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'Screw with Their Faith and They Will Kill You': The Strange, Obsessively Anti-Government Sovereign Citizen Movement Makes a Comeback

'Sovereign citizens' refuse to abide by government laws. While a small minority takes up arms, most just search for loopholes in the law.

"Sovereign citizens" refuse to abide by any government laws, even mundane ones requiring drivers licenses. They refuse to pay taxes or get gun or construction permits. They protest court proceedings. According to Brent Johnson, a sovereign citizen and host of the "American Sovereign" radio show, being a sovereign citizens “means never having to ask those people who you have allowed to run your government for you, for permission to do anything.”

Sovereign citizens also believe that our Social Security numbers make us slaves to the government. “We have been inculcated to think that we are supposed to get a number, obey the rules and give a portion of what we earned to the IRS that gives it to the international bankers,” says Johnson. Their belief system and arguments explaining why they think so many laws and much of the government is illegitimate is complex and confusing to the point that even Johnson describes it as “literally living in a matrix world. What we have been taught about the government is so completely wrong.”

The sovereign citizens movement has seen a recent resurgence similar to its heyday in the 1990s -- no surprise, given the recession, increase in federal laws, and the right-wing rhetoric of shock jocks and Tea Party politicians. Since it’s not an organized movement, there are no reliable statistics. But sovereign citizens themselves say there is an increase of people visiting their Web sites, attending their lectures, and listening to their radio shows. Mark Pitcavage from the Anti-defamation League, who has been studying the movement for over 15 years, says he’s received more and more calls from law enforcement and others asking for advice on how to deal with sovereign citizens. 

Their basic premise is, like so many things these days, based on an unorthodox interpretation of the 14th Amendment. They claim that when the nation was founded, citizens had prime authority and the government was set up to protect our God given “unalienable rights.” But the 14th Amendment created a new hierarchy: God, citizens, government, and then former slaves. Over time, through specific wording used in laws, forms and court rulings, the government has managed to trick all citizens into subservience. Now, every time you sign or register with the federal government, be it a driver's license, Social Security number, tax form, or even something as simple a construction permit, you are entering a contractual and legal relationship with the government, according to the sovereign citizen philosophy.

Another example of citizen subservience: they argue that FDA drug laws use the phrase “man or other animals” which demotes people to the status of animals without inalienable rights. This, they argue, goes against the Bible, which differentiates man from beast, and thus, according to sovereign citizens, all drug laws represent a violation of religious freedom. There are endless examples, and sovereign citizens continually discover new ones.

If all this sounds confusing, it is, even for them. Expert sovereign citizens have spent years studying law dictionaries and arcane rulings, finding loopholes in languages based on grammar and definitions. “This is an extraordinary freaking word game. Not many people know how to do it or even understand it,” says Alfred Adask, a guru of the sovereign movement and former publisher of AntiShyster, a sovereign citizen news magazine. “People are still trying to figure it out. It is all about definitions and words and the sophisticated use of those words that the government has ensnared us with and put us back into bondage. You have to master the definitions and start working out with a law dictionary.”

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