LONDON – To understand how the world really works, the tutor is explaining to our group of trainee “sovereign citizens,” you have to grasp the concept of “word spells.”
For example, she says, when a judge or police officer asks if we “understand” them, we should never say yes – because they’re really asking if we “stand under” them, or submit to their authority. Saying “I comprehend” would avoid that pitfall.
To illustrate the “word spell” concept further, she writes the phrase “build back better” on the whiteboard – a slogan adopted by the UK and US governments for their pandemic-recovery programmes – and asks if we notice anything about it.
Then she excitedly circles the lower-case “b’s,” which sort-of-but-don’t-really resemble 6s.
“That’s right!” she says. “6-6-6!”
I’m here undercover, amid a group of COVID “truthers” in a chilly community hall in southwest London, for a crash course in “sovereign citizen” ideology.
It’s an arcane anti-government conspiracy theory, with roots in US far-right “patriot” groups, that peddles the idea that followers can essentially declare themselves exempt from laws they don’t like by decoupling themselves from their supposed “contract” with the government.
A slide shown at the course. PHOTO: TIM HUME
This once-obscure ideology has gained unprecedented currency during the pandemic as it has become a driving force of anti-vax, COVID “truther” movements in the UK and around the world, giving them a framework they believe allows them to fight back against coronavirus vaccines, vax-passes, and other restrictions – but also more broadly against the sinister forces supposedly orchestrating the pandemic.
My six fellow classmates all hail from recognisable strands of the COVID conspiracist “freedom” movement, seeing the world through the prism of corona truther Telegram groups, whose members believe that the pandemic is some kind of plot by elites to oppress the masses.
There’s a middle-class midwife; a veteran anti-vaxxer; a hippyish alternative lifestyler who casually states that the deadly Travis Scott concert stampede in November was actually a case of Satanic blood sacrifice. There’s a 30-something couple, both health and wellness enthusiasts; and a young Black father, who explains that he’s currently locked in a fierce dispute with the NHS staff treating his sick newborn over his refusal to follow hospital COVID protocols.
We’ve all paid £20 ($26) to attend this day-long training workshop to become “peace constables” – a self-appointed, vigilante police force, who sovereign citizens claim have the authority to enforce their own interpretation of the law, including carrying out “common law arrests.”
Over the past year, these “peace constables” – also known as “common law constables” – have been at the forefront of a string of increasingly extreme direct action protests in the UK, targeting locations and individuals associated with the COVID vaccine programme. It’s a clear trajectory of radicalisation that’s alarmed counter-terrorism officials and researchers, and has prompted VICE World News to come here today, under an assumed identity, to find out exactly what the movement believes.
Despite the movement’s insistence that sovereign citizens must do no harm, its followers are becoming increasingly militant as they’ve seized on the QAnon-influenced narrative that their battle against COVID vaccines is an apocalyptic fight to “save the children” from predatory, conspiring elites.
Videos taken by vigilante posses of sovereign citizens, shared on COVID-conspiracy Telegram channels, show peace constables storming vaccination centres and ordering them to shut down, threatening to arrest police and other public officials. These are the people you now regularly see in online videos, filming themselves “serving notice” – delivering their baseless, pseudolegal threats – at schools, hospitals, or private homes, accusing their unfortunate targets of “crimes against humanity,” and warning that they need to stop COVID vaccine rollouts or face trial in a “common law court.”
A hardline group, calling itself Alpha Team Assemble and led by former soldiers, has been holding combat training sessions in preparation for what it deems a “war” on the government. Meanwhile, the movement’s rhetoric has become increasingly unhinged and violent towards their supposed enemies: politicians, officials, and anyone else associated with the COVID vaccine rollout.
“These dirty, disgusting governments, police, doctors, nurses – we know who our enemy is now,” a prominent anti-vax influencer known as Truth Pills Danny, ranted in a video posted to Telegram after attending an Alpha Team Assemble training session held in West Sussex, south-east England in December.
Sovereign citizens routinely issue threats of violent retribution, with many spouting fantasies of a so-called “Nuremberg 2.0” when the supposed architects of the pandemic will be put on mass trial and executed.
“You’re all going to the gallows!” another British sovereign citizen yelled at a courthouse full of magistrates and lawyers late last year, after storming the facility to “serve papers,” in a video viewed by VICE World News on Telegram.
Experts have followed the spread of this radical rhetoric across the world during the pandemic with growing alarm. Christine Sarteschi, an associate professor of social work and criminology at Pittsburgh's Chatham University, has tracked sovereign citizen activity in the anti-lockdown movements of more than 20 countries.
“They’ve come to believe that if the government isn’t legitimate, then they can’t tell me what to do, I can do what I want,” she tells me over a phone call, some days after the training course.
“I see these people as outlaws. It’s a threat to democracy to have people believing that they can continually do whatever they want.”
As we jot down notes in the classroom, our tutor, a veteran conspiracy theorist named Gayatri Monani, stands before a whiteboard, telling us about her pathway to being “awakened.”
Affable and well-spoken, Monani’s day job is as a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner – a form of therapy that’s been discredited as pseudoscientific. Her moment of becoming “switched on,” she says, came back in 2008, when she stayed up one night watching a long video by infamous British conspiracy theorist David Icke until 5AM.
“Once your mind’s been blown open, there's no going back,” she says, smiling at the memory of that first conspiracy hit.
The enduring influence of Icke – a former footballer whose antisemitic conspiracy theories about shape-shifting “reptilian” elites have found followers around the world, and whose son hosts a popular COVID conspiracist online channel – is clearly apparent on Monani. At one point, while discussing the oath sworn by police, she refuses to say the name of Queen Elizabeth II, saying she can only bear to refer to her as “Lizard.”
Our course is organised by a group called Guardians 300, just one of a number of sovereign citizen outfits in the UK providing training to become peace constables. Set up by a former British soldier, Guardians 300 claims to have trained more than 2,500 people in “common law” in the UK. The group’s website shows its members, most of them middle aged, wearing khaki T-shirts and camo hats bearing its logo, a Roman centurion’s helmet.
By the end of the day, I’ll be one of them myself, issued with my own laminated peace constable “warrant card” bearing my photograph.
The training, a series of tutorials and role plays, is a crash course in sovereign citizen ideology – a weird mix of pseudo-legal jargon, anti-government sentiment, and magical thinking.
Essentially, the ideology hinges around the notion that there’s a distinction between the “sovereign, living man or woman” – our corporal, flesh and blood selves – and our fictional, legal identities, created in our birth certificates. Our sovereign selves, their bizarre theory goes, are answerable to “natural law” of the universe, but not those of the government, which sovereign citizens view as merely a corporation, albeit one controlled by shadowy, dark forces.
Thus, “awakened” sovereign citizens are free to ignore the laws of the land or make their own, perform “common law arrests,” and even place enemies on trial in “common law courts.”
While common law is a genuine legal term, referring to the system of laws grounded in customs and earlier court decisions, as opposed to those enacted by Parliament, the sovereign citizen movement misuses it to refer to its own system of flawed legal interpretations and theories. Activists claim they will use this “common law” to prosecute officials, shut down COVID vaccination sites, or set up their own separatist schools to shield their children from the corrupt establishment.
Much of their strategy is essentially rhetorical game-playing, using bogus legal arguments to try to evade accountability under the law. It revolves around a series of outright falsehoods: that governments have no authority, that our names don’t represent us, that we don’t need to pay taxes or mortgages, that police are just regular people wearing fancy dress. In an example of the wordplay that the sovereign citizens are fond of, they refuse to call them police officers, referring to them instead as “policy officers” – supposedly because they merely enforce the policy of a “corporation,” the government.
Guardians 300 claims to have already sworn in 850 peace constables, admittedly a long way short of their stated goal of eventually having 60,000 in London alone. The vision, Monani explains, is that the peace constables will one day be a “sovereign” police force, larger and more powerful than the actual police force they are “mirroring.”
“We’re mirroring them because they’re no longer acting in accordance with their own principles,” says Monani, who, along with the Guardians 300 organisation, did not respond to a VICE World News request for comment. Once the peace constable movement reaches a critical mass, she hopes the balance will shift, and they’ll be able to start putting their enemies on trial.
Sovereign citizen ideology has its roots in a racist, far-right anti-government US group, the Posse Comitatus – Latin for “power of the county” – which emerged in the late 1960s. The group’s members claimed they had the legal right to form a posse of sheriffs to hunt down criminals, and did not need to pay taxes.
In the decades since, its spread in various forms around the world as a decentralised movement, with followers adapting the ideology to the country they’re in. In Germany, they’re known as “Reichsbuerger,” claiming to be citizens of the pre-war German Reich which they insist still exists, and has legitimacy over the modern Federal Republic. In the UK, they typically reference Article 61 of Magna Carta – the 800-year-old charter of rights signed by England’s King John to appease a group of disgruntled barons – falsely asserting it gives them the right to rebel against unjust laws.
There’s often a grift attached to sovereign citizen operations, such as mortgage frauds or financial scams. One UK sovereign citizen group offers businesses who pay a monthly fee the services of peace constables to intervene if they’re in disputes with the council or police – a kind of common law protection racket.
Sovereign citizens have been linked to acts of deadly violence, as their ideology places them on an inevitable collision course with the authorities, and they’ve been recognised as a security threat in the UK, US, and Germany, among other countries. Despite this, there’s been a tendency to view them more as delusional kooks – pests who bombard courts with barrages of meaningless legal documents, a tactic known as “paper terrorism,” in their attempts to escape paying fines or taxes – rather than as dangerous extremists.
During the pandemic, though, something has shifted. As the ideology has become central to the COVID conspiracist movement worldwide, sovereign citizens have become less concerned about weaselling out of paying their council tax, and consumed by the QAnon-influenced narrative that they’re locked in an urgent, apocalyptic spiritual battle against forces of evil, to stop the elites from carrying out a genocide through the “bioweapon” of the COVID vaccine.
“You have this Satanic agenda we’re living under at the moment – they’ve got to push this agenda,” says Monani, who, like many in the movement, repeatedly cites transgender rights as a symptom of this spiritually fallen society.
“We have to decide what side of the fence we’re on: are we on the side of the Satanists; or God or universal energy?”
Many COVID conspiracists have embraced sovereign citizen beliefs as their great hope, experts say, because they see the ideology as a useful tool in waging this battle, experts say.
Joe Ondrak, head of investigation for Logically, an organisation which combats online misinformation, says that the fringe ideology has taken on an unexpected new life in conspiracy-addled COVID “truther” Telegram groups around the world.
“It appeals because it gives them what they believe to be a legal justification and framework for their anger and beliefs and action,” he tells me over a phone call, days after the course.
But the hope offered by the ideology is, of course, a false one.
Sovereign citizen arguments are completely meritless legal gibberish, that only ever provoke bafflement or annoyance when they’re actually tried out in a court of law. Meanwhile their strategies, like paper terrorism, only ever work – on the rare occasions they do at all – by intimidating their targets, or leading them to figure that it’s just not worth the hassle of butting heads with such a threatening, incomprehensible group over minor issues.
When it comes to their current overarching goal of halting the rollout of COVID vaccines, though, their tactics are, unsurprisingly, proving completely ineffectual.
And that carries its own dangers. Experts such as Jan Rathje, a German political scientist who has studied his country’s Reichbuerger sovereign citizen scene for nearly a decade, note the harmful way in which the belief in the ideology pushes followers further into a delusional fantasy world. Paranoid, detached from reality, and frustrated with the failure to accomplish their goals, they can become at risk of committing radical, violent acts, or of volatile responses when the consequences of their actions finally catch up with them.
That’s a dynamic that’s played out in two high-profile Reichsbuerger shootings in recent years, resulting in sovereign citizens shooting police who had come to their homes to evict them or confiscate their weapons.
In the UK, there are already plenty of signs of frustration within the movement at the failure of their current tactics, and calls for more radical action. One message on a COVID conspiracist Telegram group in January called for former police and soldiers to form a unit to “arrest the people committing the crimes” under common law for supposed “crimes against humanity.”
“The notices are not working,” read the message. “The whole fucking system is satanic and evil to the core… It’s time we take things into our own hands.”
Back in the classroom, as the day wears on, some of Monani’s more questionable claims are arousing occasionally sceptical responses from some of the trainees. That includes her claim that, if a police officer refuses to show their warrant after being asked three times, then you can request that another officer arrest them for impersonating a police officer.
The young father who is locked in a dispute with the NHS repeatedly asks Monani to give examples of when this has actually worked.
But she brushes aside his requests, and is similarly vague when asked for the sources of other claims, such as that just 7 percent of interpersonal communication is verbal, while 55 percent is body language.
“I don’t know… just something I know, have known for a long time,” she replies.
It’s apparent that, quite aside from the threat of violent radicalisation, the delusional advice being given has the potential to swiftly create real havoc in these people’s lives.
The young father reveals that he has already brought in a sovereign citizen “legal adviser” to act as his representative in his dealings with the hospital treating his sick newborn.
And alarm bells ring when the eldest, and by outward appearances, most vulnerable member of the group – a woman who claims her adult son was “damaged” by a childhood vaccine – asks Monani if the sovereign citizens can provide financial advice for those, like her, who are struggling to make ends meet.
“Absolutely,” says the trainer, and encourages her to reach out to people on conspiracist Telegram groups for advice on how she can simply stop paying her bills.
At the end of the day, four of the group of seven, including myself, put our hands up to be sworn in as peace constables. We’re advised to get body cams, and burner phones, if possible.
The other three indicate that while they still intend to be involved in the “freedom” movement, they’re unready or unsuited to a frontline role as peace officers.
As we wait to have our photos taken for the “warrant cards” that will allow us to join local “constabularies,” my fellow new “recruits” acknowledge that they’re playing a long game, seeing themselves as the embryo of an “awakened” movement they hope will one day be large and powerful enough to enforce their own version of reality on the world.
“I feel like we are guinea pigs in this situation,” remarks the young father, preparing to line up against the wall for his picture. “But the situation is so bad, maybe we just have to be.”
Some time after I completed my training, I’m still waiting for my warrant card to arrive. But I was left with another memento of the day – one that I anticipated as the first flurry of coughs had ricocheted around the table, giving me a sinking feeling.
Acknowledging the coughing, the young father had cracked a joke. “The COVID fanatics would have a field day if they heard this. ‘All the anti-vaxxers coughing!’” he said, getting laughs from the room at the expense of the deluded morons out there who think coronavirus is real. Naturally, I tested positive a few days later.
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