The so-called “sovereign citizens” movement — men and women who believe they are exempt from most state and federal laws, regulations and tax codes — is spreading like a prairie fire. While many of these are tax resistors or perpetrators of “paper terrorism” – the filing of nuisance liens and such – some sovereign citizens have demonstrated a willingness to resist police and government authority with violence.
The unique danger posed by this movement exploded May 20 when two West Memphis, Ark., police officers met a father-son team of sovereigns, Jerry and Joe Kane, during a routine late-morning traffic stop. As officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans puzzled over the incomprehensible paperwork presented by father Jerry, son Joe, 16, emerged from the vehicle with his AK-47 blazing and fatally shot both officers. The Kanes fled, but were tracked and killed in a shootout with police an hour later in a Wal-Mart parking lot after wounding two more officers.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has produced and posted online an instructional video intended for showing during roll call at law enforcement agencies. Narrating the 12-minute film are two men who fully understand the dangers some sovereigns present to authorities: West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, father of one of officers murdered in May by Joe Kane, and Jim Cavanaugh, who retired earlier this year after 33 years at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Cavanaugh was a top official at the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, during the five-year hunt for abortion clinic bomber and cop-killer Eric Rudolph, and in many other investigations involving right-wing radicals. Last year, he was honored for this work with the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Civil Rights Award.
For more on SPLC resources for police departments, visit SPLC’s law enforcement training page.
The video opens with the actual dashboard-camera footage of the Kanes’ car being stopped on an exit ramp off Interstate 40. Everything proceeds normally until a haunting moment when Officer Evans’ expression suddenly changes as he realizes something is wrong. A moment later, Joe Kane unleashes his deadly fusillade.
“There are people at war with this country who are not international terrorists,” the elder Paudert says as the training video progresses. “They are seemingly ordinary people, just like you and me, but they don’t recognize the federal government’s authority to impose laws and taxes on them.
“Don’t discount or ignore these people, because they are willing to kill and be killed for their beliefs,” Paudert says. “We, as law enforcement officers, need to recognize this very real threat so we can protect ourselves. And maybe if Brandon and Bill had recognized the warning signs of sovereign beliefs, they’d be alive today.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center regularly conducts police training seminars on recognizing the warning signs of extremist group members who can pose particular danger to law enforcement officers. In the last six months, members of virtually every department SPLC has visited have reported contacts with sovereign citizens. In places as disparate as Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and Virginia, law enforcement officers are coming up against sovereigns allegedly scheming to steal houses, pry loose money from the government that isn’t theirs, and harass their enemies with crippling property liens and other forms of “paper terrorism.”
Evans and the younger Paudert were the latest of at least 32 law enforcement officials murdered by right-wing extremists since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.