What We Know About 'Sovereign Citizens' and the Waffle House Suspect
Travis Reinking reportedly identified with the extremist anti-government ideology more than once. Here's what that actually means—and doesn't.
Left Image: (Photo by Metro Nashville Police Department via Getty Images) Center Image: (Photo by Metro Nashville Police Department via Getty Images). Right Image: Lexicon, Vikrum via Wikimedia Commons
Once Travis Reinking was suspected of killing four people and injuring others in a mass shooting at a Nashville Waffle House on Sunday, the country predictably starting hunting for a motive. One possibility seemed to emerge after USA Today obtained the police report from the time Reinking was arrested while trying to arrange a meeting with Donald Trump in Washington, DC, last summer. According to that document, the 29-year-old told officers he had a right to inspect the area around the White House because he was a "sovereign citizen."
The so-called Sovereign Citizen Movement appears to have been launched by people fixated on the noxious concept of Christian Identity on the West Coast around 1970. The progenitors called themselves posse comitatus, and generally believed the United States had been ruled by an illegitimate government since as far back as the 1800s. Some also thought they could "redeem" themselves by destroying certain documents. After that, the thinking went, they'd no longer subject to taxes or the law—a prospect that has made sovereign citizenship an appealing concept to all kinds of financially desperate people in the decades since. The complex conspiracy theory continued to gain adherents thanks in part to a series of economic crises, among them the Great Recession. That catastrophe coincided with the proliferation of social media, and was preceded, among many other cultural events, by the release of The Matrix. In fact, Sovereign Citizens were the first right-wing group to use the "red pill" analogy to refer to a sort of political call to consciousness, according to Mark Pitcavage at the Anti-Defamation League.
To learn more about the movement—and how important an alleged mass shooter's connection to it, however tenuous, might be—I called up Pitcavage, who's been studying sovereign citizens for about 25 years. He told me how people get sucked into their fascinating and bizarre belief system, while urging caution about concluding that Reinking himself was a legit adherent.
VICE: Saying a specific ideology is relevant to this Waffle House shooting is tough, because the connection to the chief suspect seems so tenuous. Do you think it's fair to say this guy is or was a sovereign citizen?
Mark Pitcavage: The frustrating thing with regards to the [alleged] Waffle House killer is that only two pieces of information have emerged that at all suggest he may have been tied to the sovereign citizen movement itself. The first was the police report for the White House incident, in which he said that he had the right to be on the grounds because he was a sovereign citizen, and the other was a separate police report from 2016, which described him as someone who didn't recognize the authority of the police. Unfortunately, in both of those reports, you have some off-hand comments without detail or explication. I can imagine someone generically using the term sovereign, or even sovereign citizen, in the context of the White House incident, as a way of saying, "I have as much of a right to be here as anyone else." Similarly, there are lots of people in the heat of the moment who might not recognize the authority of the police in such a situation. So both of these are sort of tantalizing possibilities but not smoking guns. (Editor's note: After this interview took place, a third piece of evidence tying Reinking to Sovereign Citizens—an anecdote from at least one former co-worker—was reported by the Associated Press, as Pitcavage himself tweeted.)
What would tip you off to the fact that someone might be involved with this crowd?
People in the sovereign citizen movement tend to say certain things. They tend to write certain things—their names and their addresses very distinctively. So that's what you tend to look for to get confirmation. So far with this person, I haven't found that confirmation, so I hesitate to accept the notion that he was one. The first thing he did after getting arrested was ask for a lawyer.
And most sovereign citizens would want to represent themselves, since they're into studying law books and taking seminars in fake legal theory, right?
That's absolutely right, because of a particular conspiracy theory surrounding lawyers that they believe in. Some would get a lawyer, reluctantly, but it's very common for them to not want that.
It's absolutely true that the movement is very arcane, and you can go as deep as you want to into pseudo-legal theory, but not everyone has to. People can leave the thinking to others and just sort of accept the conclusions, so to speak. If you don't have the faculties or inclination to get into the pseudo-legal stuff, you don't have to. Of course a lot of them like to.This suspect also seems to possibly be mentally ill, but then again, believing in such a broad conspiracy theory requires a certain degree of delusional thinking. What kind of personality types are vulnerable?
We see several. The first is financially desperate people. This offers them someone to blame for their plight—illegitimate governments, illegitimate banking systems. And it purports to offer them a way out of their financial plight: the idea that you can eliminate your mortgage or your debt through pseudo-legal tactics, though there are also millionaires who get involved in this movement. And the second personality type is just those who can't cope with modern bureaucracy. They wanna fight City Hall and get angrier and angrier over things like zoning and traffic regulations. It offers them a way to ignore those rules and regulations. Then, through so-called paper-terrorism tactics, it offers them a way to retaliate against the system. So that can be very appealing.
The last personality type are con artists who want something for nothing or a way to get a quick buck. The movement generates tons of scams and cons.
But are these people who sell sovereign citizens binders full of dubious legal advice, for instance, true believers? Or is there someone knowingly profiting off this mass delusion?
At any given moment, there are lots of sovereign citizens running scams, and some of them definitely know they are scams. There are con artists using the cloak of the ideology to help them. But there's this other category of people who also believe in it to varying degrees. They know if they create a bogus financial instrument, banks aren't gonna accept it, but they'll sell it to people telling them it'll help pay off their mortgage. But they think the banks won't do it because the banks are part of the con, right? They think they should do it, but they don't do it. You have pure con artists, but the people who are the best salesmen do buy into it, because they can sound sincere and really can be convincing.
People typically join movements to feel a sense of community but this one seems quite isolating. What do people get out of the subculture?
As a movement, they're not huge into forming groups, though they form some. Most people are in it as individuals, or are part of loose networks. Or they follow particular gurus. And they are the ones who come up with the pseudo-legal tactics and preach and teach them through seminars or YouTube videos. Many people are disciples to one or more of those gurus. But a lot of them have also been put behind bars, so there's a sort-of shortage of top-tier gurus of the 21st century right now. That's making some room for new people to possibly emerge.
Given that their preferred method of action is so-called "paper terrorism," or inundating the legal system with nonsense filings, as a you mentioned, what might push some of them to physical violence?
When you look at the criminal activity of these guys, it tends to fall into three categories. Paper terrorism is one. Then there's scams or frauds. And the third is violence. Although this is a movement that can produce terrorist plots, a lot of the violence is spontaneous. Like an unplanned encounter between a sovereign citizen and a police encounter during a routine traffic stop. The sovereign citizen thinks the officer has no authority over him whatsoever and decides to take their personal stand right then and there—their own private Alamo. Some of them can go from zero to 60 very quickly in terms of their anger.
To loop back to the (still vague) connection between Reinking and the sovereign citizen movement, a Waffle House doesn't seem like an obvious target for anti-government extremism.
Right. Even if this person was involved in the sovereign citizen movement at any time, I don't think this particular incident is related to that at all. A lot of evidence suggests that this person had a serious degree of mental illness, and that may have played more of a role than anything in this attack.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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