Unbeknownst to millions of Americans, the United States actually has two flags. They are deceptively similar in appearance; both bear a blue canton emblazoned with fifty stars, and both feature thirteen stripes, seven red and six white. All that separates one flag from the other is a knotted golden fringe that runs along three sides. Perhaps you have seen such a flag displayed in a government building and thought nothing of it.
Far from a mere decorative embellishment, the presence of a golden fringe on the Star Spangled Banner is a subtle indication that, wherever this flag is flown, the rights enshrined in the Constitution no longer apply. Places where the Star Spangled Banner is fringed with gold are subject not to the laws of the land, but to those of the sea.
The flag lacking this telling golden fringe is known as the Common Law flag, which represents a nation built upon the laws of God and the Constitution. Its slightly more decorative counterpart is referred to as the Law of Admiralty flag, under which naval and, by extension, wider military jurisdiction applies. Americans have no constitutional rights in these secret enclaves. Just as one is considered a guest on foreign soil when inside the embassy of a foreign nation, and therefore subject to its laws, Americans no longer have any claim to their constitutional rights in places where the Law of Admiralty flag is flown. The government exercises this power to suppress the supposedly inalienable freedoms of the American people in these strange pockets of foreign territory.
This is just one of the numerous conspiracy theories common among members of the sovereign citizens movement.
According to recent estimates, there are as many as three hundred thousand sovereigns currently living in the United States. Sovereigns believe that the authority of the United States government is illegitimate, and that the Constitution as it was written by the founding fathers has been subverted to grant the government power and control over the American people. Due to their rejection of federal authority, many sovereigns refuse to pay taxes. Most drive without a valid license. Legal documentation, such as permits to own firearms, are viewed as little more than another means of governmental control and an infringement upon sovereigns’ constitutional rights. In essence, sovereigns believe themselves to be above the law because those laws do not reflect the true values of the Constitution.
J.J. McNab is one of the nation’s leading experts on the sovereign citizens movement and author of a forthcoming book on the topic due to be published by Palgrave MacMillan next year. She first encountered the sovereigns almost twenty years ago while working as a fraud investigator at a financial planning firm in San Francisco.
“I had a client referred to me, an elderly gentleman who had bought into a tax scam that was pitched at his local senior center,” McNab told me. “I took one look at it, and it was obviously a scam. The problem was, he did not think he had been scammed. He thought the IRS was coming after him because he knew the truth. His only concern was that his kids would find out that he’d lost all of his money and they’d put him in an old folks home. I looked into the scam, and that’s when I came across the tax protester movement.”
Members of the tax protester movement, which originated in the 1950s, argue against federal income taxes with a wide variety of assertions. One of the movement’s favored arguments is that the Sixteenth Amendment, which states that Congress can levy income taxes on the population with no obligation to apportion it to the union’s member states, was never actually ratified. Another popular contention among tax protesters is that paying federal income taxes violates their Fifth Amendment rights, namely the Just Compensation clause pertaining to government appropriation of private property.
These ideas are popular among sovereigns, but their ideology extends far beyond the creative interpretation of constitutional law. Many sovereigns believe that, when the United States abandoned the gold standard in 1933 as unemployment peaked at the height of the Great Depression, the government was forced to resort to alternate means to borrow money from other nations — namely, using the citizenry of the United States as collateral against which funds could be borrowed. This is accomplished through the creation of what sovereigns refer to as “straw men,” falsified personas that exist only on paper. Sovereigns believe that, since the introduction of the Social Security Act of 1936, the government has created a “shadow citizen” for every legitimate, flesh-and-blood American born in the United States, along with an accompanying bank account. Americans can never access the funds deposited into these invisible accounts — an amount that many agree to be $630,000 per individual — as this money is subject to the control of a secretive cabal of Jewish bankers whose power and influence spans the globe.
The most commonly cited “evidence” for this theory is the capitalization of individuals’ names on government-issued identification such as social security cards, drivers licenses, and passports. The name you see printed in block capitals on your license is not your name, but that of your straw man. This is another devious means of control that, much like the golden fringe on the Law of Admiralty flag, goes unnoticed and unquestioned by the vast majority of Americans, allowing the government to continue its nefarious scheme while the populace remains unaware of its exploitation.
The straw man theory was first advanced by white supremacist Roger Elvick, founder of a right-wing extremist group known as the redemption movement that was established in the early 1980s. However, the roots of the sovereign subculture can be traced further back to the Posse Comitatus (Latin for “force of the country”), an organization that emerged during the mid-1960s. Perceiving that their rights were being undermined by the same global cartel of Jewish financial magnates responsible for the clandestine commoditization of the American people, members of Posse Comitatus — who were white, male, and Christian — espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that eventually became interwoven into the rhetoric of the tax protesters and, later, that of the sovereigns citizens movement. Sovereigns also cleave to the principles of the Oath Keepers, a nonprofit organization established in 2009 by former Ron Paul staffer Paul Rhodes whose members believe that military and law enforcement personnel should refuse to follow orders that contradict the Constitution.
One of the sovereigns’ preferred tactics is known as “paper terrorism.” A strategy favored by the Posse Comitatus, paper terrorism is the practice of targeting individuals perceived as a threat with fraudulent liens and frivolous lawsuits with the aim of causing the target significant financial damage. In 2009, Thomas and Lisa Eilertson of Minnesota filed false property liens totaling more than $250 billion over the course of three years against twelve individuals in Hennepin County, including the county sheriff, after losing their home to foreclosure. In 2011, twelve sovereigns were indicted in Georgia for planning to break into people’s homes, submit falsified deeds of ownership of the properties, and subsequently file fraudulent property liens and lawsuits against anyone who attempted to evict them from the seized houses. In 2012, Victor Cheng illegally moved into the home of the Atta family in Temecula, California, while the Attas were on vacation. Cheng, who had previously owned the property before the Attas but lost it to foreclosure, attempted to transfer ownership of the property into his name in the Attas’ absence. Upon their return, Cheng filed an eviction notice against the Atta family. During the subsequent legal battle, Cheng claimed that he was not personally responsible for these crimes, as his indictment spelled his name in capital letters.
Few sovereigns choose to assert their rejection of the government’s authority with such audacity, at least at first. McNab says that many sovereigns become disaffected and join the movement following a negative experience with an authority figure, and that in many cases, small acts of rebellion often embolden those new to sovereign ideology to defy progressively larger opponents.
“If you look at anyone in the movement, and you spend enough time looking into their background, you’ll find some triggering event: some failure, some encounter with law enforcement or the IRS or the government in general that was unfavorable,” McNab says. “If you are feeling truly disenfranchised, that the kind of people you want to win in elections are never going to win, you aren’t making it financially, and you’re not succeeding even when you know you should be, you look for a boogeyman. You look for a scapegoat. When you start taking on the U.S. government as your enemy, it’s a pretty powerful feeling, especially if you win in your early years. If you write a very convoluted letter to the IRS — you know, sixteen pages of fake legal research that you found on the internet — and the IRS responds to you with a typical form letter and then doesn’t say anything else for two years, you might think it worked.”
To combat paper terrorism, several states have introduced legislation preventing sovereigns and tax protesters from filing fraudulent paperwork, including Georgia and Indiana. However, some sovereigns favor violence over pseudo-legal maneuvering to accomplish their goals. The impetus the movement gained between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s was brought to a sudden halt when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both of whom were associated with the sovereign citizens movement, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. As a result, the movement has been described as one of the greatest domestic terrorism threats currently facing the nation according to the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analysis Section. Numerous acts of violence against law enforcement personnel have been committed by sovereigns in the years since McVeigh and Nichols’ attack in 1995. One such incident gained national media attention in 2010.
On the morning of Thursday May 20, 2010, Bill Evans, an officer of the West Memphis Police Department, pulled over a Plymouth minivan traveling along I-40 in West Memphis, Arkansas. Evans was a member of West Memphis Police Department’s drug interdiction team, a squad dedicated to stemming the flow of illegal narcotics through the state. The minivan, which had Ohio plates, was being driven by forty-five-year-old Jerry Kane, who was accompanied by his sixteen-year-old son, Joseph. Officer Evans radioed Sergeant Brandon Paudert for backup, before instructing Jerry Kane to exit the vehicle. Shortly afterward, a physical altercation between Evans and Kane ensued. Moments later, Joseph Kane exited the minivan and opened fire on Evans and Paudert with an AK-47 assault rifle. Both officers were hit. Sergeant Paudert died at the scene, and officer Evans later died in the hospital.
Although the Kanes managed to escape, they were spotted at a nearby Walmart shortly after the shooting. Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby and his Chief of Enforcement W.A. Wren attempted to apprehend the suspects, at which point the Kanes opened fire on the two officers. Busby was hit in the shoulder in the shootout, while Wren sustained multiple gunshots to the abdomen. The Kanes were killed in the incident, but both Busby and Wren survived. It later came to light that while Jerry Kane had been known to and monitored by the FBI since 2004 due to his involvement in numerous financial scams, nothing in his file suggested the possibility that either he or his son were likely to resort to violence.
Although some sovereigns undoubtedly pose a deadly threat to law enforcement officials, McNab says overcoming the dangers posed by sovereigns is not merely a matter of providing authorities with additional training. The problem of sovereigns and law enforcement, she says, runs much deeper.
“There are a number of sovereigns who are currently police,” McNab told me. “That, to me, is a huge risk. I do law enforcement training, and in almost every class I’ve ever taught, materials have been leaked to the movement by someone in the room. There’s a surprising number of police officers who are part of the Oath Keepers, who are part of the tax protest movement, who are part of the sovereign group. That’s a huge weakness within the police.”
Although an unfavorable brush with the law or the IRS is sometimes enough to prompt potential extremists to explore the sovereigns’ ideas, the government itself has contributed to the growing distrust of authority observed across the country, particularly among veterans and supporters of the armed forces.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security distributed a memo internally that stated “right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.” The memo, which was first leaked by conservative talk radio host Roger Hedgecock, pointed to the fact that Timothy McVeigh was a veteran of both operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Iraq in the early ‘90s. Predictably, the news media and numerous veteran advocacy organizations were outraged.
“That went nuts in the press when it was leaked,” McNab says. “I mean, Fox [News] went nuts with it, you know, ‘Oh my god, they think every soldier is a domestic terrorist.’ Unfortunately, what happened when the memo was leaked was the head of Homeland Security threw the analysts under the bus and said, ‘Oh, they were just a bunch of rogue analysts, I’m letting them all go’ — even though he had signed off on the memo before it was actually distributed. They even got rid of the department within Homeland Security that tracked right-wing extremists. So while you might have forty or so analysts watching al-Qaeda, you have one watching the stuff I watch.”
Even the language used by the FBI to describe the sovereigns hints at the growing schism between the government and the American people. In a law enforcement bulletin summarizing the sovereign movement from 2011, the FBI says that, “Some of their actions, although quirky, are not crimes,” almost quaint phrasing that conjures images of strange — yet ultimately harmless — conspiracy theorists murmuring about gold-fringed flags from the confines of isolated woodland cabins. Shortly after, however, the report’s language reveals a telling arrogance. It states that, “They may refer to themselves as ‘constitutionalists’ or ‘freemen,’ which is not necessarily a connection to a specific group, but, rather, an indication that they are free from government control.” The bulletin then asserts that, “While the philosophies and conspiracy theories can vary from person to person, their core beliefs are the same: the government operates outside of its jurisdiction.”
Should one assume, then, that any American who does not cleave to the sovereigns’ extreme position is subject to “government control?” Based on the revelations of former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, there can be no doubt that the United States government does indeed operate outside of its jurisdiction — geographically, ideologically, and ethically. In light of irrefutable evidence of the government’s disregard for Constitutional and international law, what are the implications for those who speak out against such crimes?
As the American people face the prospect of entering another protracted war against an invisible enemy overseas, public sentiment toward the government and its policies has never been more hostile. The routine abuses of power perpetrated by law enforcement, the flagrant political corruption in Washington, and the gradual erosion of Americans’ civil liberties at the hands of an increasingly secretive government are matters of grave concern to the entire nation, not just radical conspiracy theorists on the fringes of the mainstream. Though comparatively few Americans are willing to take up arms in the name of personal freedoms, when many of the values of a fringe group labeled a serious domestic terrorism threat begin to resonate with regular, everyday people, it should serve as a warning.
“The first phase, unfortunately, ended in extreme violence,” McNab says. “My concern, of course, is that the second phase will as well. When you have politicians like [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal saying that an armed revolution is inevitable, it adds to it. I really worry that we’re headed for something violent.”