TPM has been tracking the sovereign citizen movement as its disciples pop up in legal battles and contentious encounters with law enforcement officials across the country. Though all share the view that, for one reason or another, the government in the United States is illegitimate, there is really no one unified theory of sovereign citizenship -- which might be why each act of defiance is so uniquely bizarre.
To name a few: This month a sovereign citizen opened fire on a seafood store because it had run out of crawfish. It was closed at the time, so no one was hurt. Another sent white powder (which turned out to be baking soda) to the government office handling his back taxes case. Still another resisted arrest for having a fake license plate, calling himself a "free citizen on a free highway."
Then there's the case of Jerry Kane, who, along with his son, opened fire on police officers who had pulled him over in a traffic stop. Two officers were killed, as were the Kanes. And in Alaska, a group of sovereign citizens were arrested this year for allegedly plotting to kill several state troopers, an IRS agent, and a federal judge.
In an interview with TPM earlier this year, Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said, "As with any extreme movement, only a minority of the people in the movement resort to violence." But "it only takes a minority to cause a variety of problems."
So when TPM talked with two sovereign citizen "gurus," the closest thing to leaders the movement has, both distanced themselves from the more infamous sovereigns -- to a degree.
Alfred Adask said he didn't think those sovereign citizens were right to resort to violence, but: "I have recognized that the time might come when it becomes necessary."
"The government is working, and it has been working, to deprive the people of the fundamental God given rights," he said, adding: "Some people have sensed this, and stood up and said 'listen, that's a bunch of crap.'"
Jack Mizell was more adamant about the difference between his ideas and those of someone like Jerry Kane. "They're as misguided as Judas was," he said, also calling them "vagabonds" and "what the Bible calls Cain." But he added that because of people like Kane, sovereign citizens have altogether gotten a bad rap. People think sovereigns jump out of cars and shoot people, he said. "They used to have the same prejudice about blacks."
So where does it all come from? According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League from 2010:
The theories all share the belief that many years ago an insidious conspiracy infiltrated the U.S. government and subverted it, slowly replacing parts of the original, legitimate government (often referred to by sovereigns as the "de jure" government) with an illegitimate, tyrannical government (the "de facto" government).
The report also describes the role of these "gurus," who "provide leadership and inspiration as well as new sovereign citizen ideas and tactics." They frequently hold seminars, sell DVDS and CDs, and post videos to their websites.
Alfred Adask, who was was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes, has given a few seminars over the years, but says he mostly uses his website to disseminate his teachings. And his reasons for distrusting the government are different than what the ADL report describes.
He explained to TPM a head-spinning theory about the FDA, the Declaration of Independence, and the war on drugs. Sovereign citizens, Adask said, believe that "the idea of individual sovereignty flows from God," which throughout the history of western civilization has been mostly manifested in the form of kings, "sovereign rulers" who believed they had a divine right to their thrones. Everyone else was a subject.
When America was founded, the Declaration of Independence stated that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
"Very few people realize that that's the single most radical statement in political history," Adask said, and that the founders effectively "elevated all men to the status of sovereigns" by saying everyone gets their rights from God.
But, he said, in 1906 this all changed with some nefarious language in the Food And Drug Act. It states that a drug is defined as (emphasis added) "any substance or mixture of substances intended to be used for the cure, mitigation, or prevention of disease of either man or other animals."
This, Adask says, "means that the government deems man to be an animal" and "animals are not 'endowed by their Creator.'" The "government is removing us from the status of men." Adask continued that the government has manifested this idea in the war on drugs, which "is premised on the idea that the people are animals rather than men or women."
It's a "fundamental violation of the concept of sovereignty," he said, and "leaves the government in treason, it leaves the government engaged in genocide." He added that genocide doesn't actually require people to die, just make them more likely to die, which is the case when you dehumanize people.
Then there's Jack Mizell, from the sovereign citizen site "Freedom Yell." Freedom Yell is also apparently the homepage for "America Can Be Free," a series of seminars (now discontinued, according to Mizell) put on by sovereign gurus Tim Turner and Billy Ray Hall to help people "free yourself from the debt prison." They charged $405 and one pre-1964 Silver Dollar, according to the ADL's report. Mizell said they discontinued the seminars because it was easier to use the Internet, so they can now sell DVDs and CDS.
He was cagey on the connection between him, Turner, and Hall, saying the site was for "everybody who is like-minded." He also wouldn't say who teaches the online and for-sale seminars, saying that the site is loosely organized, and implied that it was only, ironically, for tax purposes.
According to Mizell's rather rambling explanation, in Ezekiel 18, Verse 13, it is says that "He lends at interest and takes a profit. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he is to be put to death; his blood will be on his own head."
This means God hates the banks and the fact that we have a national debt, Mizell said. "Until that is changed, and we quit spitting in God's face, we're going to be slaves" to our government.
"If we would obey and be guided by his temple sitting in our bodies, then that is the solution. And if we don't do it," he said, God "may have to come and take us out."
When asked what recourse the sovereign citizen has in the face of all this debt, Mizell said: "The sovereign's solution is obedience to God and dependence upon him for the holy spirit."