A 50-year-old “sovereign citizens” movement that rejects government authority has resurged over the past two years with an influx of members from QAnon, Jan. 6 rioters and Black Americans, authorities tell The Washington Times.
Members of the loosely organized movement, known online by names such as SovCit and American State Nationals, claim to promote nonviolent resistance to laws infringing on personal liberty.
Scholars and police officials say the groups have records of attracting radicals who provoke violence when confronted over their refusals to carry state-issued identification, register their automobiles or license their guns.
“The surge since 2021 likely has to do with the increase in SovCit ideology in QAnon groups, as well as the [U.S.] Capitol attack,” said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University historian who studies U.S. extremist movements. “It fed a more radicalized anti-law-enforcement strand on the far right, which feeds into sovereign citizen ideas.”
The FBI says the anti-government movement, though not illegal, is one of its top threats.
The movement, estimated to have 100,000 to 350,000 core followers, collects no membership dues, takes no attendance at meetings and provides no contact information online.
Officials say reports show its ranks swelling again as crime soars in the pandemic era and even while some past leaders serve time for financial scams, violent crimes and other violations.
“It really is an amorphous group that changes beliefs, methods and means to stop what they see as government overreach, especially federal and state,” said a senior law enforcement official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They want what they want and will never accept someone [or] something directing them to adhere to societal needs deemed by the Republic to be for the greater good.”
Last week, Utah police fatally shot Chase Allen, 25, during a routine traffic stop to check a fake license plate on his car that asserted his sovereign citizenship. Police said Allen reached for a gun in his holster while disputing their authority. The incident, still under investigation, is the latest in a series of clashes with people claiming to be U.S. nationals but not citizens.
Other incidents over the past two years include:
• On July 3, 2021, Massachusetts State Police arrested 11 members of the Black militia group Rise of the Moors who refused to surrender unregistered firearms during a standoff that closed Interstate 95 in Wakefield for nine hours.
The Rhode Island-based group, which claims sovereign Moorish citizenship under a U.S.-Moroccan treaty, has refused to recognize a state court’s authority to try its members.
• In July 2021, five self-proclaimed sovereign citizens moved into an empty $1.5 million Maryland mansion, changed the locks and tried to claim it from the rightful owners. Police eventually removed them from the Baltimore County home and arrested the ringleaders.
• At an October court hearing in Wisconsin, Darrell Brooks declared himself a “sovereign citizen” who would defend himself legally, derailing his trial for driving his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha in November 2021.
Brooks was convicted in November and given six consecutive life sentences in prison for the incident, in which six people were killed and 62 others were injured.
• In a January court appearance over their activities on Jan. 6, 2021, Ohio couple Shawndale and Donald Chilcoat were the latest of several U.S. Capitol rioters who used a sovereign citizen legal defense to reject a federal court’s jurisdiction over them. The couple were arrested in August on multiple charges stemming from videos they posted to social media of themselves entering the Capitol building and posing on the Senate floor.
Judges have consistently rejected the movement’s legal stance as nonsensical, rambling and unsupported, but a sizable share of adherents have proved willing to go to jail and even die in police standoffs to defend it.
In a statement emailed to The Times, the FBI said the sovereign citizens’ belief that U.S. residents “are immune from government authority and laws” is a form of violent anti-government or anti-authority extremism, “one of the FBI’s top threats.”
The bureau said the movement has First Amendment protection and that membership is “not illegal in and of itself.”
“Holding such views is not sufficient for an investigation,” the FBI said. “The FBI focuses on individuals who commit or intend to commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security.”
Rise of a movement
Analysts say sovereign citizens emerged in the early 1970s as offshoots of the tax protest movement, which argued that the federal income tax was unconstitutional, and of Posse Comitatus, a now-defunct Christian conspiracy group that peddled antisemitic and White supremacist beliefs.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group that has tracked the movement for decades, sovereign citizens reached their mature form by the mid-1980s and gained followers from right-wing militia groups in the 1990s. The movement has since spread from its rural origins in several Western states to the urban centers of every state in the country and to Canada, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland and other nations.
Sovereign citizens have also attracted a following of Black members of Moorish splinter groups, said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
“The ideology they created was about the government, not race, and the percentage of White supremacists compared to the total movement has consistently decreased over the decades,” Mr. Pitcavage said. “Starting in the mid-1990s, people of color, especially Blacks, began to join the movement, and now there are tens of thousands of people of color in the movement. In many Midwest and Northeastern cities, most sovereign citizens are probably Black.”
Perhaps the best-known sovereign citizen is Terry Nichols, who plotted with Timothy McVeigh the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, and wounded at least 680 others in the deadliest domestic terrorist attack on record. Nichols, who sought revenge against the federal government for the sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Several past sovereign leaders and followers are in prison for a number of offenses. Their crimes include shooting police officers during routine traffic stops; fraudulent legal filings or documents intended to harass judges and police officers, such as placing phony liens on their homes for millions of dollars; and mortgage, investment and immigration scams that have netted tens of millions of dollars.
The FBI issued two warnings about sovereign citizens in 2010 and 2011 that said followers had killed six police officers in standoffs since 2000. In 2013, the Obama administration flagged the movement as part of a campaign to combat online violent extremism.
In another domestic terrorism report, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said sovereign citizens played roles in 12 incidents from 2015 to 2018. They included a 2016 tax evasion conviction in Georgia, a 2015 shooting that left two Florida police officers wounded and a sovereign citizen dead, and the 2015 arrest of a West Virginian who plotted to overthrow the state government.
The report noted the convictions of 18 people, including several sovereign citizens, for occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
Although sovereign citizen beliefs vary, a core tenet holds that a long-ago conspiracy infiltrated the original, legitimate U.S. government and slowly replaced it with an illegitimate, tyrannical de facto government. That illegitimate government has since enslaved Americans by forcing them to unknowingly sign away their sovereignty through “contracts” such as driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and ZIP codes.
Sovereign citizen websites, resources and groups advise members on the legal declarations and actions they must take to divorce themselves from the “illegitimate” government and return to the original “legitimate” government that requires them to follow God’s law and the common law, recognizing only the authority of local sheriffs.
“Once you have divorced yourself from the illegitimate government, it has no more jurisdiction or authority over you,” said the ADL’s Mr. Pitcavage. “This is why the sovereign citizen movement and its adherents constantly get in trouble with the law, which they think they can ignore, no matter how big or small, from gun laws to zoning ordinances.”
Analysts say the Great Recession and the rise of social media helped the movement add Black members from 2009 to 2012. Now they say the pandemic and a struggling economy have made it easy for sovereign citizen “gurus” to recruit QAnon conspiracy theorists and vaccine skeptics. These groups are already inclined to reject government authority.
Many of the newer groups have rebranded themselves as “American state nationals” on alternative social media platforms such as Telegraph, where officials say they most commonly recruit members.
The ADL said gurus working to grow the movement over the past two years include David Straight, Bobby Lawrence, Anna Riezinger and Russell Jay Gould.
The Times attempted, largely without success, to reach these leaders and their groups for comment.
A representative of Washitaw Nation, a Louisiana-based Black group that the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a violent Moorish offshoot of the movement, responded to an email with several pages of an alleged family tree supporting his claim to be a royal prince.
An official at the American state nationals assemblies — a network of state groups whose website contains resources for resisting the “de facto government” by refusing to file income taxes, car registrations or driver’s license paperwork — claimed to have no ties to the sovereign citizens movement.
“From my understanding, those who profess to be sovereign citizens are often on their own and not a part of their state assembly,” Evangeline Grace Knipfing, the group’s recording secretary, said in an email. “In recent news, I’ve seen state nationals being equated with sovereign citizens, but the two are very different. I couldn’t tell you the difference, since I’d have to have knowledge of what a sovereign citizen does.”
Jacqueline Gordon, the widow of George Gordon, a Missouri-based lawyer and radio host who died in 2014 after ADL identified him as an early leader in the movement, defended his record.
The George Gordon School of Common Law has taught biblical common law since her husband started it in 1982, Mrs. Gordon said in a telephone message.
She rejected the claim that Gordon’s principle of withdrawing from government-issued “contracts” to obey only God had any connection to a formal movement. She said he intended it as a moral code for individuals only.
“We don’t teach people to be anarchists, but we teach them how to be individuals and [how] they’ve given up that individuality through adhesion contracts,” Mrs. Gordon said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the countries where the sovereign citizens movement has spread.
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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