Most conspiracy theories don’t offer believers much beyond the smug satisfaction of being “right”. Knowing the “truth” about 9/11 and two dollars will get you a coffee at 7/11. But when Hate Thy Neighbour host Jamali Maddix investigates the growing sovereign citizens movement in the US — one that’s also increasingly finding favour in Australia — he finds believers in a conspiracy that promises them a big cash payday and a get out of jail free card when it comes to breaking the law. They just have to convince the government that the rules we adhere to don’t apply to them.
The idea behind sovereign citizens is a little hard to follow, which is kind of the point. A lot of their activities involve filing reams of confusing quasi-legal paperwork in an attempt to unlock the (non-existent) code that will free them from the chains of government. Those chains mostly involve having to pay tax, even though many sovereign citizens are happy to claim benefits from the government they supposedly despise. The basic thinking is that by renouncing their citizenship, they can free themselves from all obligations to the government (again, this means paying tax — they really hate that) and also become free from all obligations to follow any laws laid down by that government. Park your car wherever you like! Run red lights! You’re a sovereign citizen!
Unfortunately, there are a few slightly embarrassing hoops you have to jump through before you can sever all ties with the lawful government of wherever it is you happen to live. In some cases, this involves claiming that only maritime law applies to you, even when you’re on dry land. In other cases, you’re required to use a bizarre form of grammar in an attempt to show you’re not bound by the system’s rules. This recently caused some problems for Australian One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts to deny association with the sovereign citizen movement when it was discovered he’d been using a similar grammar in letters attempting to bill the government hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the carbon tax.
Slightly further down the rabbit hole is the idea that if you manage to file the right kind of documents and can somehow get the government to accept you as a sovereign citizen, you can access unlimited funds from the US government. Some believe the government sets up a secret bank account using their social security number and becoming sovereign allows them to access it; others believe the government is secretly using its citizens as collateral for overseas loans and once you become sovereign, you can access those funds for yourself. Fun fact: this is not true, and every single attempt they’ve made through the courts to access this money or to sever ties with any layer of government has failed.
As Maddix himself points out, this willingness to back up their beliefs with actions makes them more admirable than a lot of conspiracy theorists. And it doesn’t hurt that Ernie, the sovereign citizen he hangs out with in this episode, is a genuinely charming and likable guy. With corporations and big business doing everything they can to minimize their tax — and getting away with it — an option for the average joe to reduce their tax bill to zero seems only right and fair.
But this willingness to back up their theories with action is also why the sovereign citizens movement is considered a major terrorist threat by the FBI and other security services. At one end of their activities is what’s been described as “paper terrorism” — the filing of fraudulent and bogus paperwork like tax returns, liens on property and the like that are designed to harass both the courts and private citizens. At the other… well, at least one of the Oklahoma City bombing conspirators held sovereign citizen beliefs, and many of their members have been arrested for tax evasion, money laundering, and attempts to assassinate judges and tax officials.
The desire to break free from the local authorities isn’t a uniquely American brand of thinking. Similar movements have sprung up in Australia over the years, though in the past this kind of thinking was more likely to lead to farmers attempting to set up their own nations like the Hutt River Principality in WA (which has had several run-ins with the Australian Tax Office over the years). Recently it’s been the concept of “freemen on the land” that has gained traction here, based around the idea that the Australian government is a corporation that operates under contract law and contracts are non-binding if you don’t agree to them. Don’t agree with the road rules? Annoyed at government catch limits when you go fishing? They don’t apply to you!
Good luck with that.
Watch the "Sovereign Citizens" episode of Hate Thy Neighbour at SBS On Demand:
The show airs Tuesdays at 9:30pm on SBS VICELAND.