This weekend, after the horrific shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people died and 14 were hurt, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), attention quickly turned to the suspect — Jared Lee Loughner, 22. Reporters dove into his online identity, his MySpace page (quickly taken down by authorities) and, especially, his YouTube channel.
What emerged was a fragmented, hard-to-grasp picture of a warped mind: his soundless text videos spoke of an interest in a "new currency," the government "controlling grammar," and references to dreaming. Right- and left-wing politicians easily denounced this as gibberish, and people who knew him said that his views were not political in the traditional sense.
However, for Justine Sharrock, a San Francisco-based journalist and author who has written extensively over the past few years about militia groups and fringe characters, Loughner's ranting sounded eerily familiar. "He's buying into ideas of sovereign citizens," she said in an interview with The Bay Citizen, defining sovereign citizens as a loosely formed group of an estimated 300,000 Americans who believe that the government is illegitimate — and base that belief on esoteric grammar rules. Sharrock wrote a long story for SF's Alternet.org this fall about the group, as well as weighing on Loughner for Mother Jones, and addressed the issue of whether sovereign citizens are violent:
Unlike other groups like militias or the Oath Keepers who have been wrongly deemed anti-government for disputing government policies, sovereign citizens are a self-proclaimed anti-government group and they aren’t afraid to fight back if challenged.
Sovereign citizens frequently retaliate against judges, IRS agents and law enforcement who get in their way through “paper terrorism." The most common tactic is filing bogus commercial liens against their enemies. In many states this is legal, and you don’t need to provide any proof that the person does owe them money. “It was powerful stuff,” says Adask, perhaps the main proponent of the process in the '90s. “If someone messed with you can put a lien on them that goes to their credit report. You knock their credit out, and their Mastercards stop working; if they were investing money you can cause collateral damage.”
But they have also been known to resort to physical violence, including shooting police officers. “There is nothing about the sovereign movement that promotes violence per se, but it should never be removed from the table,” says Johnson. “Some people act a little too quickly. But if policemen break into your car to get you out, that’s assault, and at that point you are justified in shooting the cop.”
Here is a Q&A with Sharrock, edited for length and clarity.
How did you discover sovereign citizens?
I had heard them mentioned by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but the Southern Poverty Law Center is infamously bad at research — they (don't always) interview people they write about, and so tend to conflate all the different factions. Often when I see a group mentioned by them, I use it as a jumping off point. I guess I learned of them last July or August. And then yesterday when I was looking through more of [Loughner's] postings, the grammar thing jumped out. It's pretty unusual.
What is the grammar thing? From the YouTube video?
He said, "You don't allow the government to control grammar structure," and, "Listener, the government is trying mind control and brainwash." [Also, “No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver." --ed] Just his thoughts on the creation of new languages.
As you write in your Alternet story, the emphasis on grammar and language is a defining feature of sovereign citizens. What is that about?
They, like other groups, take a literal reading of the Constitution. I think about it as the same thing as what fundamentalist Christians do with the Bible — just look so closely what the language is supposed to mean. Take for example the FDA drug law [which uses the phrase "man or other animals"]. Basically, they point out some things that are true, but the logical jump to, say, the government treating us like cattle, is where they get lost.
I also want to say that while I see a lot of the philosophy and rhetoric of sovereign citizens with Loughner, he doesn't fit the average profile. I don't know him — he seems like he has some psychological illness. A more average profile would be someone who really lives off the grid, lives in a rural area, has some similar ideas to those of libertarians in not wanting government control over guns. They often think that they don't need driver's licenses, and they'll have fake license plates.
So is there a history of sovereign citizens committing violent crimes?
Yeah, there have been a couple of shootings. The stereotypical thing is that a sovereign citizen will be stopped for a traffic violation and they'll be asked out of the car and they will retaliate by shooting. There was a father/son team that shot a policeman, and a shoot-out that started as a building code violation. Also, [Terry] Nichols, who helped with the Oklahoma City bombing.
Have you encountered David Wynn Miller, the figure mentioned by The New York Times and other publications as a possible source of Loughner's odd rhetoric?
Yes, I have encountered him before. He's more on the extreme spectrum of that whole grammatical argument and a lot of sovereign citizens draw on his ideas, which include the kind of capitalization you use, that you can sign as a regular person or your "straw man" identity, the false corporate identity. I've never spoken to him, but I've talked to other gurus who cite his work.
Do you see connections between sovereign citizens and other militia or tea party movements?
They are definitely more fringe, but they do overlap with their ideas. But the tea party isn't anti-government — they want to improve it. The sovereign citizens will say that they are anti-government, they find it to be illegitimate.
Why do you think people are drawn to the sovereign citizen movement?
Well, again, I think that the fact that [Loughner] had been planning his act, was interested in an assassination, that's not like a sovereign citizen, who tend to use violence more as a defense. But they, like so much of the current political feeling and sentiment, have a sense of betrayal and anger and disillusionment. That's why it's so important when trying to make sense of this, to not conflate this with the whole right wing. Sarah Palin's rhetoric doesn't help, but you can't say this guy was a tea partier.
Have you seen any evidence that sovereign citizens have gotten any traction in the Bay Area?
I don't know of any here. But outside of San Francisco, there's plenty of stuff going on — a big Patriot Movement and plenty of off-the-landers. I wouldn't be surprised.