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In late-September, Thomas David Deegan, a man described by authorities as an anti-government sovereign citizen, was arrested and accused "of plotting to overthrow the state government in West Virginia, hoping to establish a prototype for extremists to follow in other states," the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. At the same time, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, issued a report "advising contractors, property inspectors, Section 8 housing administrators and Realtors how to recognize antigovernment sovereign citizens occupying vacant properties or using false deeds to support leasing."
In just seven years, the Sovereign Citizen movement, a movement that most Americans know little about, has vaulted to the top of the list of terrorist threats to the homeland according to a survey of law enforcement officials. Sovereign citizens has leaped over such better-known entities as local militias/patriots, environmental extremists, animal rights extremists, racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, and Islamic extremists, to grab the number one spot in a survey conducted by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
According to vox.com's Zack Beauchamp, "In a 2014 survey, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) surveyed hundreds of law enforcement personnel at the state and local level, all of whom had training in intelligence gathering or counterterrorism. They were presented with a list of radical groups and asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 4, how much they agreed that this group posed a terrorist threat to the US."
Given that the report was done last year before ISIS started grabbing headlines and before several mass shootings by homegrown white males, the list might look different today.
Nevertheless, as Beauchamp noted in a late August piece for Vox, it is more than worthwhile trying to get a handle on what the sovereign citizen movement is all about.
According to a Southern Poverty Law Center profile of the Sovereign Citizens Movement, "adherents hold truly bizarre, complex antigovernment beliefs, ... believ[ing] that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don't think they should have to pay taxes."
They are "clogging up the courts with indecipherable filings" and have been responsible for a number of "acts of deadly violence, usually directed against government officials."
"Rooted in racism," the SPLC points out, "most sovereigns, many of whom are African American, are" likely to be "unaware of their beliefs' origins." When the movement started in the early 1980s, it "attracted white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government.
"Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves."
Sovereigns believe that the founding fathers set up a "legal system the sovereigns refer to as 'common law' — was secretly replaced by a new government system based on admiralty law, the law of the sea and international commerce. Under common law, or so they believe, the sovereigns would be free men. Under admiralty law, they are slaves, and secret government forces have a vested interest in keeping them that way."
The movement "stake their lives and livelihoods on the idea that judges around the country know all about this hidden government takeover but are denying the sovereigns' motions and filings out of treasonous loyalty to hidden and malevolent government forces."
The number of sovereign citizens is unclear as "there is no central leadership and no organized group that members can join," SPLC points out. Those interested in the movement often attend seminars, go online and visit the many websites and chat-rooms open to sovereign citizens. After this rather abbreviated course of instruction, some are moved to "testing sovereign ideology with small offenses such as driving without a license, while others proceed directly to taking on the IRS as tax protesters."
Interestingly, sovereign citizens use "paper" as their primary weapon. A simple offense can result in a sovereign citizen filing a barrel full of paperwork regardless of the severity of the offense. "The size of the documents is an issue, but so is the nonsensical language the documents are written in. They have a kind of special sovereign code language that judges, lawyers and other court staff simply can't understand (nor can most non-sovereigns)," SPLC points out.
In economic hard times, i.e. the past decade and a half, the movement attracted many people in desperate financial straits. "Others are intrigued by the notions of easy money and living a lawless life, free from unpleasant consequences."
The movement has also seen its share of violent confrontations.
According to the SPLC report, "In 1995 in Ohio, a sovereign named Michael Hill pulled a gun on an officer during a traffic stop. Hill was killed. In 1997, New Hampshire extremist Carl Drega shot dead two officers and two civilians, and wounded another three officers before being killed himself. In that same year in Idaho, when brothers Doug and Craig Broderick were pulled over for failing to signal, they killed one officer and wounded another before being killed themselves in a violent gun battle. In December 2003, members of the Bixby family, who lived outside of Abbeville, S.C., killed two law enforcement officers in a dispute over a small sliver of land next to their home. And in May 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son sovereign team, shot to death two West Memphis, Ark., police officers who had pulled them over in a routine traffic stop. Later that day, the Kanes were killed in a fierce shootout with police that wounded two other officers."
In light of the recent growth of ISIS, it remains to be seen if the Sovereign Citizen Movement will continue to be seen by law enforcement officials as America's number one terrorist threat. Stay tuned.