By Brandon Ellington Patterson
On July 17, in the second (at least) targeted attack on police in just over a week, 29-year-old Gavin Long shot six cops, three fatally, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The former Marine had posted YouTube selfie videos in which he commented on the need to respond to “oppression” with “bloodshed,” and praised the recent shooting of 11 officers in Dallas as “justice.” Long also appears to have been part of the so-called “sovereign citizen” movement. Last May, he filed official documents in Jackson County, Missouri, declaring a name change and identifying himself as a member of the Empire Washita de Dugdahmoundyah—a black group that espouses some of the movement’s ideas. According to the Daily Beast, Long was also carrying an ID card from the Empire at the time of the shooting. Here’s what you need to know about sovereign citizenship, and the branch Long subscribed to.
Sovereign citizen ideology is modeled on Posse Comitatus. A government-hating, right-wing Christian group, Posse Comitatus was founded around 1970 in Oregon. Its members claimed that white Americans, not Jews—whom members accused of manipulating government and financial institutions—were the true descendants of the Biblical tribe of Israel. Posse members rejected the authority of government officials, judges, and police officers. They claimed that because blacks were granted citizenship under the 14th Amendment (an act of government) they were bound by the government’s laws and were slaves to the state. But white citizenship predates the Constitution, the Posse claimed, so whites were bound only by “common” law, which made them “sovereign” and free—and not, for example, compelled to pay taxes.
Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks anti-government groups, says Posse members traveled around during the 1970s and 1980s teaching financially stressed whites—chiefly farmers who were losing their land during the agricultural crisis of those decades, or people facing foreclosure and debt—that the group’s ideology could help them out of their money binds. The Posse’s solution? Declare sovereignty and separate one’s legal “shell”—the named entity tied to social security numbers, birth certificates, and other forms of government identification—from one’s actual personhood. A person who did this, the Posse said, would no longer need to abide by rules of the state. Sovereign citizens played a major role in the formation, during the 1990s, of so-called “patriot” militia groups. (There was a resurgence of such groups after President Barack Obama was elected.)