More and more anti-vax “activists” are identifying with so-called sovereign citizens, whose anti-government ideologies are becoming increasingly extreme and dangerous.
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“You are being put on notice!” anti-vax activist Christopher Key thundered outside a Missouri pharmacy, adding, “and if they give one more vaccine, as of this day after being put on notice, then they can be hung up. And they can be executed.”
Key goes by the moniker “The Vaccine Police,” drives a custom wrapped Ford Mustang emblazoned with anti-vax iconography, and urges his followers to drink bleach and urine to cure Covid. He has been traveling across the country confronting health care providers and public officials about vaccines, which he falsely characterizes as bioweapons. Key’s ideology is an example of an alarming confluence between the anti-vaccination movement and the pseudo-legal doctrines of so-called “sovereign citizens.”
Counter-terrorism experts consistently rate so-called “sovereign citizens” as one of the gravest domestic terrorism threats, in no small part because they are prolific cop-killers. As the pandemic drags on, we are seeing alarming cross-pollination between sovereign citizens and anti-vaccine/anti-mandate activists. This convergence is partly a function of the market. People disillusioned with Covid measures sought pseudo-legal solutions to get out of pandemic restrictions, and sovereigns already had a lucrative industry furnishing people with fake legal exemptions and bogus credentials, but common ground between these two groups extends well beyond commerce. Many people who were merely anti-vax before the pandemic broadened their opposition to include all manner of government measures to contain the virus. Sovereign citizens and other anti-government extremists also see pandemic measures as illegitimate infringements by the state. After the failure of the January 6 insurrection, many far-right organizers refocused their followers on the anti-vax cause.
Sovereigns believe that they are above the law. The best way to describe their belief system is to say that they’ve elevated the concept of a cheat code to the level of a religious faith. They think they’ve found the “one weird trick” that gets them out of all their legal obligations from paying their debts to following the speed limit to, in principle, lynching their political opponents. Sovereigns have been causing an outsized amount of mayhem for decades. They are responsible for billions of dollars in tax fraud, billions of dollars in frivolous liens on their enemies’ property, countless armed standoffs large and small, conspiracies to kidnap and murder judges and police officers, and numerous murders. The sovereigns’ core belief that they are above the law emboldens them to rationalize anything, including violence.
Sovereign citizens have perpetrated many high-profile acts of domestic terrorism since the 1970s. Their refusal to follow the law leads to standoffs with the police, some of which end in the deaths of officers and/or sovereigns. Terry Nichols, an accomplice to the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people, was a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen. Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion extremist who assassinated Dr. George Tiller once had a homemade license plate that read “SOVEREIGN CITIZEN.”
Sovereign ideologies evolved from anti-government extremist movements including the paramilitary Posse Comitatus movement, which held that groups of white men could band together to enforce white supremacy and their conception of the rule of law.
Sovereign ideology originated in the United States, but it has become a global phenomenon. Variant sovereign citizen ideologies are flourishing in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League is a historian and analyst of the far right who has been studying the sovereigns for decades. He explains that there has always been a fascination with alternative health on the far right because adherents distrust mainstream medicine almost as much as they distrust the government.
Pitcavage describes the current dynamic as a “three-way love triangle” between anti-vaxxers, sovereign citizens, and QAnon conspiracy theorists. “What we’ve seen over the past two years, and especially over the past year, has been blurring of the boundaries between all three of these,” he says. The three factions already share a deep distrust of government.
He’s quick to add that the crossover doesn’t mean that the three are coalescing into a single movement.
The sovereign ideology is so baroque, specific, and weird that it presents a barrier even to the anti-vax and QAnon faithful. It’s this weirdness that has kept the sovereign citizen movement relatively marginal and limited in its potential for growth. However, the radicalization of the anti-vaccine and anti-public health movement is popularizing sovereign-type attitudes and beliefs much more widely. The sovereigns cobbled together a belief system from snippets of the Constitution, archaic laws, and Christian scripture stripped of context, and now the anti-vaxers are repurposing concepts associated with sovereign citizens for their own purposes. Anti-vaxers are selling fake mask- and vaccine exemption cards peppered with sovereign-like verbiage about “consent.” One anti-vaxer even issued her cards in the name of a phony government agency.
Thanks to the internet, ideas like “common law courts,” self-sworn “peace officers,” and “citizens’ arrests” are becoming part of right wing pop culture along with the conspiracy theories and pseudo-legal arguments that purport to legitimize these fanciful concepts.
U.S. sovereigns believe they are above the law based on pseudo-legal and pseudo-historical arguments that paint the federal government as a fraudulent and tyrannical entity that secretly replaced the real government. Many sovereigns believe the turning point was the passage of the 14th Amendment, which defined birthright citizenship and thereby recognized formerly enslaved people as full citizens of the United States. The sovereigns see themselves as elite who have divorced themselves from the pseudo-state by performing various bureaucratic rituals, like mailing their driver’s licenses back to the DMV. They believe the rest of us have to follow laws because we “contracted” with the government by accepting benefits like Social Security, getting drivers’ licenses, and even using ZIP codes. This is why sovereigns are notorious for manufacturing their own bogus credentials including license plates. One of their most famous quirks is spelling their names with eccentric capitalization and irrelevant punctuation to differentiate between themselves as people vs. the “legal fiction” the government supposedly creates in everyone’s name at birth. Sovereigns fear they will be re-subjugated by the federal government if they produce a driver’s license or even follow the instructions of a police officer at a traffic stop. Many believe that answering to their own names (when spelled and capitalized normally) can collapse the all-important distinction between the flesh and blood human and the legal fiction. Sovereigns are also known for rattling off legally meaningless incantations, such as “I do not consent” and “I am not contracting with you” during police encounters because they mistakenly believe it will prevent them from being arrested. When they do end up in court, they believe it’s critical to proclaim that the court has no jurisdiction over them. One notorious tack is to erroneously proclaim that a gold fringe on a courtroom flag means that the court is an admiralty law court, with jurisdiction only over the sea, whereas the defendant is a free man upon the land. Rizza Islam, later identified as one of the 12 most prolific anti-vaxers on the internet, once tried to convince a judge that he should walk free because the fraud charges were against Rizza Islam the fiction, not Rizza Islam the man. Rizza the man got five days in jail and a $1000 fine for disrespecting the court.
Even more troublingly, many sovereigns believe that they are entitled to use harassment and even violence against government officials whose official actions contradict the sovereigns’ specious understanding of the law. Sovereigns are known to set up their own bogus courts and even their own fake law enforcement agencies to impose their will on others. Sovereign-linked “common-law courts” have a long history of violence and intimidation against public officials.
In fact, in the view of many sovereigns, every judge who isn’t “following the constitution” is committing treason, punishable by hanging. This isn’t just an idle threat; sovereigns have gone to prison for soliciting the murder of judges. Canadian conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed Queen of Canada Romana Didulo has instructed her followers to shoot to kill health care providers who vaccinate children.
In the United Kingdom, anti-vaxxers calling themselves “common law constables” have stormed health care facilities, falsely asserting the power to halt vaccinations by force. A self-proclaimed sovereign citizen in Ireland was arrested for allegedly removing a covid patient from the ICU, who later died. Police in New Zealand were forced to issue a statement warning unruly anti-lockdown protesters that parroting sovereign citizen mantras like “I do not consent” wouldn’t stop them from being arrested. In December, anti-vax sovereigns twice set fire to Australia’s Old Parliament House, causing millions of dollars in damage.
Christopher Key, the US anti-vaxxer, describes himself as a “free man on the land” who doesn’t need a license to drive his Mustang because it’s not a car but a “wagon with wagon wheels.” (A common sovereign pseudo-argument.)
Key got his start selling bogus sports supplements made of deer antlers. Since Covid, he has reinvented himself as a flamboyant anti-vaccine crusader. Key has teamed up with a self-proclaimed sovereign named Dave Roberts to give lectures to the anti-vax faithful on how to pressure public officials who back everything from mask mandates to critical race theory. Roberts falsely asserts, as do many sovereigns, that it’s possible to remove public officials from office by complaining to the company that issued their surety bond. A public official surety bond is a three-way contract between an official, the agency that employs them, and a bonding company. A bond protects the agency in case an official abuses their office or loses money through negligence.
Some public officials do indeed have surety bonds. However, the right to file a claim against an official’s bond typically rests with the agency that employs them, not disgruntled members of the public. Furthermore, claims must be based on well-substantiated allegations of serious misconduct, such as embezzlement. An industry expert told DAME that, while the terms of public official bonds vary, a bonding company is not going to cancel a bond because a citizen complains about an official’s policy record. Contrary to sovereign mythology, the cancellation of a bond doesn’t automatically remove an official from office, nor does it preclude them from being bonded by a different company.
Roberts likes to tell his audience that any judge who isn’t following “the Constitution,” which is shorthand for doing what the sovereigns want, is committing treason, an offense punishable by hanging. So is every police officer who writes a traffic ticket, in Roberts’ erroneous opinion.
A fascination with “citizens’ arrests” is a troubling trend, among anti-vaxxers and sovereigns alike. An organizer of the DC trucker convoy announced Tuesday that his people were exploring the possibility of citizen’s arrests of the mayor and DC police officers. Citizen’s arrests are a real thing in most states, but only for actual crimes. Too many sovereigns and anti-vaxers falsely believe that making children wear masks or get vaccinated is a crime worthy of arrest or worse. Without reasonable suspicion of a real crime, a “citizen’s arrest” is unlawful and could even be kidnapping if the victim is taken somewhere against their will. There’s a move afoot to abolish citizens’ arrests in many jurisdictions because these confrontations have resulted in high-profile murders, including that of Ahmaud Arbery.
Christopher Key likes to pose with automatic weapons—and in one case a flame-thrower, which he claimed he would use against vaccines. Key pledged to arrest the governor of Louisiana over vaccine mandates.
This phenomenon is not restricted to the United States. A Canadian karate instructor and his anti-vax followers tried to execute a quasi-symbolic citizen’s arrest on the mayor of St. Catherine’s, Ontario, which their leader claimed could culminate in a “common-law trial” if enough people showed up to demand one. Another Canadian anti-vaxer actually sued the Ottawa Police for interfering with his “right” to arrest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When the judge ruled that his lawsuit was worthless, he threatened to arrest the judge, too. A prominent anti-vaxer was arrested as he tried to force his way into New Zealand’s parliament to “arrest” the country’s health minister for vaccine-related murder.
The pandemic has been an opportunity for ideology and tactics long associated with sovereign citizens to influence less extreme right-wing movements. Now that mandates have largely been rolled back across the country, it remains to be seen how the anti-vaxxers will respond. Will they declare victory and go home? If the U.S. trucker convoys are any indication, the movement will metamorphose into ever-more general opposition to the government and the rule of law, which would open the door for even more cross-pollination with the sovereigns.
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