The “sovereign citizens” movement, based on a bizarre ideology promoted by a father-son team that murdered two police officers recently in West Memphis, Ark., is growing at a rapid pace, according to the latest issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, released today.
The "sovereign citizens" movement, based on a bizarre ideology promoted by a father-son team that murdered two police officers recently in West Memphis, Ark., is growing at a rapid pace, according to the latest issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, released today.
In the new issue, the SPLC explores the strange world of the sovereign citizen movement and estimates there are now as many as 300,000 followers in the United States. About a third of those are considered hardcore adherents, with the rest testing out sovereign citizen techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges to home foreclosures.
Sovereign citizens believe most Americans have no obligation to obey laws, regulations or tax codes, especially those imposed by the federal government. They justify their beliefs on the basis of decades-old conspiracy theories and intricate, nonsensical legal theories.
“It would be easy to dismiss sovereign citizens as people who simply believe in ludicrous ideas and conspiracy theories,” said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report. “But the reality is that the bizarre ideas they espouse can drive some people to violence, even murder, as was seen so tragically in Arkansas this past May.”
The Fall 2010 issue of Intelligence Report can be read here.
On May 20, two police officers were gunned down after they stopped Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son, Joseph. The pair had traveled the country giving seminars in a practice that purportedly allowed people to avoid home foreclosure – one of many sovereign-citizen schemes to evade debt. True to his antigovernment views, Jerry Kane refused to carry a driver’s license, a violation that resulted in an earlier arrest in New Mexico that enraged him. After the two officers were killed, authorities cornered the Kanes in a Walmart parking lot, where they were killed in a shootout that also left two officers badly wounded.
The Intelligence Report also profiles a dozen leaders of the contemporary sovereign citizens movement and explains the top 10 conspiracy theories of the larger antigovernment “Patriot” movement. These theories range from a belief in government concentration camps to plots involving the Federal Reserve System. A leading scholar also discusses the dangers such conspiracy theories pose to the political process.
Tips law enforcement officers can use to identify a sovereign citizen are offered along with a primer of the often-incomprehensible terms used by sovereign citizens. The issue also takes a look at an English-language Russian news channel that has been helping spread key conspiracy theories of the antigovernment movement in the United States.
The deadly encounter in Arkansas wasn’t the first time sovereign citizens have violently lashed out against an officer and, in effect, the entire government. In 1995 in Ohio, for instance, a sovereign named Michael Hill was killed after pulling a gun on an officer during a traffic stop. In 1997, New Hampshire extremist Carl Drega killed two officers and two civilians and wounded another three officers before being killed.
Also in 1997, in Idaho, brothers Doug and Craig Broderick killed one officer and wounded another before being killed themselves – violence that erupted after they were pulled over for failing to signal. And in 1993, an Alabama officer was shot and killed by sovereign citizens after he approached their family’s car in a parking lot. A shopper had told the officer that a boy in the back of the car was asking for help. When the officer asked the father for his license, the man made some standard sovereign citizen claims before pulling a gun.
"Conspiracy culture has been spreading rapidly in this country," Potok said. “When these beliefs are embraced by the desperate and the angry, the potential for violence is real. These beliefs must be called out for what they are: dangerous lies.”