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Has The Sovereign Citizen Movement Hijacked The Oregon Standoff?

Sipa USA / Alex Milan Tracy

But just how much can we infer from the visitors about the beliefs of those inside the compound and the future of the Bundy rebellion?

That is up for debate.

Two experts on right-wing extremism -- Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League -- are watching the events unfold with two very different perspectives on what the visitors say about the evolution of the Oregon standoff.

Lenz says that Doucette's entrance into the standoff specifically was troubling to him and marked a shift in how he perceived the Bundy brigade's ideology. Doucette is reportedly active in the sovereign citizen movement, which believes the current U.S. government hijacked the true constitutional order decades ago and is no longer legitimate. Doucette has set himself up as a judge of the "U.S. Superior Court" (no such court actually exists), and a so-called "citizens grand jury" has been empaneled at the refuge to consider charges against various officials.

"The Bundy’s have not really pushed this tactic yet," Lenz said. “I am not sure what this is about or what they are hoping to achieve with it."

Lenz says that Doucette's arrival and his insistence that he could help hold government officials accountable through a pretend legal process revealed that the Bundy brothers may be more sympathetic to the sovereign citizen movement than first thought.

"It is an alarming trend," Lenz said. "It shows the Bundys are willing to dive into the rabbit hole of fear mongering and conspiracy theories and anti-government ideology in way they have not yet."

But Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said that Doucette's presence – just like visits to the Malheur compound by others touting various causes – should hardly be interpreted as the sovereign citizen movement gaining momentum within the compound itself. Instead, Pitcavage said he has only identified one individual at the refuge as being with the sovereign citizen movement. Pitcavage said that even Doucette is considered a bit more extreme and fringe than others in the sovereign citizen movement. Furthermore, Pitcavage said there is no proof that Bundy even embraced Doucette's ideology.

"From PETA trying to send the occupiers vegan snacks to politicians showing up on a find a ‘fact finding’ mission, whenever you have a high-profile thing like this, groups and individuals run to the scene to take advantage of it for their own ideological or personal interests."

The sovereign citizen movement – complete with its peculiar, self-styled legal system – has been linked to some of the most violent clashes between anti-government extremists and officials over the last few decades.

In May 2010, Jerry Kane and his son Joseph – two sovereign citizen sympathizers–gunned down West Memphis cops during a routine traffic stop in Arkansas. In April 2010, one-time Navy officer Walter Fitzpatrick attempted to make a citizen's arrest against grand jury foreman Gary Pettway in Monroe County, Tennessee, because Pettway refused to call a grand jury to investigate questions about President Obama's eligibility to be President.

There are countless examples of sovereign citizen sympathizers taking the law into their own hands. There are several cases of sovereign citizen affiliates being arrested for having stockpiles of weapons. One man, Ronald Struve, pleaded guilty in Seattle in 2009 for "having an arsenal of illegal weapons and explosives, including dozens of machine guns,plastic explosives, two grenade launchers, dozens of grenades, and more."

Pitcavage argued that the situation at the compound is still very fluid. New people have come and gone from the compound since the standoff began on Jan. 2. However, at this point the rise of the sovereign citizen movement at the compound may be overblown.
Lenz said, however, that in the last five years there has appeared to be more "cross pollination" both in the anti-government movement and the hate movement just to finally get an opportunity to clash with officials.
“You will see people who are sovereign citizens pair up with hardcore constitutionalists," Lenz says. "They all have tremendous angst at the federal government and they are all very much looking for any opportunity to have a fight with the federal government."

Correction: The quotes in this story from the Southern Poverty Law Center were originally attributed to the wrong member of the SPLC staff. SPLC's Ryan Lenz spoke to TPM. We regret the error.

About The Author

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.