Almost immediately after it came out that alleged Waffle House shooter Travis Reinking had self-identified as a "sovereign citizen," Mark Pitcavage started getting phone calls. He's an expert at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism who's been studying the far-right clique for a quarter of a century, mastering the ins-and-outs of the complex conspiracy theory that grounds their beliefs. And while making sense of this specific brand of anti-government ideology requires a lot of specialized knowledge—among other things, learning to decode several unhinged dialects—he doesn't mind the effort. After all, sovereign citizens are his favorite group to study.
"I don't know if I'm supposed to have favorites," Pitcavage clarified in an interview. "But let me just say the sovereign citizen movement is this strange mix of bizarre or even humorous and incredibly scary."
Still, he sometimes struggles in presentations to illustrate telltale signs exhibited by sovereign citizens. That's because, unlike the alt-right, or neo-Nazis, for instance, their's is not a neatly-defined subculture. That is to say, though adherents of sovereign citizen thinking tend to follow specific gurus, they don't often have distinct memes or tattoos that pop in a PowerPoint presentation. Even so, when I called up Pitcavage for an insider's take on how to decode the signals and "tics" exhibited by these people, he offered a few ways to tell if someone you know might have been radicalized by their strange ideology.
VICE: Do people who are kind of flirting with this stuff actually associate with the Don't Tread on Me—a.k.a. Gadsden—flag, or is that a misconception?
Mark Pitcavage: I'm sure some do, but that's more of either a Tea Party thing or a militia movement thing. It's not, like, a specifically sovereign citizen sort of symbol. It's a patriotic symbol that a lot of different types of people—both extremists and not extremists—can use. Sometimes, you have people on one of those websites where you can put anything on a cap or a T-shirt—they'll put something, with like [the part of the Uniform Commercial Code sovereigns believe preserves their common law rights] UCC 1-207 or the sovereign citizen flag on one of those.
So there is a distinct flag associated with them?
The sovereign citizen flag is a variation of the American flag in which the stripes are vertical, not horizontal. And the stars are blue-on-white instead of white-on-blue. It's actually derived from a flag that allegedly used to fly over customs houses for a brief period of time, like in the 1820s. But some sovereign citizen decided it was actually the real flag of the United States. And so this is something that they came up with relatively recently—within the past ten years or so. Now it's become pretty common in the sovereign citizen movement, and sometimes it's called "the flag of peace" or, sometimes, a "Title Four flag."
The easiest way to ID sovereign citizens is through some of their written "tics." Can you talk me through some of them?
So the main thing is in the 1990s it became commonly accepted among sovereign citizens that people were doing their name wrong. And the way you should do your name was to separate your first and middle names from your last name with some sort of punctuation: a semicolon, a comma or a colon. And the reason that usually was given was that your first or middle names were your so-called Christian appellation, whereas your last name was a government-given name. Also, many people will put a dash between their first and middle names. I came across one sovereign citizen who put multiple commas between his middle name and his last name. I guess because he was a super sovereign citizen and the more commas you put, the more sovereign you are.
Where did this language come from, and how many different dialects, or syntaxes, are there?
Most seem to have emerged in the early to mid-1990s. I was never able to identify a patient zero who made it accepted wisdom that, in the sovereign citizen movement, you needed to write your name differently and dress differently. They all go off and do their own thing, so they've all created a million different varieties of how to write their name or punctuate their name or how to do addresses.
Their goal is to have their own sort of variations or improvisations or additions to the genre, but [also] to know they'll be similar. They tend to do variations on a theme that's already been established, sometimes years ago. Every once in a while, someone will come up with a totally new thing to do and then others will develop variations on that.
Is there a commonality all these different syntaxes or tics share?
First of all, a lot of the written tics of sovereign citizens are designed in some way to either explain or establish their status. Or to prevent them from unknowingly or unwittingly entering into a contract with the illegitimate government and thus enslaving themselves to it. So for example, sovereign citizens believe that if you sign something or if you get a fishing permit or a hunting permit or a driver's license or something like this, that you are actually entering into a contract with the illegitimate government. They give you some sort of privilege and in turn you surrender your sovereignty and once you do that you have to follow all of the laws, rules, regulations, taxes, court orders—you know, everything.
What a lot of them will do is they will put "UCC 1-207" or "UCC 1-308" or "all rights reserved" by their signatures, which they think will thus immunize them from entering into a contract with the illegitimate government. Similarly, they do funny things with ZIP codes, because many sovereign citizens believe they're a contract with the federal government. Some hardcore ones won't use ZIP codes at all, but a lot of them still want their mail delivered. So what they'll do is use ZIP codes but change them in some way, by putting brackets or parentheses around them or using the word "near." Instead of being in ZIP code 12345, it's "near" ZIP Code 12345. Or they'll refer to it as a "postal zone" or a "postal code" rather than a ZIP Code. And they believe if you do these sorts of things that that somehow makes it not a contract with the illegitimate government. It's magical thinking. They're sort-of like totems in written form.
It seems like there's different degrees of extremism here. What's on the furthest end of the spectrum—making one's own license plate?
Not necessarily. The most hardcore thing would be refusing to use a license plate at all. Some license plates are designed to pass, so they may create a fake Indian tribe or a fake British colony and create very realistic-looking license plates for those and then put them on their vehicle, hoping that law enforcement won't notice. And this way they don't have to use the illegitimate license plates that make them a slave to the illegitimate government. Other sovereign plates are not designed to pass—they are designed to protest. They're very in-your-face and they look radically different from any other license plates and virtually shout off the rooftops that they are sovereign plates. So in that case someone who's doing it might be quite hardcore.
Any other telltale visual clues?
Some sovereign citizens believe that when you do your signature you also have to put your thumbprint or your fingerprint next to it. And some sovereign citizens furthermore say that when you do your signature or you do your thumbprint it needs to be in red ink. Some say it needs to be in blue ink. And then there are very few, and I only encountered this a couple of times, but I have encountered this, who will do a fingerprint in blood.
A lot of sovereign citizens will also have No Trespassing signs on their property. But they're not regular No Trespassing signs. When you get up close and you read the small print you discover that they're primarily directed at government officials. I see some that make exceptions for mailmen because I guess they still want to get their Readers Digest. So even the residences of some sovereign citizens will have things up that can be a clue for someone who knows what to look for.
I'm also interested if there are Facebook groups that would be kind of red flags that, if you saw your friends following or sharing content from them, might indicate sovereign citizenry?
There's one called Right to Travel. There's another one called No License Plates Required. And you know, if you did a group search on Facebook on sovereign, on maybe commercial law or constitutional law, you might find something [like] USA the Republic, maybe. Now, a lot of these Facebook groups are really tiny, maybe only 12 people or something. If you search enough, you'll find the substantial ones. There are particular ones where someone may post bogus plates and other things like that, so I check them regularly to add to my collection of images.
You've been collecting this stuff for 25 years. Why?
Some of the things sovereign citizens say or do may seem ridiculous or funny. And nowadays, watching sovereign-citizen traffic-stop videos is like, a thing. People post them to Facebook and to YouTube and talk about them on Reddit and so forth and laugh at the sovereign citizens. You know—as their windows get broken and they get Tased after they try to use sovereign-citizen arguments. And yet at the same time, some sovereign citizens have turned themselves into cold-blooded killers, gunning innocent people down for no reason whatsoever. And so they sort-of take you on this rollercoaster between the strange and the fascinating and then the scary-as-hell.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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