|Officer Brandon Paudert, killed by 'sovereign citizens' in West Memphis, Ark.|
In the wake of the shootings of police officers by black-nationalist radicals in Dallas, Texas, and Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago, a number of right-wing pundits and political leaders have openly blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the events.
“My message has been clear from day one two years ago. This anti-cop sentiment from this hateful ideology called Black Lives Matter has fueled this rage against the American police officer. I predicted this two years ago,” right-wing Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke told a CNN interviewer.
"I do blame people on social media with their hatred towards police," Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, said on Fox News. "I saw Jesse Jackson — I think it was on Fox, the other night, calling police 'racists' without any facts. I do blame former Black Lives Matter protests.”
On Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump blamed Black Lives Matter as a “fuse lighter” for the killings, saying “they certainly have ignited people and you see that. You see that all over. And I think it's a very, very serious situation and we just can't let it happen.”
Some have even organized a counter-movement of sorts calling itself “Blue Lives Matter,” as a kind of retort to the black movement’s thesis that black people are disproportionately targeted by police. Indeed, the phrase was Sheriff Clarke’s battle cry in his speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland on July 18, leading the crowd to chant the phrase.
Rush Limbaugh called BLM “a terrorist group committing hate crimes,” demanding the FBI investigate them, and others have similarly demanded that the movement be designated a hate group. Yet, as SPLC President Richard Cohen has explained, BLM does not even come close to meeting the criteria required for its consideration as a hate group – unlike the black nationalists who actually inspired the shootings, which are in fact designated hate groups.
Moreover, despite the efforts of right-wing media to attempt to link BLM to attacks on police officers, there have been none yet recorded to which any BLM member could be concretely connected, though some assaults have seen the perpetrators use incendiary language similar to what can sometimes be heard at BLM rallies.
All of this stands in stark contrast to media and public response to the single greatest threat to the lives and well-being of police officers in the United States over the past decade and longer: the sovereign citizens movement.
The movement, built out of a peculiar web of white-supremacist beliefs and far-right “constitutionalist” legal theories, first gained traction in the 1990s through such antigovernment “Patriot” groups as the Montana Freemen and various “redemption” scams that generally left their adherents impoverished and imprisoned. In the succeeding years, it has not gone away – and indeed has been picking up strength in the past decade, particularly fueled by right-wing reaction to the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008.
In the eight years since, sovereign citizens have killed nine police officers and injured more than a dozen others in 16 separate incidents, many of them violent responses to ordinary police actions such as issuing traffic tickets or serving warrants. Other incidents involved plots to kidnap, torture and murder police officers, or armed standoffs in which law-enforcement officers were threatened.
Here is a complete list of those incidents:
June 10, 2009, Washington, D.C.: James Von Brunn, an 88-year-old sovereign citizen who had once attempted to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the chairman of the Federal Reserve, walks into the U.S. Holocaust Museum and opens fire, killing a guard. Von Brunn dies while awaiting trial on murder and hate crime charges.March 25, 2010, Sumter County, Florida: Brody James Whitaker, a sovereign citizen, fires at two Florida state troopers when they pull him over in Sumter County, Florida, and then flees. He’s found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.
May 20, 2010, West Memphis, Arkansas: Jerry and Joe Kane, two sovereign citizens, kill two police officers when pulled over in West Memphis, Arkansas, then die in a subsequent shootout with police in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart not far from the original shootings. The Kanes, father and son, had toured the country selling the sovereign-citizen scheme to paying audiences.
March 10, 2011, Fairbanks, Alaska: Francis Schaeffer, the leader of an Alaska militia and self-described “sovereign citizen,” is arrested with several co-conspirators after FBI and state agents infiltrate the militia, and accuse them of plotting to kill government employees and accumulate weapons. They're charged with conspiracy to murder federal officials and weapons charged, and sentenced to 26, 26, and 5 years in prison.December 18, 2011, Webster, Pennsylvania: Eli Franklin Myers, a self-described sovereign citizen, shoots two officers, killing one, at a traffic stop. He dies a day later in a gunfight with police at his Webster, Pennsylvania home.Dec. 22, 2011, Seligman, Arizona: Shawn Rice, a sovereign citizen, engages police in armed standoff after being indicted for variety of federal charges, including money laundering. He’s found guilty and sentenced to 57 months in prison.Dec. 16, 2012, Laplace, Louisiana: Terry Smith, Brian Smith, and Kyle Joekel, sovereign citizens with long criminal records, kill two deputies and wound two others in a shootout. All are charged with first degree murder and await trial.March 8, 2013, Navarre, Florida: Jeffrey Allen Wright, a sovereign citizen, engages in an armed standoff with police in Navarre, Florida, telling negotiators they had no authority to arrest him. Wright is killed by officers during the standoff.August 22, 2013, Las Vegas, Nevada: David Allen Brutsche and Devon Campbell Newman, sovereign citizens, are arrested for plotting to abduct, torture, murder a Las Vegas police officer. Brutsche pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping, Newman pleads guilty to conspiracy to commit false imprisonment, and both receive probation.March 25, 2014, Middleburg Heights, Ohio: Israel Rondon, a Sovereign Citizen, shoots at deputies serving a warrant at his home, and is shot dead in return. Rondon had waged a five-year court battle attempting to prove the validity of his beliefs.
June 6, 2014, Cumming, Georgia: Dennis Marx, a sovereign citizen and former TSA employee, attempts to take hostages to a Forsyth, Georgia courthouse. He shoots and injures a sheriff's deputy before being shot and killed by police during the assault.June 8, 2014, Las Vegas, Nevada: Jerad and Amanda Miller, a married couple and Patriot movement members who had spent weeks at the Cliven Bundy ranch, go on a shooting rampage that kills three people. The rampage begins with the couple killing two police officers in cold blood while they ate lunch in a pizza shop, declaring to witnesses that “the revolution begins now” and draping the men’s bodies with a Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. They cross the street and enter a Wal-Mart, where they kill a citizen who pulls a gun in an attempt to stop them. They’re killed by officers during a subsequent shootout inside the Wal-Mart.June 17, 2014, Nevada City, California: Brent Douglas Cole, a 60-year-old sovereign citizen originally from Idaho, engages a Bureau of Land Management officer and a California state trooper ins gunfight when they confront him about his illegal campsite; all three men are wounded. Cole is charged with numerous federal and state felonies.Aug. 12, 2014, Dallas, Texas: Dennis Lee Leguin, a man who called Dallas police to inform them he was part of the antigovernment “sovereign citizens” movement even as he was engaging officers in an armed standoff, was eventually arrested after taking shots at officers and locking down an upscale North Dallas neighborhood.Nov. 22, 2014, Tallahassee, Florida: Curtis Wade Holley, a sovereign citizen with rabid antigovernment views, sets fire to his home, and then opens fire on sheriff’s deputies and firefighters when they arrive to assist. One deputy is killed and another wounded before Holley himself is shot and killed.Sept. 24, 2015, Mineral Wells, West Virginia: Thomas David Deegan, a heavily armed ‘Patriot,’ is charged with threatening to commit terrorist act after planning to overthrow West Virginia’s state government by targeting the State Capitol, State Police headquarters, the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department and West Virginia National Guard facilities. Deegan is convicted of one count of making a terroristic threat and sentenced to between 2 and 8 years in prison.
All of these acts, since they are directed at police officers for their status as authority figures, are considered acts of domestic terrorism by FBI and other law-enforcement experts. This is part of why the FBI has singled out sovereign citizens for special attention as a threat to police officers in the United States, as well as a source of domestic terrorism.
Not all of the terrorism unleashed by sovereign citizens is directed at police officers, however. One of the most notorious such acts occurred on May 31, 2009, in Topeka Kansas when a man named Scott Roeder, who had ties to sovereign citizens and the Montana Freemen, walked into a church and killed Dr. George Tiller, who ran an oft-targeted abortion clinic. Roeder was later found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The key to understanding the threat posed by sovereign citizens is the core of their ideology – namely, that the federal government is an illicit entity devoted to the enslavement of all mankind, and that ordinary people can declare themselves “sovereigns” who stand apart from such a system, free of its obligations or its laws and capable of operating separately from it. This means they often refuse to pay taxes (which result in warrants being served) or their driving or license fees (which results in being pulled over by police), and when confronted, believe they have the right to resort to deadly force to resist arrest.
That sometimes produces scenes such as this one, which occurred in 2015 when a police officer tried to ticket a sovereign citizen in Texas:
The situation ended harmlessly enough, as a number of such confrontations do. But even afterward, the extremism can carry over into the courtroom when the “sovereigns” attempt to enforce their interpretation of the laws – such as when “liberty speaker” and “constitutionalist” guru Gavin Seim attempted to defend one of his fellow “sovereigns” in a court proceeding over a traffic violation in East Wenatchee, Wash.:
In recent years, however, there has been a peculiar adaptation of the sovereign-citizen ideology by black nationalists, who – seemingly oblivious to its white-supremacist origins – have adopted a version of the ideology by similarly declaring themselves free of white men’s laws and obligations.
So it is almost certainly not a coincidence that the Baton Rouge police shooter, 29-year-old Gavin Long, who was a member of the black separatist hate group New Black Panthers People Party, also claimed to have been a sovereign citizen.
All of these factors have led law-enforcement experts from both academic and official backgrounds to conclude that by far the most lethal threat to police officers in the United States today from radical extremists actually arises from sovereign citizens and related far-right extremists – the vast majority of whom, though not all, are white people.
There’s no evidence that Sheriff Clarke or any of his fellow pundits eager to blame mainstream black activists for the murders of police officers in recent weeks have ever spoken out against white sovereign citizens and their ceaseless assaults on policemen and other first responders. But then again, Clarke himself is closely affiliated with a right-wing extremist “constitutionalist” sheriff’s group that believes, like sovereign citizens, that its members don’t have to obey federal laws.
That could explain the peculiar silence from Clarke, at least, about the threat posed by sovereign citizens. It doesn’t explain the silence from his “law and order” right-wing cohorts, however.