New Internationalist

Rebels with a cause

Issue 416

Popular rebellion has often accompanied oppressive taxation. Almost all the protests were against taxes that ignored the ability to pay. Here are just a few examples.

Poll Tax Rebellion (Britain)

The regime of Margaret Thatcher replaced local taxes on property with a single ‘flat’ tax per head of population. The tax proved cumbersome to collect and met with mounting resentment; one in five adults had to be summonsed for payment. On 31 March 1990 a massive demonstration in Trafalgar Square turned violent. By November 1991 Thatcher had resigned, the ‘poll tax’ widely cited as an immediate cause of her demise. It was shelved and replaced with a modified property tax.

Dai Loc Revolt (Vietnam)

This was a huge and spontaneous uprising against taxes and labour service imposed by the colonial French. It began in Dai Loc, where several thousand camped peacefully near the building of the French administrator and cooked meals until others arrived to take their place. The administrator ordered troops to fire on them; the protest escalated and spread to Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Hue. Tax collectors, police officers and interpreters were captured. The first peaceful mass demonstrations against French colonial rule, their brutal repression set the tone for the violent conflicts to come.

Bambatha Rebellion (South Africa)

Named after its leader, this revolt was against a poll tax raised by the British colony of Natal. Africans slaughtered animals owned by whites and destroyed tools made in Europe. On 6 February a white police officer was killed while guarding a magistrate collecting the tax. The revolt spread, and for the next six months government troops tried to suppressed it. The Times of Natal reported that by 1907 some 5,000 men had endured an official flogging; 4,000 were killed and 30,000 lost their homes in one region alone.

Rebellion of the Barrios (Ecuador)

On 22 May 1765 there was an uprising in Quito against the sale of aguardiente (firewater), over which the Spanish imperial authorities held a monopoly, and against a new sales tax. The rebels broke into the tax office, emptied aguardiente on to the streets, trashed the building and tore up tax records. On 24 June the noche de San Juan festivities resulted in the residents of the poor barrios (reinforced by indigenous peoples from surrounding villages) taking over the entire city. On 27 June they took weapons from the armoury and ordered European Spaniards to leave. Spanish control was gradually re-established, but lasted little more than another 50 years.

Antiwar Protest (US)

In 1967 the singer Joan Baez (right) sued the Federal Government for the return of $36,500 of her tax payments: the proportion she calculated had been spent on the military in Vietnam. In 1969 Federal tax returns were due for filing by 15 April, when a large demonstration gathered in Washington DC and picketed the Treasury Department and the Pentagon, as protests against the war in Vietnam reached their height. Another group threw tax forms into Boston Harbor, recalling the pre-independence Boston Tea Party anti-tax protests in 1773. Similar protests were widespread across the US and continued until the US withdrew from Vietnam.

Black February (Bolivia)

In February 2003 two days of violent protest by the working poor exploded on to the streets of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. The protest was against a tax increase that was the direct result of demands being made on the Bolivian Government by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The conflict left 34 people dead and almost 200 others injured. The tragedy of Febrero Negro (‘Black February’) highlighted the lethal incompetence of the IMF and was one of the turning points that led to the election of Evo Morales as President of Bolivia in 2006, on a radically different platform.

The Salt March (India)

On 12 March 1930 Mahatma Gandhi (right) and 78 satyagrahis (non-violent independence activists) began a 23-day march to the coast to protest at the salt tax levied by the British colonial administration. Gandhi said the tax was the ‘most iniquitous of all from the poor person’s standpoint’. Support for the march grew as it progressed. On 5 April it reached the coast, where Gandhi broke the law by picking up a tiny lump of salt. Thousands followed suit. A month later Gandhi was arrested. The Salt March sparked further protests. A march to Dharshana was attacked by police – satyagrahis did not defend themselves and many were killed. The protests were a landmark on the road to independence 18 years later.

Sources: chiefly David F Burg, A World History of Tax Rebellions, Routledge, London, 2004;

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This article was originally published in issue 416

New Internationalist Magazine issue 416
Issue 416

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