CHARLESTON, SC (WCBD) – Police are still investigating after two people linked to the “Sovereign Citizens Movement” were found dead in an apartment on Wednesday.
The so-called “sovereign citizens” believe they are immune from the government and should be able to decide for themselves which laws they want to obey and which they don’t. In some cases, they have been known to violently confront the police in pursuit of their ideologies.
Who are “sovereign citizens” and what do they believe in?
The Sovereign Citizen Movement does not resemble a “traditional” cult in that it has no centralized organizational structure, but is rather a system of national gurus and local leaders who develop individualized ideas about personal sovereignty and how it must be exercised.
The FBI describes the Sovereign Citizen Movement as anti-government extremists “who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States.” As a result, they have been known to avoid paying taxes, not having a driver’s license, engaging in frivolous lawsuits, and refusing to obey law enforcement and court orders.
The contemporary belief system is rooted in racism, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, sovereign citizens believe that the American government established by the founding fathers – called common law – was secretly replaced in the 1800s by an illegitimate government in favor of admiralty law – the law sea and international trade.
Sovereign citizens believe that the US government has made contracts with foreign nations to “sell out their citizens” and this is done through driver’s licenses, social security numbers and other identity documents. Thus, they believe that there are certain legal ways to separate themselves from the government so that they no longer have to obey what they believe to be an illegitimate government.
Additionally, some followers believe that there is a secret corporate trust set up by the U.S. government in each newborn’s name and that “by filing a series of complex legal-sounding documents, the sovereign can tap into this secret Treasury account for its own purposes,” according to the SPLC. The Internal Revenue Service calls the notion that secret accounts are assigned to every citizen “pure fantasy.”
Essentially, the Sovereign Citizen Movement inculcates in its followers that all of their problems are the result of an illegitimate government and banking system and offers them a way out.
A history of violence and “paper terrorism”
The FBI has designated the Sovereign Citizen Movement as a domestic terrorist threat because supporters are known to engage law enforcement in violent and deadly ways.
Here are some recent examples of violence:
- In 2010, father-and-son sovereign Jerry and Joseph Kane killed two Arkansas police officers during a routine traffic stop.
- In 2016, Gavin Eugene Long, believed to be from one of the movement’s subgroups, killed three law enforcement officers in an ambush in Louisiana.
- In 2018, Travis Reinking shot down a Waffle House in Tennessee, killing one employee and three customers. Reinking later identified himself as a sovereign citizen in 2017 after he was arrested for showing up at the White House and asking to meet President Trump.
But, while some adherents of the sovereign movement have resorted to violence, the most widely used tactic is called “paper terrorism”. The Department of Homeland Security describes paper terrorism as “clogging the courts with voluminous and nonsensical filings, bogus lawsuits, and bogus liens against public officials as a form of harassment and intimidation.”
This tactic is used in the commission of white-collar crimes, such as money laundering, tax evasion, and housing schemes. For example, Mt. Pleasant dentist Judy Villanyi has previously been sentenced to federal prison for tax evasion in connection with the movement.
It is also often used as a retaliatory measure when a government official antagonizes a sovereign citizen. For example, a Nevada man counter-sued a Utah law firm for $38 quadrillion ($38 trillion followed by 15 zeros) after the firm sued him for placing a lien unjustified on the property of one of his clients.
What is the magnitude of the movement?
The Southern Poverty Law Center explains that there is no way to know exactly how many sovereign citizens there are in the United States today due to its lack of centralized leadership.
However, in 2010, the SPLC estimated that there were around 100,000 “diehard believers” and another 200,000 “starting out by trying sovereign techniques”, for a total of 300,000 individuals.
The South Carolina Connection
In December 2003, the Sovereign Citizen Movement took center stage in Abbeville, South Carolina, when members of the Bixby family engaged in a day-long gun battle with the division of the Carolina law enforcement. According to court documents, SCDOT officials were working on an SC-72 expansion project that required traversing the Bixby property. The Bixbys did not believe the SCDOT had a right of way over their property and threatened to use violence to prevent construction. This resulted in a 12-hour standoff that left two officials dead. Steven Bixby was convicted of two counts of murder, sentenced to death and, as of 2021, remains on death row.
So how did a quiet upstate town become the epicenter of extremism in South Carolina?
Even though the sovereign citizen movement is not well known, its followers are numerous in the upstate, especially in Abbeville where people are drawn to the city but to “live among kindred spirits who despise the federal government just as strongly as their ancestors did”. in 1861.” Perhaps this idea that Abbeville embodies the spirit of secession stems from its self-declaration as “the birthplace and deathbed of Confederacy”.
In 2004, the SPLC suggested that there might be more anti-government extremists in the vicinity of Abbeville than anywhere else in the country.