The sovereign citizen movement is a disparate milieu of groups and individuals sharing an ideology that originated in the theories of a group called the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. (1) The original founder of this movement was William Potter Gale, a former member of the John Birch society – a private organization founded in America in the 1900s. The society’s aim is to combat communism and promote various ultra-conservative causes; it takes its name from a Christian missionary who was killed by Chinese communists in 1945. (3) Today, there are a variety of different sovereign citizen groups active across the world. In 2021, the Southern Poverty Law Centre estimated 30 sovereign citizen groups to be active across the US alone, with many of these being active in multiple states. (2) Although the sovereign citizen movement is most well known in America and was founded there, it has spread to a number of other countries, most notably Canada, Germany, Australia and the UK, where its ideology is being reinterpreted to map onto regional and local political issues. (4)
William Potter Gale: Founding the Sovereign Citizens
The founder of the sovereign citizens movement, Gale, was not only a former member of the John Birch Society but also a prominent extremist activist in California who formed or participated in many different groups. After helping to found the Posse Comitatus movement in the 1970s, he went on to be the leader of another anti-government group, the Committee of the States, in the 1980s. He was convicted of threatening government officials in 1987 and died in 1988. (5)
Gale’s collection of anti-government Christian Identity adherents distrusted state and federal officials. They also believed that only white people were human, and that Jews were engaged in a satanic plot to take over the world. Their chosen name of Posse Comitatus is Latin for ‘power of the county’, and centers on the principle that county sheriffs are the highest governmental authority. This idea is based on the Sheriff’s Act of 1887, which allows sheriffs to form a posse to assist them in hunting down and arresting criminals. Gale’s group believed they acted under ‘common law’ – which to them meant laws based on their interpretation of the Bible – rather than civil laws enacted by the American state and legal system. Posse Comitatus acted on their beliefs in many ways: refusal to pay taxes, filing property liens, and committing violence against public officials. These types of actions are still a mainstay of many sovereign citizen groups and individuals today, although the movement is now a wide enough umbrella that it includes more varied racial ideologies than the original white supremacy of its founders. (2)
Posse Comitatus: Tax Protests & Christian Identity
Posse Comitatus developed out of a combination of two American movements: tax protesters, and the Christian Identity movement. There is a long history of protests against tax in the United States, but in particular the 1970s saw a huge uptick in this sentiment, as people’s trust in the government was damaged by the ongoing Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal and scenes of public unrest. Parallel to this, there was also a growing Christian Identity movement, which had racial hatred at its center: this movement sought to establish a nationalist white Christian identity, and was originally popularized by the Methodist preacher and former klansman Wesley A. Swift in the 1940s. Several versions of this ideology were developed throughout the 20th century, but broadly the movement believed that Anglo Saxons are in fact the lost tribe of Israel, and Jewish people are instead liars created by Satan to destroy God’s real chosen people. One of the ways that Jewish people are said to do this, is by tricking Anglo Saxons into marriage with people from other ethnic backgrounds, who they believe are inherently inferior. To Christian Identity adherents, segregation is therefore God’s divine law, and they believe Anglo Saxon Christians have a duty to create an all-white nation, insulated from the satanic Jewish plot. Throughout the 1950s, Christian Identitarians inspired by Swift, in groups such as the Christian Nationalist Crusade, carried out attacks across the US on synagogues, Catholic churches, and the homes of black families. The ideology of the Christian Identity movement continued to persist throughout the 20th century and became entwined into the American militia movement of the 1990s; it can still be found in some far-right thinking today.
This is the background out of which Gale emerged: he was a protege and eventual rival of Swift, as well as a military veteran. Writing about politics and religion in his ministry newsletter, Identity, he adopted the pen name Colonel Ben Carson, which was taken from the protagonist of the 1915 KKK propaganda film Birth of a Nation. In his newsletter, Gale promoted the writings of tax protesters alongside anti-semitic conspiracies and esoteric legal theories about resisting the federal government. In 1971, Gale authored the Guide for Volunteer Posses, in which he declared the county to be the only legitimate seat of power in the US, and the sheriff the only authority. In it, he stated that the sheriff was able to mobilize all able-bodied men in a ‘posse’, and if the sheriff failed to do so, the posse would mobilize independently and execute the sheriff at noon. The following year, Gale published instructions on how to form a posse, specifying that it should consist of at least seven white Christian men all living in the same county. They would band together and elect a posse commander and a posse assistant commander, who could run each posse as a military operation. Posses began to form across the US of tax protesters, members of the then defunct Minutemen militia, and militant members of the anti-communist John Birch Society. (6)
Mike Beech: Posse Comitatus Merchandise
Around 1973, Henry L. “Mike” Beech plagiarized Gale’s original writing by publishing a shortened 16-page version known as the Posse Blue Book, designed to fit into a pocket. Beach was a retired Portland businessman and a former Silver Shirt (an anti-semitic fascist organization active in the 1920s and ‘30s) (7). He saw the Posse as a business opportunity, declared himself the national leader of the Sheriff’s Posse Comitatus, and started the Citizen's Law Enforcement Research Committee (CLERC), which was essentially an office from which he could distribute his merchandise. He created Posse “charters”, which he described as suitable for framing and for which he demanded Posse members pay $3. With time, his catalog grew to include Posse Comitatus decals and badges, as well as cassette tapes of tax protest lectures. From his time with the Silver Shirts, Beach was also experienced in clandestine organizing, and he spread the Posse’s ideology effectively. (6)
The Warren Court
Occurring 1953–1969, the Warren Court is widely believed to have been the most progressive Supreme Court in US history, and it used the 14th Amendment to protect minorities, civil rights and civil liberties. This includes the 1954 rulings to ban segregation in public schools, and the establishing that all ethnic groups had equal protection under the United States constitution. In 1966, the context of the 14th Amendment was used in the Mississippi Burning case to establish that a mob of law enforcement members and klansmen who murdered three civil rights activists could be tried and convicted in federal court. And in 1967, the 14th Amendment was used to legalize interracial marriage. These rulings shaped a changing legal and cultural landscape in the US, and likely form the root of the sovereign citizens’ hatred for the 14th Amendment, which persists to this day. (6)
The Farm Crisis: The Start of the Modern Sovereign Citizens
The US farm crisis began in the late 1970s and persisted throughout the ‘80s. Under President Nixon, subsidies that had offered cheap loans to the farming industry for years were stripped away, and all but the largest commercial farms were no longer making money. Embargoes put in place by the Carter administration cut off many farmers from Soviet block trade partners, causing the demand for grain to plummet, while the federal reserve simultaneously spiked loan rates to fight inflation. Debt on farmland and equipment doubled nationwide between 1978 and 1984. All these factors sparked a huge wave of foreclosures on family farms across America, and gutted the economy of the country’s heartland. (6)
Out of this, rose the American Agricultural Movement (AAM). Formed in 1977, the AAM’s goal was to convince the Carter administration to raise farm prices. Despite many early members being conservative, they had a populist streak and were in favor of government intervention to improve the farm economy. From the beginning of the AAM however, Posse Comitatus members were infiltrating it: they used the instability and economic desperation, combined with (substantiated) distrust in the US government to peddle their extremist, right-wing ideology and encourage armed resistance to foreclosures, as well as anti-semitic sentiment. While farmers were organizing as a political force, that political momentum was being derailed with Christian Identity philosophy, and the AAM became the carrier for the sovereign citizen ideology that we have come to know today. (8) As the farm crisis intensified, a new Posse Comitatus leader, James Paul Wickstrom gave anti-semitic speeches, while many left-wing activists assisted the farmers’ labor movement and siphoned some potential recruits away from Posse. Following some violent standoffs between Posse members and police, and murders committed by one Posse member, US public opinion on the movement declined and most of the militant Posse Comitatus members folded into the wider US militia movement as it developed. The 1990s saw conmen spearhead the Posse Comitatus movement, and adopt technical, legalistic language to rebrand the ideology and confine religion, racism and calls to violence to less visible corners. Thus was born a softer, more acceptable version of Posse ideology: the modern sovereign citizen movement. (6)
Covid-19 and Increased Radicalisation
After the Oklahoma City attack, much of the enthusiasm for sovereign citizen ideology evaporated in America. However, rising tension in some countries’ political climates has given these ideas a new lease of life, with the Covid-19 pandemic being a key catalyst for the renewed growth of sovereign citizen movements in the US and internationally. The introduction of more sweeping governmental measures to address the pandemic’s spread (most notably lockdowns and various vaccine policies) sparked resistance among many people, who were often then radicalized (or radicalized each other) into ideas that were both more extreme and macroscopic in scope. Thus the local, regional or national policies people opposed were often seen as symptomatic or symbolic of a larger plot: one where governments were altering people’s DNA through vaccines, using their citizens as collateral on loans, and myriad other sovereign citizen beliefs. The modern iteration of sovereign citizen ideology is therefore formed in large part by both the impact of Covid-19 and the internet culture that the pandemic’s isolation drove many further into. Sovereign citizen ideology is perhaps most accurately characterized as the manifestation of collective anxiety combined with a long history of anti-semitic, white supremacist tropes: a misdirected collective anxiety which results in radicalisation rather than community. It is therefore not surprising that it has taken root again in places where the role of government has recently been a much more prevalent subject.
The Modern US Sovereign Citizen Movement
The sovereign citizen movement in the US today encompasses a wide variety of disparate groups, all united by their distrust of America’s government. There are some groups that resemble the original Posse Comitatus setup, such as the Oath Keepers, but many that are radically different, including the Moorish sovereign citizens. (9) Legalese and technicality usually remains a common thread between all these groups however: for instance, many believe that the US is in fact a corporation using its citizens as collateral in acquiring loans, and that this means every citizen is issued a ‘strawman’, or government identity separate from their real identity. This strawman is usually denoted by the use of capital letters in writing someone’s name. Sovereign citizens believe they cannot be compelled to obey US laws as these laws refer only to their strawman, and not them. Other similar ideas include sovereign citizens’ believing they are able to engage with legal and state documents without danger if they write certain letters or numbers on them. (6) While much sovereign citizen action comprises such bureaucratic technicalities, many sovereign citizens were also present at the January 6th riots at the US Capitol in 2012, including the members of the Oath Keepers who were convicted for their actions on the day. (10) Sovereign citizens present at the Capitol attended this riot beside representatives from the far-right Proud Boys and Qanon believers.
2020: The Queen of Canada
The increased popularity of sovereign citizen ideas during the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen in the rise to notoriety of the ‘Queen of Canada’, whose real name is Romana Didulo. Didulo claimed sovereignty over Canada and in 2022 attempted to perform a ‘citizen’s arrest’ of police officers in the Ontario town of Peterborough. A political actor for a decade before this event, Didulo only gained popularity after including Qanon beliefs in her speeches and videos. She also subscribes to many sovereign citizen ideas, stating that Queen Elizabeth II was executed for crimes against humanity in 2021 and that white hats, the US military and allied governments had installed Didulo herself as sovereign over the “Great White North”. (11) Didulo still communicates with her followers via Telegram, but has recently been labeled by the platform as ‘fake’, an action which she maintains is being masterminded by the “Deepstaters, Cabal, and Blackhats”. (12) Even before Didulo’s popularity, sovereign citizen ideas have persisted in Canada: her rise has however expanded the movement’s reach and linked it with other umbrella belief sets such as Qanon. As far back as 2013, sovereign citizens in Canada were calling themselves ‘Freemen-on-the-Land’ and ‘Natural Persons’, inventing documents to declare what they see as their status, often asking noraties to authorize them. (13)
2021: The Storming of Edinburgh Castle
While the Canadian sovereign citizen movement shares more with the original US iteration, in the UK sovereign citizens focus on the Magna Carta, and claim (similarly to other sovereign citizens) that only ‘common law’ applies to them. Many in the UK movement are anti-vax protesters, and have been seen entering hospitals and Covid-19 vaccination or test centers across the country. In 2021 a group of sovereign citizen protesters entered Edinburgh Castle claiming to have “seized” it under article 61 of the Magna Carta, despite Edinburgh Castle being a tourist attraction that the public can enter upon buying tickets. The Magna Carta does not apply in Scotland as the 1215 legislation predates the Act of the Union. The protest of 20 people was filmed on Facebook live, with the woman streaming claiming the castle “belongs to the people”. (14)
2022: Sovereign Citizen Shootings in Australia
In December 2022, Gareth Train and his wife Stacey murdered two Australian police officers and wounded a third at their remote home in Queensland. The two slain police officers were responding to a routine missing person’s report regarding Nathaniel Train, brother of Gareth and ex-husband of Stacey. During the commotion a neighbor was also killed when he came to investigate the noise. After the attack, investigation of the Trains’ online presence revealed Gareth and Nathaniel had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, and had a loose connection to sovereign citizen ideology. (15) For example, Gareth believed that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia was a false flag operation for the purpose of disarming the public. (16) The sovereign citizen movement in Australia grew through anti-vax Facebook groups among other places, as people shared interpretations of the Australian constitution and often far-right views. (17)
2023: The Reichsbürger Movement
The Reichsbürger (translated as ‘Citizens of Empire’) are a German iteration of the sovereign citizens; they believe that the Federal Republic of Germany is not a sovereign state, and therefore the laws that it seeks to enforce are not binding. As with the US sovereign citizen movement, the Reichsbürger are convinced that Germany is in fact a corporation, sometimes abbreviated to ‘BRD GmbH’. Also similarly to the US, Reichsbürger members differ on when the last legitimate government of Germany existed: some believe the Third Reich still persists but is occupied, while others instead favor the German Empire of 1971. (16) While the movement does present an ideal place for extremist right-wing rhetoric to spread, it is diverse enough that the German domestic intelligence services classify only 5% of the group as right-wing extremists. (17) In March 2023, a German police officer was shot in a one of a number of raids carried out across the country to locate members of the Reichsbürger who were thought to be plotting to overthrow the German government. One such person, dubbed Markus L., was detained on suspicion of murder and grievous bodily harm following the shooting in the southern town of Reutlingen, near Stuttgart, according to the prosecutors. These raids followed others that took place in December 2022, when German police say they foiled a plot by the group to stage a violent coup and install the aristocrat Heinrich III Prince of Reuß as national leader. (18)
The Future of the Sovereign Citizens
After the Capitol riots, the wider American militia movement somewhat splintered but did not dissolve. Instead of performing another act of nation-wide coordination, proponents of this anti-government, right-wing ideology withdrew back to their traditional ground of more local community organizing. One throughline between the different iterations of sovereign citizen ideology throughout various countries is the adaptation of the belief system to their local circumstances and politics. The flexibility of this ideology makes it easier to spread, and therefore it is likely that the sovereign citizen movement will continue to expand as one of the many belief systems embedded in both the anti-government movement in the US and the increasing anti-government far-right sentiments in other countries. Echos of this ideology can be seen in the conspiratorial responses to traffic regulation policies in the UK, where many have reacted negatively against low traffic zoning in neighborhoods, believing it to be the start of ‘climate lockdowns’ and evidence of a totalitarian plot to police their movement. (19) The most notable examples of sovereign citizen ideology are still seen within the US, Canada, Western Europe and Australia, but it is likely that this expands into other areas in future, or has already done so. Like other umbrella belief systems such as Qanon, it can provide a networking or radicalization gateway for those vulnerable to becoming embroiled in the far-right.
Works Cited (Chicago)
(1) - ‘Sovereign Citizen Movement’. ADL. 6th February 2017. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/sovereign-citizen-movement
(2) - ‘Sovereign Citizens Movement’. Southern Poverty Law Centre. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/sovereign-citizens-movement
(3) - ‘John Birch Society’. Britannica. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.britannica.com/topic/John-Birch-Society
(4) - ‘Sovereign Citizens’. ISD Explainers. Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.isdglobal.org/explainers/sovereign-citizens/
(5) - ‘William Potter Gale’. Glossary of Extremism. ADL. Accessed March 25 2023. https://extremismterms.adl.org/glossary/william-potter-gale
(6) - Feeld, Julian; View, Travis; Rockatansky, Jake. 2021. Qanon Anonymous: Premium Episode 106. January 4 2021.
(7) - Toy, Eckard. ‘Posse Comitatus’. Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/posse_comitatus/#.ZB8cNC2cb-Y
(8) - ‘Hate Group Expert Daniel Levitas Discusses Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity Movement and More’. Intelligence Report, 1998 Spring Issue. Southern Poverty Law Centre. 1998. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/1998/hate-group-expert-daniel-levitas-discusses-posse-comitatus-christian-identity-movement-and
(9) - ‘Moorish Sovereign Citizens’. Southern Poverty Law Centre. Accessed March 25 2023. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/moorish-sovereign-citizens
(10) - Kunzelman, Michael and Durkin Richer, Alanna. ‘4 guilty of conspiracy in latest Oath Keepers Jan. 6 trial’. AP. 2023. Accessed March 25 2023. https://apnews.com/article/oath-keepers-capitol-riot-jan-6-trial-conspiracy-437b0d2598829d951a5dbb60908e7a4a
(11) - Cecco, Leyland. ‘'Queen of Canada”: the rapid rise of a fringe Qanon figure sounds alarm’. The Guardian. 2022. Accessed April 6 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/23/queen-of-canada-qanon-rise-conspiracy-alarm
(12) - Lamoureux, Mack. ‘The Qanon Queen Was Just Labeled As Fake, And She’s Pissed’. Vice. 2023. Accessed April 5 2023. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjvdg3/qanon-queen-romana-didulo-fake-telegram
(13) - ‘Canada’s sovereign citizen movement growing, officials warn’. Canada News Today. 2013. Accessed April 5 2023. https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/canada-s-sovereign-citizen-movement-growing-officials-warn-1.1436905/comments-7.430829
(14) - Badshah, Nadeem. ‘Protesters claim to “seize” Edinburgh Castle citing Magna Carta’. The Guardian. 2021. Accessed April 5 2023.
(15) - McGowan, Michael; Gillespie, Eden. ‘US religious conspiracist linked to Queensland police killers Gareth and Stacey Train’. The Guardian. 2022. Accessed April 5, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/dec/16/us-religious-conspiracist-linked-to-queensland-police-killers-gareth-and-stacey-train
(16) - Smee, Ben. ‘Wieambillia shooting: property owner Gareth Train posted regularly on conspiracy website before police killed’. The Guardian. 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/dec/13/wieambilla-property-owner-gareth-train-brother-nathaniel-missing-man-shooting-qld-queensland-police-officers
(17) - Guhl, Jakob and Hammer, Dominik. ‘The Reichsbürger Movement’. ISD Explainers. Institute of Strategic Dialogue. Accessed March 25th 2023. https://www.isdglobal.org/explainers/the-reichsburger-movement-explainer/
(18) - Bundesamt für Verfassungsschut. ‘Zahlen und Fakten’. Accessed March 25th 2023. https://www.verfassungsschutz.de/DE/themen/reichsbuerger-und-selbstverwalter/zahlen-und-fakten/zahlen-und-fakten_node.html
(19) - ‘German officer shot during raids targeting Reichsbürger movement’. Reuters in Berlin. The Guardian. 2023. Accessed March 25th 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/22/germany-police-officer-shot-raids-reichsburger-movement