession reached Booth’s place of business, he gave a speech thanking the crowd for their support and urging them to renew their resistance.
  • William Tait, editor of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, was imprisoned for refusing to pay the Annuity Tax in that city, which went to support the official church, of which Tait was not a member. After four days, he was released. The Scotsman covered the story:

    [Tait] stepped into the open carriage, drawn by four horses, which stood on the street… At this moment, one of the gentlemen in the carriage, waving his hat, proposed three cheers for the King, and three cheers for Mr. Tait, — both of which propositions were most enthusiastically carried into effect. The procession was then about to move off, when, much against the will of Mr. Tait and the Committee, the crowd took the horses from the carriage, and with ropes drew it along the route of procession… As the procession marched along, it was joined by several other trades, who had been late in getting ready; and seldom have we seen such a dense mass of individuals as Prince’s Street presented on this occasion. In the procession alone, there were not fewer than 8,000 individuals; and we are sure that the spectators were more than thrice as numerous. Mr. Tait was frequently cheered as he passed along, — and never, but on the occasion of the Reform Bill, was a more unanimous feeling witnessed than on that which brought the people together yesterday afternoon.