On an unseasonably warm and clear afternoon in Anchorage, Alaska, in early December, Anna Maria Riezinger, aka Anna von Reitz, a self-proclaimed judge and internet guru in the anti-government extremist sovereign citizen movement, concludes a three-hour interview in a suburban home with a complex series of prescriptions for the visiting Hatewatch reporter.
“You have to go back and reclaim your trade name,” she advises. “You have to reconvey it to the soil and the land, both the national and international jurisdiction. You have to go through all this process and all of this development of a public paper trail in order to reestablish who you are.”
Less than a week later, she repeats a version of the instructions on her blog in a post titled “How Many Times Do I Have to Say This?” “[E]very day, I give everyone the tools to defend themselves from the ‘presumption’ of ‘federal citizenship’ that is the ‘enabling clause’ of all these abuses and problems,” she writes.
Indeed, Riezinger has new articles on the internet preaching the illegitimacy of the federal, state and local governments near-daily, iterating their imagined crimes and proscribing complex yet vague steps for Americans to escape the yoke of what she believes is an unconstitutional corporation operating in the guise of your government and its officials.
Riezinger is a prolific lecturer on the topic throughout the interview, though less vehement in person than she is in her writings. “One gets the sense she’s got a lot of time on her hands and an internet connection,” offers Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who has tracked the sovereign citizen movement for decades. “She comes up with a lot of verbiage and a lot of haranguing; she’s a great haranguer.”
Though she’s based in one of the most geographically remote states, and the “common law court” she administers as a “judge” has a small number of adherents by her own admission, Riezinger is one of the sovereign citizen movement’s more popular and influential gurus on the internet. (It should be noted Riezinger and the majority of her ilk reject the term “sovereign citizen,” considering it an oxymoron; the term she uses is “state national.”)
Riezinger and other gurus of the sovereign citizen movement use a simple hook to recruit new believers to their anti-government crusade: You’ve been screwed by an illegitimate tyrannical government which seeks to deprive you of your god-given rights along with your finances; follow our instructions and you can free yourselves from laws you disagree with and stop paying taxes as well.
“They’re anti-government in the purest sense, in that they have found a way to rationalize ignoring, basically, the entire government,” Pitcavage says. “The sovereign citizen movement believes that long ago a conspiracy started to infiltrate and subvert the original and legitimate government in the United States, slowly replacing it with an illegitimate de facto tyrannical government. And no law, rule, regulation, tax or court order that it produces is at all legitimate.”
The FBI “considers sovereign-citizen extremists as comprising a domestic terrorism movement,” a 2011 law enforcement bulletin declared. When individuals’ sovereign anti-government beliefs spur them to violence, law enforcement officers are often the targets. Since 2010, at least 10 law enforcement officers were killed by sovereigns.
But more often, sovereigns’ weapon of choice against the government they believe is invalid is paper. Sovereigns, following the direction of gurus like Riezinger, flood court systems with document filings written in pseudo-legal nonsensical language, choking up the system. Sometimes these are bogus property liens, often filed in retaliation against public officials, intended to ruin their target’s credit rating or instigate an IRS audit. This is known as “paper terrorism.”
In some instances, sovereigns set up their own “common law courts” or “common law grand juries,” such as the one in Alaska Riezinger presides over as a “judge.”
“One of the things the sovereign citizen movement likes to do is create fake things,” Pitcavage says. “They can do everything from fake countries and fake colonies to fake Indian tribes to diplomats, but a lot of them like to create fictitious governmental agencies or entities, like bogus courts.”
Riezinger earned a taste of infamy in late 2015 by issuing a letter calling for federal agents to arrest President Obama, the congress and the secretary of the treasury. The fact checking site Snopes.com saw fit to debunk the claim that an “Alaska State Judge” issued the demand for the arrests, though the letter got little attention outside of sovereign circles.
In February 2014, Riezinger had similarly issued a pseudo-legal judgement against then-Governor Sean Parnell of Alaska, as well as the lieutenant governor, attorney general and supreme court of the state, ordering them to “self-correct.” She continued, “Failure to timely do so and provide remedy to those who have been harmed may result in you being prosecuted for impersonating American officials, double indemnity fines, up to ten (10) years in prison for per offense, commercial compensatory damage claims, and dissolution of the IMF, franchise, agency, bank or other corporate charter of the legal fiction entity you work for.”
Riezinger, 61, traces the origin of her “awakening” to the realization the government is a scam to late 1974, when she was working at her first job. President Nixon had left office, and his successor Gerald Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller, one of the country’s richest men, as his vice president. This required congressional confirmation, and Riezinger says she recalls watching the confirmation hearing.
As she recalls it, Rockefeller was asked, “‘Mr. Rockefeller, how much did you make in personal income last year?’ He said something outrageous like $480 million. The next question was, ‘How much do you pay in federal income taxes?’ ‘Nothing.’ You could hear the air just go whoosh out of the room.
“Right at that moment, I knew for a certainty that something was rotten in Denmark,” Riezinger says. “How could I, a little girl mopping floors and bussing tables, be paying a third of what little she was making in federal income taxes and other kinds of deductions, and he could get away scot-free? Right there I had an awakening and it stuck firmly in my brain forever afterward.”
While Riezinger can — and does — spout historical dates and events relevant to sovereign citizens’ pseudo-history with ease throughout the interview and in her writings, she’s missing some crucial facts in her origin story.
According to Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Almanac 1974, Rockefeller paid $5,116,692 in federal taxes between 1969 and 1973. He told congress during his confirmation hearings he’d paid no federal income taxes in 1970 due to a large capital gains tax payment and an income drop from one trust; he subsequently paid a back-tax of $104,180 in income tax for 1970.
Riezinger says she went on to study 125,000 pages of IRS code and manuals years later. “I realized it was my own ignorance one way or another that was going to by my undoing; if there was any undoing to be done, it was going to be because I didn’t figure this out.”
Among the revelations she shares with the Hatewatch reporter: “I think the Southern Poverty Law Center should be alerted — if you’re a black person, then you have to pay federal income taxes. But if you’re just Joe Average out there, an American born in one of the states working in a private job, you’re not obligated to pay federal taxes, and never were.”
Odd as it sounds, Riezinger’s assertion regarding African Americans is a central tenet of the sovereign citizen movement. Pitcavage calls it the second most important sovereign citizen contention, after the fundamental assertion that many years ago a conspiracy infiltrated and subverted the United States government.
“After the 13th Amendment freed the slaves, the 14th Amendment gave them citizenship. For sovereign citizens, it did much more,” Pitcavage explains. In the eyes of sovereigns, “newly freed slaves became not state citizens like you and me, but United States citizens. Moreover, the conspiracy wanted everybody else to become citizens of the United States as well, then you voluntarily subject yourself to its laws, regulations and taxes. Sovereigns believe the 14th Amendment was the mechanism by which everyone but sovereign citizens were slaves to illegitimate government.”
Riezinger and other sovereigns believe they are not United States citizens, but state nationals, because the United States is a corporation illegally governing the republic via a territorial government and a municipal government, whose laws and taxes, including Social Security, are only legally applicable to African Americans and employees of the federal government. Federal and state governments, courts and law enforcement have no jurisdiction over state nationals who’ve extricated themselves from that system in a process they call “redemption.”
Which leads us to the common law courts, or common law grand juries, such as the one Riezinger presides over in Alaska. “Our country has its own history as regards what law is,” Riezinger says. “I just am following along in that tradition.” She refers to the laws by which she adjudicates as “the law of the land,” as opposed to the law of the sea, admiralty law, international law and global law.
In her view, statutory laws and code are applicable to corporations only (also, unless you’ve redeemed yourself via her processes, you are a corporate franchise and have been one since your birth certificate and subsequent Social Security number were issued). “You have law for people and you have law for corporations,” she says. “The American common law is the law that is owed the people, and the maritime and admiralty law is what is owed to corporations and federal citizens who are employees of the federal government.”
Global law, she explains, consists of three tenets: “to keep the peace; to respect free will, within the parameters of each individual will so that I’m not impressing my will on you; and to treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself.”
But American common law, “the law of the land,” she says, is simply based on the biblical ten commandments. “It was adopted because basically the ten commandments were acceptable both to the Jews and to the gentiles and that’s why they basically arrived at that conclusion, that everybody agreed these were ten things nobody should do.”
Riezinger offers little substantiation for her self-proclaimed role as a judge in her common law court. She once wrote, “I am sick and tired of having people say I am not a judge and asking me in what sense am I a judge and coming up with all these silly suppositions and accusations… I am a Judge of the actual Alaska State, one of the Several States of the Continental United States. I occupy the actual public office and operate the actual Alaska State Superior Court.”
That position affords her the ability to make civil judgements like the ones against President Obama, congress and the Alaska government officials mentioned above. But, she says, she operates a small court for state nationals in Alaska to reclaim their non-federal political status and settle disputes as well.
“The state of Alaska stopped offering justice of the peace services some time ago… As far as we’re concerned, we have a need for such services and we have the right to self-govern and do this. So we set up people that want to reclaim their state national status and who want to live under the law of the land instead of the law of the sea.”
She describes the work as primarily settlements of property disputes or inheritances (the testament in your family bible is the legal document required in the latter instance).
“We have only a few people,” she says of the participants in her court. “By far most people aren’t aware of these issues; they aren’t thinking in terms of needing to take back their birthright political status. They’re not operating under a justice of the peace system. So we don’t have a lot of work that we do, but we do some, and some of the work that we do is important because it’s important in terms of maintaining Alaska’s claim to things — if there’s no land jurisdiction underlying it, there’s no sea jurisdiction either.”
Alaska is no stranger to sovereign citizens, though the state sees less instances of paper terrorism than in the contiguous U.S. In 2014, a 64-year-old Delta Junction man named Bernard Goodno was arrested for driving a 1985 Ford Pinto with a handwritten license plate reading, “Approved National Non-Commercial Private Property Without Prejudice UCC 1-308 1-303.6,” reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Upon being pulled over, he offered state troopers a card reading, “Constitutional Rights Investigator Sovereign Civilian Without Prejudice UCC 1-308 / 1-303.6 Questions Answered – Payment Required $15,000 gold fee required for the service. No Contract = No Contract. This is a contract offer. Acceptance is subject to payment.”
Sovereigns believe — Riezinger included — that licenses of any kind subject you to corporate or commercial laws, and you are not required as a state national to possess such licenses. “Anytime you see a license, a red flag should go up and you should go, ‘oh, what am I doing that’s illegal?’” Riezinger says, further explaining, “licensing in legal terms is getting a permit from the government to do something that would otherwise be illegal.”
In 2015, an Alaska sovereign from Togiak named Kevin Ramey was arraigned for failing to show up for a hearing regarding over $84,000 in child support he owed. Asked if he understood the charges, Ramey replied, according to local public radio station KDLG, “It says if you’re not a U.S. citizen you could be deported. I know I have three citizenships: No. 1, in heaven, No. 2, in America, No. 3, in California — and that my primary citizenship, is of course, in heaven. So I was kind of wondering, are you guys going to deport me to heaven?”
As amusing as those incidents sound, sovereign citizens pursuing their anti-government extremist beliefs have wreaked havoc elsewhere in America. In fact, a former associate of Riezinger’s — another self-proclaimed judge — is awaiting trial in Colorado for a slew of felonies, along with seven of his associates.
Bruce Doucette, a “Superior Court Judge” for “The People’s Grand Jury,” faces charges including violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, attempting to influence a public servant, extortion, retaliation against a judge, criminal impersonation, failure to pay taxes and offering a false instrument for recording.
Doucette and his group, according to the indictment, threatened public officials with charges of treason and filed false liens against them after a member of their group was arrested on suspicion of violating a protection order.
“My sense was that Doucette was originally kind of a disciple of Anna [Riezinger],” Pitcavage says, “but he basically eventually became more important than she did.”
Doucette and Riezinger had a public falling out on the internet in March of this year, less than a month before Doucette was indicted. In a post titled “An End to My Association with Bruce Doucette and Michael R. Hamilton,” Riezinger wrote, “From this time forward and until such time as a reconciliation may be reached let it be perfectly clear that I do not condone what Bruce Doucette and Michael R. Hamilton are doing or teaching, the assumptions they are making, the new powers they are assuming for themselves, nor the new and different duties they are trying to foist off onto the Grand Juries and Continental Marshals.” [Hamilton, a “judge” from Louisiana and sovereign guru, was not charged in Doucette’s indictment.]
Riezinger says she warned Doucette against the actions that resulted in his arrest. “We actually disagreed because of his legal troubles, or what he was presuming and preparing to do. I told him, ‘don’t do that, because you’re trespassing on a federal area.’” Basically, Riezinger says she told Doucette that if he interfered with public officials, he would be operating outside of his common law jurisdiction.
Riezinger has often disagreed with other prominent online thought leaders in the sovereign citizens movement. “The movement really sort of revolves around gurus, people like Doucette or Judge Anna, who are the ones who come up with all the pseudo-legal notions and all the pseudo-legal tactics and teach them and motivate people to follow them,” Pitcavage says.
“Like most extremist movements, the sovereign citizen movement is extremely fractious, and very vulnerable to feuding and fighting within the movement,” he continues. “It tends to come about for one or both of two reasons. The first is personality types. When you get one guru and you get another guru it’s pretty easy for sparks to start running… [Second,] it’s all pseudo in nature, so Anna’s theories are not going to be the same as Guru X’s theories. This becomes a problem for both Anna and Guru X because they each have to prove to their followers that they are right, not the other person.”
Riezinger insists she’s not promoting criminality by teaching the illegitimacy of federal, state and local governments and courts. “There is a misunderstanding here,” she says, explaining she gets calls from criminals who’ve committed fraud and told her, “but we’re state nationals, we were born in this country and this statutory law shouldn’t apply to us!”
She says she tells her followers, “This is not a get out of jail free card for criminals. You’re hurting actual people and you’re using public services to do it. In general people are so ignorant that it’s a constant process of educating them and making them think in terms of what their actions actually do.”
Riezinger’s stance may seem docile compared to the paper terrorism of Doucette and his group, or the sovereigns who use violence against law enforcement officers or others. Indeed, the sovereign guru who politely served coffee to a Hatewatch reporter and occasionally signs her online missives “Grandma” doesn’t come across as a domestic terrorist.
“She is not one of the biggest firebrands of the movement,” Pitcavage acknowledges. “She’s not someone who herself represents a physical threat in all likelihood. She’s not inciting people to violence the way some other people in the movement do. So the main threat she poses is simply that she will end up recruiting more people into the movement. Once you’re in the movement, its ideology can affect you, it can in a variety of ways spur you to all sorts of illegal action, including violent action.”