Clog the Jails and the Courts in Tax Resistance Campaign

One tactic that has been used from time to time by tax resisters and tax resistance campaigns is to attempt to make tax enforcement, or government reprisals against tax resisters, costly for the government — for example by clogging the jails or the court system.

If accomplished successfully, this can force the government into a checkmate, where if it fails to take action it loses, but if it takes action it loses. But by forcing resisters to throw themselves onto the gears of the machine, this tactic can be costly to them as well, and so this tactic can turn into a game of chicken (or a war of attrition).

Here are a handful of examples:

  • John Brown Smith was a British citizen living in Massachusetts. Not, as an alien, being entitled to vote, he decided to test the American “no taxation without representation” motto, and stopped paying his $2 poll tax. In the town threw him in jail. There he stayed… for almost a year! The town had to pay about $1.75 a week just to feed him.

    The question of martyrdom in this case hinges on the board bill, for which the Town of Belchertown is liable. Some of the frugal tax-payers of Belchertown object to being assessed for their proportion of Smith’s weekly board bill. They think that they are the real martyrs, since they maintain in idleness a man who will nto pay a poll-tax, the proceeds of which would scarcely suffice to pay the cost of maintaining him one week in Northampton Jail. Some nobler spirits, however, express their willingness to pay their share of the cost of Smith’s prison fare until the crack of doom, if Smith should hold out so long, in order that the majesty of the law shall be vindicated. Smith, on his part, exultingly declares that he is better housed and fed than a majority of the voters of Belchertown who are paying his board. This aspect of the case detracts somewhat from the heroism of the martyr to the poll-tax. Nevertheless, as Smith adds that he would rather spend the rest of his days in jail than give up the principle for which he is contending, we may concede that he is a real hero, unaffected by the mercenary considerations of his board bill.

    Smith was eventually released when someone came forward to pay his tax and fines (a total of $5.62) for him (leaving the government about $75 behind on the deal).
  • J.J. Keon refused to pay his poll tax in Grafton, Illinois, in :

    J.J. Keon, a Socialist of this city, is in the city jail, having the time of his life, so he says, because he is forcing the city to spend $125 to punish him for failure to pay a poll tax of $1.50… He says he finds nothing in the state constitution which makes a poll tax legal, so he insists that the city keep him in jail for six months, which is the longest term possible for his “offense.” He believes that it will not alter his principle and that it may make the city tired of forcing its male population to pay a poll tax.

    “You’re losing $4.50 a day [Keon’s usual salary] while you are in jail,” pleaded the mayor. “In six months that will amount to more than $500.”

    “Money is nothing to me when compared with a principle,” replied Keon. “And let’s see what I am costing the city. Meals, 150 days, at sixty cents a day, $108; night watchman, $5; chicken fence wire, $2; miscellaneous, $10. Total, $125. The entire poll taxes for the year are only $325.…”

  • You may remember the newspaper articles about Maurice McCrackin I posted , in which he refused to cooperate at his tax resistance trial — to the point even of having to be carried or wheeled into the courtroom.
  • Wage Tax Enforcement Has Officials Stumped. Provisions exist for enforcement but officials hesitate to use them; prosecution becomes major problem.

    headline from the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania Sunday Independent

  • Resisters to an unpopular wage tax in Pennsylvania in discovered that if they refused to pay the tax entirely, the government could quickly hit them with fines or jail time… but if they paid some minimal fraction of the taxes due, the government couldn’t move against them without doing a complicated assessment first to determine how much extra was owed.

    This could be a long and dreary legal procedure for a school district or council, especially if there is more than one such delinquent. Therefore, many residents are beating the wage tax levy by simply clunking a single coin on the tax collector’s desk.

  • Clogging the courts was an important tactic of the campaign to resist Thatcher’s Poll Tax. Danny Burns writes:

    Bristol City Council issues summonses to 120,000 people, Leeds summoned 110,000 and the numbers in almost all other big cities were comparable. In order to get through this number of cases, councils had to hope that defendants wouldn’t turn up.…

    The strategy of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions was to make sure that as many people as possible came to court. In law everyone had a right to have their case heard individually. The calculation was that even if only a small percentage of people had their cases heard, the courts would be blocked for years.

    Initially, neither the councils nor the courts took the judicial procedure seriously because they didn’t expect anyone to turn up… South Tyndale Council summoned 3,500 to appear on two afternoons. A total of five hours was allocated to hear all these cases — an average of four secons per hearing. When people heard this they were furious, because it was obvious that both the council and the courts saw the process as rubber stamping exercise.…

    The Anti-Poll Tax Unions publicised the strategy to block the courts, with leaflets and posters and articles in the local newspapers. Mass demonstrations were called for the first day of the hearings, and in some areas the courts were brought to a standstill. In Warrington on , 1,000 people took over the court and all the cases were postponed. Similar events took place in Southwark:

    1,500 people, mostly women and children, turned up at Southwark court and occupied the building. It was absolute chaos, the courts couldn’t handle the numbers. The police were stopping people from coming into their own court cases. The crowds didn’t move until the court declared all 5,000 cases adjourned.

    …People were given ideas about how they might disrupt or delay the court proceedings. These included simple things, like asking for a glass of water because their throat was dry, demanding to see the identity cards of everyone present in court, to fainting in court or arranging for fire alarms to go off. People were told to demand their rights to see and read every document which was produced as evidence against them. They were also given briefings on the basic technical arguments.

    …Throughout England and Wales over a thousand people were trained to do court support work and could quote the relevant legislation.

    Experience showed that the most effective way of wasting time, for those who were not familiar with the law, was to relate direct experiences of hardship. People talking in their own language about their own circumstances were much harder for the magistrates to dismiss than legal technicians. Many people made political speeches which lasted for as long as ten minutes, others outlined their financial circumstances. They all took up valuable time, and sometimes made a powerful and moving impact on the public gallery.

Using the government’s own defenses against it can be a powerful strategy. And I’ve even got an example in my archives of when the government managed to foil nonviolent tax resisters by using their own tactics against them. During the Salt Raids in the Indian independence campaign, a group of policemen blockaded the road in front of an assembly of salt raiders, and then sent another group to cut off their escape route. Then, rather than attacking the raiders, the police used satyagraha tactics to force a standoff:

“You cannot proceed.” the superintendent informed Mrs. [Sarojini] Naidu.

“We will not go back,” the poetess and leader replied. “We will stay here.”

“We are going to stay here, too, and offer Satyagraha ourselves as long as you stay,” the superintendent said, ordering his men to stand their ground.

They parleyed for a short time and then Mrs. Naidu ordered a chair brought from a nearby house. She sat down and wrote letters and talked jovially with her friends. Her followers squatted on the ground nearby, many of them engaged in spinning cloth.