Tax resistance campaigns can increase their visibility by adopting particular uniforms, badges, ribbons, or other emblems to identify resisters and those working in concert with the campaign. Today I will summarize some examples of this.
Gandhi’s satyagraha in India
An important part of the Indian independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi was the wearing of khādī (homespun cloth). This had three purposes:
- To encourage the development of Indian self-reliance and industry as the economic foundation of Indian independence.
- To hurt the British government by boycotting and thereby reducing the profits from exports of British fabric to India.
- To serve as an emblem to identify and express the commitment of Indian patriots.
[T]he most effective and visible cooperation which all [Indian National] Congressmen and the mute millions can show is by not interfering with the course civil disobedience may take and by themselves spinning and using khādī to the exclusion of all other cloth. If it is allowed that there is a meaning in people wearing primroses on Primrose Day, surely there is much more in a people using a particular kind of cloth and giving a particular type of labour to the cause they hold dear. From their compliance with the khādī test I shall infer that they have shed untouchability, and that they have nothing but brotherly feeling towards all without distinction of race, colour, or creed. Those who will do this are as much Satyagrahis as those who will be singled out for civil disobedience.
Gandhi himself put in many hours at the spinning wheel, and demanded this of his followers as well.
“Gandhi caps” made from khādī became almost a uniform of the resistance. One news dispatch from around the time of the Dharasana salt raid noted:
The correspondent said the growth of the Gandhi movement was shown by the increased number of persons wearing the Gandhi caps. In the cities, he said, a majority of the people wear them; they also are beginning to be worn in villages in Punjab while even in aristocratic Simla one person in six of the population in the bazaars have donned caps, which is the symbol of the nationalist campaign.
Homespun cloth in the American revolution
But Gandhi’s campaign wasn’t the first blow against the British Empire that was struck in part by homespun cloth and conspicuous consumption of locally-manufactured goods. This was also an important part of the American Revolution.
Here is an example reported in a edition of the Massachusetts Gazette:
On Wednesday evening the honorable speaker and gentlemen of the House of Burgesses gave a ball at the capitol… and it is with the greatest pleasure we inform our readers… [of] the patriotic spirit… [that] was most agreeably manifested in the dress of the ladies on that occasion, who, to the number of near one hundred, appeared in homespun gowns; a lively and striking instance of their acquiescence and concurrence in whatever may be the true and essential interest of their country.
“Spinning bees” at which patriotic Americans worked together to card, spin, weave, and sew, so as to avoid having to import clothing from England, were ways that everybody could demonstrate their revolutionary spirit and participate in the resistance. Resisters also made a point of eschewing imported tea in favor of locally-produced substitutes (such as dried raspberry leaves).
One patriotic poem of the time advised “young ladies”:
Wear none but your own country linen;
Of economy boast, let your pride be the most
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.
What if homespun they say is not quite so gay
As brocades, yet be not in a passion,
For when once it is known this is much worn in town,
One and all will cry out— ’Tis the fashion!
And, as one, all agree, that you’ll not married be
To such as will wear London factory,
But at first sight refuse, tell ’em such you will choose
As encourage our own manufactory.
No more ribbons wear, nor in rich silks appear;
Love your country much better than fine things;
Begin without passion, ’twill soon be the fashion
To grace your smooth locks with a twine string.
Massachusetts patriots vowed in :
…that we will not, at funerals, use any gloves except those made here, or purchase any article of mourning on such occasion, but what shall be absolutely necessary; and we consent to abandon the use, so far as may be, not only of all the articles mentioned in the Boston resolves, but of all foreign teas, which are clearly superfluous, our own fields abounding in herbs more healthful, and which we doubt not, may, by use, be found agreeable…
The Rebecca Riots in Wales in were notorious for the distinctive garb donned by the resistance groups who would gather to tear down tollgates.
The leader of the party was usually a man dressed up in women’s clothing and a large bonnet, sometimes wearing a long horse-hair wig or carrying a parasol, who was given the name “Rebecca.” Rebecca’s followers also were men wearing womens’ clothes, or at least white blouses over their clothes, and sometimes bonnets or other high-crowned hats, occasionally with fern fronds, feathers, or other decorations on them. They would paint their faces black or yellow, and sometimes drape their horses in white sheets.
In this case, the reasoning behind the costuming was not so much to express public pride than for other purposes. For instance:
- To disguise the participants so that the government would be less able to take reprisals against them.
- To resonate with ancient folk forms of grassroots vigilantism and protest that had a similar character (cross-dressing, face painting, a carnival atmosphere).
- To intimidate toll gate keepers with their strangeness and reputation.
- To create a figurehead for the movement that could be adopted and then set aside by multiple people, so as to make the movement’s leadership harder to target for reprisals.
- To make the resistance more festive and carnivalesque and thereby encourage participation.
- To make it easier to identify fellow-resisters in the confusion of late-night raids on dark country roads.
Badges awarded by the Women’s Tax Resistance League
Women’s suffrage activists in the United Kingdom awarded badges to resisters who had been imprisoned for their resistance. Here is a description of one such badge given to Kate Harvey:
The badge is cast in the form of a shield on which is depicted the entrance to Holloway Prison. On the reverse is a card inscribed in a faint hand: “Given to Mrs K Harvey By Women’s Suffrage After She Had Been In Prison For Tax Resistance.”
These badges were the equivalent of medals for meritorious service. An American woman who visited her counterparts across the waters observed:
It was a queer sensation in those days to look upon sweet and ladylike young women… and to know that they had actually been prisoners. It was not long before they were looked upon as something sacred, as those who had made special sacrifices for the cause, and they wore badges to show that they had been prisoners and in every place were given the post of honor until their numbers mounted up to the hundreds.
Relics of the Glastonbury cows
Abby & Julia Smith refused to pay taxes to a local government that denied women the vote and that took advantage of this by excessively taxing women’s property in order to ease the tax burden on male voters and to redistribute the money to male patronage recipients. In response, the government periodically seized and auctioned off the Smith sisters’ cows (“Votey” and “Taxey”).
Emblems made from hairs of the cows’ tails, woven into the shape of flowers, and tied with ribbons emblazoned with the slogan “Taxation Without Representation,” became popular adornments for supporters of the Smiths’ tax resistance.
“I refuse to fund this war” stickers
In , an American anti-war group held a “Stop Funding the War in Iraq” rally near the offices of a Congressional leader.
A war tax resistance group was there to hand out stickers for people to wear that read “I refuse to fund this war!” I was there and noted:
I figured a few people would take them and wear them without thinking much about it, a few people would refuse to take them without thinking much about it, and the remainder would have to think about whether they should start refusing if they hadn’t already.
As it turned out, just about everyone we offered the stickers to was eager to wear one, though it’s hard to tell which of these will put their money where their mouths are. Hopefully a few, anyway, had that light bulb go on, and then looked around and wondered “have all these other people wearing these stickers started resisting their taxes?”
French cockades and militia uniforms in the Fries Rebellion
The Fries Rebellion in the United States took place about a decade after the enacting of the United States Constitution, and shortly after the successful French Revolution.
The United States government was under the presidency of John Adams, who represented the more authoritarian, aristocratic, pro-English faction; the faction out of power was more populist, democratic, and pro-French.
Tax resisters who participated in the Fries Rebellion sometimes signaled their loyalty (and frightened the Adams government) by wearing French tricolor cockades in their hats to demonstrate their affinity with the democratic revolutionaries across the pond, and/or by wearing their old American revolutionary militia uniforms to show their belief that their current rebellion was more in harmony with the spirit of the American Revolution than were the policies of the federal government.
Masks at the Carnival of Viareggio
The Carnival of Viareggio is today a parade and bacchanal, but it began with a tax protest in which “a number of local citizens, as a sign of protest… decided to put on masks in order to show their refusal of high taxes they were forced to pay.”
Australian miners wear a red ribbon
Australian miners, who in were resisting a license tax, held a “monster meeting” at which they passed a number of resolutions, including these:
[A]s it is necessary that the diggers should know their friends, every miner agrees to wear as a pledge of good faith, and in support of the cause, a piece of red ribbon on his hat, not to be removed until the license tax is abolished.
That this meeting… desire to publicly express their esteem for the memory of the brave men who have fallen in battle [during “the late out-break”], and that to shew their respect every digger and their friends do wear tomorrow (Sunday) a band of black crape on his hat…
Taking pride in resistance
Many of these are examples of resisters showing pride in their resistance. This can be a way of short-circuiting a traditional government gambit used against tax evaders: to publish their names as a way of calling them out as bankrupts or deadbeats. If the government tries to shame tax resisters as irresponsible tax evaders, but the resisters have already willingly made their resistance public, this government tactic loses its force.
When local council governments in the United Kingdom tried to use this tactic against Poll Tax resisters in the Thatcher years, the newspapers who published the lists of “shame” found themselves on the receiving end of letters to the editor from resisters who were outraged that they had not made the list — insisting that their names be included too!
Here are some similar examples of people taking pride in their resistance or in things incident to resistance:
- When the Women’s Freedom League (a British suffrage group which refused to pay taxes on the salaries of its employees), was threatened with a legal writ by the government, it decided to auction the writ as a fundraiser.
- Greek tax resisters in Penteli (near Athens), who have been refusing to pay the new taxes attached to their utility bills during the recent “won’t pay” movement, hung their urgent “past due” notices from a Christmas tree in the town square as ornaments.
- When somebody asked Quaker Nathaniel Morgan whether he and his father had “got anything” in the course of their war tax resistance (by which he meant, did his Quaker meeting reimburse them for their losses when their goods were distrained and sold), Morgan replied: “Yes, peace of mind, which was worth all.”