'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 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.”

Most outlandish is the conspiracy theory that in 1933, when we went off the gold standard, the government started using citizens as collateral, selling their future earnings against foreign debt. Now, apparently, there are two entities, a corporate shell that exists on paper (i.e. the straw man) and the flesh and blood person. When you are given a birth certificate and sign up for a Social Security number, unbeknownst to you, you are waiving your freedom and becoming a corporate entity on paper. The government uses your future earnings as collateral for foreign debt, in what is -- according to them -- a giant government Ponzi scheme.

Sovereign citizens I have spoken with admit that all this sounds a little out there. “Even I have a hard time believing it. It sounds like flimsy evidence, but you keep seeing examples again and again,” says Adask. “As fantastic as it might sound, they have literally created an alternative reality.”

When I asked Adask what draws people to this process, he says it’s usually desperation from losing a legal battle that strips them of a home, business or spouse, or puts them in jail. “You are taught to believe that this is the best legal system in the world, but all of a sudden you find out this is a racket,” explains Adask, who was himself driven by a difficult divorce and custody battle. “You are so shocked and dismayed, you get beat up so bad, that you end up reading and studying the law, because you don’t want to go back there.” His sovereignty seminars in Texas were almost a kind of group therapy session, he says, since being ripped off “makes you almost mentally ill. Most people in the sovereignty movement were the type that had tears in their eyes when they heard the national anthem. When they found it was a fraud, they were desperate to find something new to believe in. That also makes them very susceptible to being exploited.”

Some sovereigns believe in the legitimacy of what they are doing, but there are also plenty of scam artists. “The truth is there are bad people out there who are greedy and unprincipled and will use any opportunity to further their personal ends,” says Johnson. “Just because some people are thieves doesn’t mean everyone should be labeled that way and be under surveillance.” He charges up to $500 for his services, which he says have a 100 percent success rate, but aren't guaranteed to work. Johnson has also temporarily stopped accepting the “American Liberty Dollars” he used to issue because the mine that backs them, he says, was raided.

The gurus of the movement share--and sell—advice on how to evade the government through the Internet, how-to seminars, books, DVDs, radio shows and publications. They show how to dissect legal rhetoric to prove that laws are invalid. Often making those arguments involves filing thousands of documents, even for something as simple as a building permit. They cause such a backlog that sometimes a judge will just dismiss the case, which sovereign citizens will often declare as victory and proof that their arguments are correct. Some other tricks: signing forms in red crayon, using lower-case lettering or alternative punctuation in spelling your name, adding "with TDC” (“threat, duress and coercion”) or omitting a zip code. Allegedly, the forms then don’t apply to your real self. In court, sovereign citizens will use what is called the flesh-and-blood defense and refuse to cooperate with the judicial process.

Some advocate tapping into the Treasury account the government created for your "corporate self” by using bogus financial documents and checks. Using those forms to pay bills and eliminate debts and mortgages has become increasingly popular with recent foreclosures and the recession.

While some of the linguistic nuances they point to do in fact exist, the final conclusions they reach based on the language do not. Moreover, the strategies and theories aren’t recognized under the law. Sovereign citizen Johnson claims a 100 percent success rate with sovereignty claims, but for most people, making sovereign based arguments only earns them longer sentences for obstruction of justice. According to sovereign citizens, that is because they made a mistake in the highly complex process. Too many people, Adask explains, just get partial information off the Internet.

Many people might look into the process looking for a quick fix, a way to beat the rap, or get out of paying taxes, says Adask, but “once they see that it isn’t just as easy as signing a form, many move on,” says Adask. For the hard-core, being a sovereign citizen is a way of life that doesn’t come easy. The process is difficult, time consuming and often expensive. It means giving up any government benefits and without a Social Security number, difficulty getting a job, loan, or buying anything from a car to a house. True sovereign citizens see being stripped of their "God-given rights" as a religious movement, not just a political one, which raises the stakes. “You can take their cars, jobs and homes and they will stomp their feet and then go have a beer,” says Adask. “Screw with their faith and they will kill you. There is no war like a holy war. No compromise possible.”

While most sovereign citizens fly under the radar and live off the grid, it is inevitable that they have encounters with the law, even with something as simple as a traffic stop. That’s when the trouble begins. Unlike other groups like militias or the Oath Keepers who have been wrongly deemed anti-government for disputing government policies, sovereign citizens are a self-proclaimed anti-government group and they aren’t afraid to fight back if challenged. 

Sovereign citizens frequently retaliate against judges, IRS agents and law enforcement who get in their way through “paper terrorism." The most common tactic is filing bogus commercial liens against their enemies. In many states this is legal, and you don’t need to provide any proof that the person does owe them money. “It was powerful stuff,” says Adask, perhaps the main proponent of the process in the '90s. “If someone messed with you can put a lien on them that goes to their credit report. You knock their credit out, and their Mastercards stop working; if they were investing money you can cause collateral damage.”

But they have also been known to resort to physical violence, including shooting police officers. “There is nothing about the sovereign movement that promotes violence per se, but it should never be removed from the table,” says Johnson. “Some people act a little too quickly. But if policemen break into your car to get you out, that’s assault, and at that point you are justified in shooting the cop.”

While a small number of incidents shouldn’t taint the perception of all sovereigns, even some of those who don’t use violence still don’t condemn it. The presence alone of such a threat is powerful. “If you look like you are prepared to fight back, you will be left alone,” says Johnson, who is nonviolent, but says the IRS and cops know not to interfere with him.

Examples are rare, but what makes them more dangerous than other groups, according to ADL’s Pitcavage who runs police trainings about sovereign citizens, is that violence is “spontaneous, sudden and unpredictable,” and often set off by seemingly small incidents, like being stopped for speeding or questioned about a permit. “Most people in extremist groups don’t engage in violence,” says Pitcavage, “but this violence can have a disproportionate effect. They have a track record and they periodically renew that track record with blood.”

Last May, Jerry Kane and his son, who run seminars on sovereign citizenship, allegedly killed two Arkansas policemen and wounded two sheriff's officers who stopped them as part of their drug interdiction program. Brody James Whitaker, who opened fire on police officers who tried to stop him for traffic violations, argued in court that as a sovereign citizen, they had no jurisdiction over him. Perhaps most famous is Terry Nichols, who identified as a sovereign citizen, denied the court’s jurisdiction over him, addressed letters with “TDC” by the zip code, and paid credit card bills with bogus “certified fractional reserve checks” before acting as the accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombings.

Paper terrorism, some argue, has no real power unless backed by the potential for violence. Last April, Guardians of the Free Republics sent letters to at least 30 governors demanding they leave office within three days or be forcibly removed. The FBI, which didn’t see the letters as a legitimate threat, made no arrests. Sovereign citizens took the governors’ silence as an admission of guilt, but haven’t acted on it. The same group is also trying to reinstate the common law courts, where citizens can put judges, law enforcement and politicians on trial. But nothing has come of either strategy.

“Problem is, once you have the admission of silence, what do you do about it? Common law courts were big 10 years ago as a valid movement but nothing came of it because it has never had enforcement,” says Johnson. “No one wants to address how you enforce your rule, because you have to be prepared for violent confrontation.”

“These people are bookworms trying to use words, quote the Constitution and make it their business to learn and commit to memory the definitions,” says Adask. “But if people won’t hear their words, sooner or later they will hear bullets.”

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