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Sovereign Citizens Deny Government Authority

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sovereign citizens were well represented among the many groups in the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Sovereign citizens were well represented among the many groups in the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

What Are Freemen/Sovereign Citizens?

Increasingly, people are joining groups that declare themselves to be immune from government rules. They call themselves “freemen” or “sovereign citizens” (SovCits for short) and they are moving out of the shadows.

The FBI says of them that they are “anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States.” Their influence is spreading beyond the American borders.

The Beliefs of Freemen/Sovereign Citizens

According to the BBC: “The general ideology is based on the belief that the original government set up by the U.S. founders, which most adherents refer to as 'common law,' was slowly and secretly replaced by an illegitimate government sometime in the 1800s.” From this springs the notion that any law enacted by government is illicit and should not be obeyed.

The World Freeman Society says: “A Freeman is a human being living in a common law jurisdiction under God, who has revoked consent to be governed by human laws.” The “god” referred to is the Christian one.

Writing in The Walrus, Alina Konevski says “Freemen reject police and court authority; they often refuse to pay taxes, mortgages, and even utility bills.” Add to this a refusal to acknowledge passports, social insurance numbers, or any other form of government-issued identification.

Konevski adds that they believe that constitutional protections for freedom of the individual have been taken over “by a ‘corporate’ government in order to enslave the population into a commercial system of debt.”

And, there isn't a wacky conspiracy theory SovCits don't latch on to.

Be careful. They're watching and listening.

Be careful. They're watching and listening.

Birth of Sovereign Citizenship

There has always been a fringe in American society that hates government of any sort. On the extreme right there is the Posse Comitatus (Latin for “force of the county”) whose members claim there is no legitimate government above the county level.

The group can trace its origins back to ninth-century England when the position of sheriff was created. The sheriff, or conservator of the peace, was to defend the county over which he had jurisdiction. They also claim the Magna Carta of 1215 is a foundation that puts constraints on what they call “arbitrary power.”

Posse Comitatus was created by a particularly odious character called Colonel William Potter Gale, who also had a hand in the formation of the Christian Identity and the Aryan Nation. The core belief of these and other similar groups is that anybody who is not a white, heterosexual Christian is sub-human.

Gale leaned on the United Kingdom's Sheriffs Act of 1887 for legitimacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center points out that the “act allowed sheriffs to form a posse that would assist them in hunting down and arresting criminals. [Gale's] posse believed they served under common law (laws based on their interpretation of the Bible), rather than civil law (legitimate laws formed by the American legal system).”

In the United States, the Posse Comitatus emerged in the 1970s along with bogus conspiracy theories about the Jewish control of government. So, the posse developed in a maelstrom of white supremacy with links to citizen militias, who practice weapons drills in the belief they have to be ready to fight their own government. The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh came out of this seething mass of malcontents.

The sovereign citizen movement in its various guises went dormant after the Oklahoma atrocity. Any sympathy the anti-government ideology might have gathered in the wider society vanished.

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But, the BBC reports that “Now there are signs that their ideas are catching on again.”

The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and caused a temporary fall in the popularity of sovereign citizenship.

The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and caused a temporary fall in the popularity of sovereign citizenship.

Growth in a Toxic Political Climate

Several events created a climate in which the ideology of sovereign citizenship began to gather adherents. They may claim otherwise, but followers are tainted by the stench of racism. The election of a Black president, Barack Obama, in 2008 did not sit well with many on the right wing of politics.

Numerous police killings of Black people gave oxygen to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. White supremacists with connections to sovereign citizens opened fire on a BLM protest in Minneapolis in 2015. There have been many other violent reactions to BLM activism.

Then, COVID-19 arrived. In an attempt to contain its spread, governments everywhere started mandating mask wearing and the closing of certain businesses. Few things could be guaranteed to stir up the SovCits more than government edicts they see as infringing their rights and freedoms.

Truckers shut down Ottawa, Canada's capital, for three weeks in early 2022. They called their protest a “Freedom Convoy,” with one of their unfocused demands being that governments end mask mandates.

Sovereign Citizens Are Dangerous

In recent years, we have become familiar with names such as the Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo Boys, Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys who are happy to use violence to press their demands.

Sovereign citizens overlap with these far-right radicals but differ from the organizations mentioned above only in that they don't go in for paramilitary weapons training. They prefer to push their cause through legal means.

They tie up the court system with legal filings to end requirements for identity documents, driving licenses, and other government mandated paperwork. To prove they are independent of government control, the FBI says “They do not pay their taxes and regularly create false license plates, driver’s licenses, and even currency.”

Mark Pitcavage is a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League. He says once you have created bogus documentation “you have regained your sovereignty, none of the laws, rules, taxes, court orders, anything of the illegitimate de facto government have any more power or justification over you whatsoever.”

These tactics have led critics to call SovCits “Paper Terrorists,” and they are pleased to accept this title because it makes them sound relatively harmless. They are not.

Let's spend a bit of time with Donna Lee Wray and Jerry Kane; not because we want to, but because we have to to understand the sovereign citizen threat. The common-law couple refused to pay a dog license fee, and Donna Lee waged a paper battle filing sometimes incomprehensible motions with the Pinellas County, Florida prosecutor. Eventually, the frustrated prosecutor threw up his hands in despair and dropped the case. Donna Lee declared victory.

But, Jerry Kane turned out to be a much nastier piece of work. He and his son, Joseph, 16, travelled the country giving sparsely attended lectures on the merits of sovereign citizenship.

In May 2010, West Memphis Police Department Sergeant Brandon Paudert and Officer Bill Evans, spotted a minivan with fake license plates and pulled the vehicle over.

As the officer and his partner questioned Jerry Kane, he pushed one of them into a ditch. Joseph came out of the minivan firing an assault rifle. Jerry joined in the gun battle and both policemen were killed. Ninety minutes later, the Kanes were cornered and another gun fight erupted. Two more officers were wounded and the Kanes were both killed.

Neely Petrie-Blanchard, a QAnon follower and sovereign citizen, hired another sovereign citizen, Christopher Hallett in Ocala, Florida to help her with a legal problem. Petrie-Blanchard developed the belief that Hallett was part of a conspiracy against her so, on November 16, 2020, she shot and killed him.

It's incidents such as these that prompt the FBI to state that “the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive (and puts them squarely on our radar).”

Bonus Factoids

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are 300,000 sovereign citizens in the United States.
  • Actor James Beeks was fired from a prominent role in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in November 2021.This came after it was revealed he had taken part in the January 6, 2021 insurrection of the U.S. Capital. In court, facing charges related to the riot, Beeks made several outbursts claiming that as a sovereign citizen the government had no jurisdiction over him.
  • Sovereign citizens like to use many different names to describe themselves— common law citizens, non-resident aliens, constitutionalists, and freemen.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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