When Sovereign Citizens Snap
Police came to evict Mark Kulis—and found a home wired to explode. It’s the latest incident for a movement that rejects the government, with members who have been turning to violence.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says the movement is “rooted in racism and anti-Semitism” and it has traditionally appealed to the economically desperate. In the 1980s, white supremacists and anti-Semites were drawn to the movement by a shared defiance of the Jews they believed were controlling the government and financial institutions. The group’s early members believed that by granting citizenship to African Americans, the 14th Amendment made blacks permanently bound to government rule and thereby ineligible for sovereign citizenship. Today, there’s a significant number of black sovereigns.
The basis for the modern-day sovereign belief system is a conspiracy theory that is as outrageous as it is confusing. Sovereigns believe that there are two government systems existing in the United States: “common law,” which the Founding Fathers established and under which sovereigns are free to break laws and evade taxes as they wish; and “admiralty law,” which secretly replaced common law at some disputed time in history—maybe during the Civil War, maybe when the U.S. went off the gold standard in 1933, who knows—and makes the sovereigns slaves to the government. Judges, they believe, are fully aware of the admiralty-law takeover but pretend to be oblivious to keep sovereigns indentured to the government.
Judges, they believe, are fully aware of the admiralty-law takeover but pretend to be oblivious to keep sovereigns indentured to the government.
Many sovereign citizens have kept their battles on paper or in court; yet some have had frequent run-ins with police over refusals to follow laws or obtain required legal documents—such as a driver’s license. Authorities say this was the case with Jerry and Joe Kane, a father and son who died in a May 2010 shootout after they’d killed two police officers during a routine highway stop in West Memphis, Ark. Jerry, the elder Kane, had joined the sovereign citizens movement in 2003 after losing his job, his house to foreclosure, and his wife to divorce. He’d homeschooled Joe, his 16-year-old son, and introduced him to the sovereign philosophy; the two traveled the country for years giving seminars on what Jerry called “mortgage fraud” and the promise of debt reduction. “I don’t want to kill anybody,” Kane said at one session captured on YouTube, revealing his deep hatred for authority that he said resulted from a string of traffic stops and related arrests. “But if they keep messing with me, that’s what it’s going to have to come out, that’s what it’s going to come down to is I’m going gonna have to kill. And if I have to kill one, then I’m not going to be able to stop.”
The Kanes weren’t the first to let their rage get the better of them—nor were the two officers they gunned down the first uniformed victims of sovereign violence. Michael Hill of Ohio was killed in 1995 when he pulled a gun on an officer who pulled him over. In 1997, Idaho brothers Doug and Craig Broderick’s failure to use their turn signal turned into a bloody gun battle resulting in both of their deaths and the death of one officer. Members of the Abbeville, S.C., Bixby family killed two police over a land dispute in 2003.
It’s unclear whether Mark Kulis ever had any intention of using his home artillery. But the officers who went to his house this week were probably wise to wait until he was gone.