It’s easy to make fun of the Sovereign Citizens. But we do so at our own peril.
Content warning: gun violence, blood, racism
Blood spread across his chest. Staining his khaki uniform red, Sheriff Harold Matthews collapsed beside his patrol car. Amidst the smell of smoke, which spread from the house behind him, his deputies attempted to stem the bleeding. Shot just above the heart and barely able to speak, Matthews groaned “I got him” before losing consciousness. Gordon Kahl lay in the back kitchen, his eyes fixed to the ceiling. A bullet, from Matthews’s final shot, had torn through his forehead. He lay still as the fire spread and gradually consumed the hunting lodge.
It was June 3rd 1983. The gunfight lasted for four hours. Kahl, a self professed patriot, had shot and killed three Marshals following a botched arrest attempt. The police had tried to detain Kahl just outside the town of Medina, North Dakota. They caught him as he left a meeting of Posse Comitatus, an organization composed of other self-professed patriots. Kahl had just been speaking about structural injustices, namely, his view that the federal government had no legitimacy to collect income tax. In fact, Kahl argued that the entire federal government had no legitimacy. In his view, the only legitimate “constitutional power” were county sheriffs. For acting on this belief, he had spent five years in prison for tax evasion.
After shooting his way through a roadblock, Kahl fled 15 hours south to his rural Arkansas hunting lodge where the police eventually caught up with him. He was likely unaware of the irony in his final act; his killer and last victim would hold the very office he claimed to honor. Three bodies lay in the morgue of Medina, North Dakota. Blackened by flame, Matthew’s body and Kahl’s bones would be taken to Smithville, Arkansas, the town nearest to where they fell.1 Wayne King (August 21, 1990). “Books of The Times; A Farmer’s Fatal Obsession With Jews and Taxes, New York Times.
Posse Comitatus was one of the most influential far-right grassroots social movements of the second half of the twentieth century. They aren’t much discussed anymore, but their ideas permeate the extra-parliamentary right and the right flank of the GOP to this day. For this reason, it’s worth being aware of their ideas and legacy, as well as the material conditions which fostered their emergence and growth.
Posse Comitatus emerged in the late 1960s, evolving as a national outgrowth of the “Minutemen” movement of California and Oregon. The movement’s ideology centered around the fear of an imminent Communist takeover of the US government; it encompassed opponents of federal income taxes, federal regulations on land usage, immigration, gun control, and racial integration. William Potter Gale, an avowed white supremacist and Christian Identity preacher, brought these formerly disparate grievances together within an idiosyncratic misreading of the US constitution.2 QAnon Anonymous Podcast: “Premium Episode 106, Sovereign Citizens with Allie Mezei.” 1/3/21https://open.spotify.com/episode/20CwSdSGgquRk55MJI7MhQ?si=oh9_kXfQS4mNUk4jd8vdBQ
The central belief that characterizes the Posse Comitatus is the assertion that county sheriffs are the only constitutionally sanctioned authority in the United States. This principle justifies PC adherents’ rejection of state and federal law. To that end, they employ a range of texts – historic commentaries on English Common Law, the Articles of Confederation, the Bible, and Mormon prophetic literature – all with the aim of challenging the legitimacy of the state.
Generally, Posse Comitatus (hereafter PC) ideologues mix this selective invalidation of law with maximalist readings of the Second Amendment, with the aim of wedding the power of municipal sheriffs to larger organizations of armed, private citizens. Invariably, PC groups argue that sheriffs have the right to apply the law selectively, only enforcing those laws which are supported by the community they work within. Though the PC draws on democratic or populist discourse, these beliefs are meant to justify vigilante violence and repression directed against racial, political, and sexual minorities.
Despite not explicitly advocating lynching, this theory applied a faux legal veneer to an older logic: that of violence aimed at “cleansing” communities of perceived transgressors. Where the state “would not act,” the sheriff, with a wink and nod, could deputize “those that would.”3 Though commonly viewed as a Southern phenomenon, usually linked to Jim Crow laws, lynching and legalized mob violence occurred throughout the middle and mountain west. Established on the basis of the “Posse Comitatus Act” of 1878, which itself drew from an older Common Law precedent, “People’s Courts” legalized the deputization of common citizens by municipal sheriffs to carry out law enforcement during times of emergency. These local “emergencies” regularly justified acts of racialized mass violence. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3442&context=greatplainsquarterly see also https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7539&context=jclc The law of the rope and hood, historically the final recourse of the rural propertied class and petit bourgeoisie, pervaded the Posse Comitatus ideology.
The strangeness and implicit malice of PC discourse did little to dissuade its spread in the late 1970s and 1980s. On the contrary, these beliefs made the PC extremely popular among rural farmers, particularly smallholders and family farms. The appeal of the PC stemmed from the farming crisis of the 1980s, which had transformed the economy of rural America. The culmination of the post-WW2 decline of the farming sector, it forced the majority of small farms into foreclosure. This was the result of increased interest rates, debts accrued from the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the collapse of global produce prices.4King, Ibid.
In spite of their broad support for the Reaganite GOP, farmers were let down by their elected officials. Indeed, the policy design of Reagan’s White House, which explicitly aimed to consolidate farm production into the hands of large holding corporations, put traditional family farms in dire straits. Rather than providing relief for smallholding farmers (such as by buying their crops or providing financial assistance to indebted farmers) Reagan allowed millions of his supporters to lose their land, livelihoods, and homes, decimating the rural economy. Over the span of his eight-year administration, the population of rural America slated as farmers were forced to abandon their way of life. This cultivated a much wider audience granted for the far right among the displaced, economically distressed, and deeply embittered farmers of the Midwest and Southwest.
Posse Comitatus rapidly gained the support of economically distressed farmers. Their publications spread from farmstead to farmstead; their organizers convened mass meetings and drew favorable press, despite their extreme beliefs. When Posse Comitatus organizers weren’t praised, they were simply ignored – written off as cranks ministering to rubes and rednecks. PC adherents and organizers ran for county sheriff seats, generally on an anti-bank, anti-foreclosure electoral platform. These candidates espoused local moratoriums on farm evictions – a popular idea in communities decimated by land loss and financial collapse.5 Katherine Belew, Bring the War Home (2018), “Chapter 6.”
Abandoned by all but a small fringe of leftist and religious groups, farmers instead found answers, as well as organization, in the conspiracies of the far right. The antisemitism of Potter Gale and other PC activists appealed to these farmers because it recognized the injustice of their debt burdens. Jewish folks and distant “elites” proved easy scapegoats for financial problems. The PC utilized the material grievances of down and out farmers to forward the political and financial interests of its proponents. 6QAA, ibid.
The Posse Comitatus failed to deliver American farmers the relief they promised. However, this failure did not doom the movement or its conspiratorial ideology. The militia movement grew from this network of PC groups and sympathizers. Though the explicit antisemitism and racism of the movement was publicly downplayed, the narrative of grievance, constitutional usurpation, and a looming apocalyptic reckoning brought white supremacists and militia groups together. Emerging from material economic injustices, the PC would inscribe desperation and hatred into all their ideas, which thrived among survivalist militiamen.
The militia movement went into decline after the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995, but the organizational descendants of the PC survived long past this reckoning. Beyond bunkers and bugout militia compounds, PC groups continued to offer a range of fraudulent legal services, claiming to offer procedural techniques to avoid a wide range of legal problems. These fraudulent legal services, as well as their customers and sympathizers, continued to propagate versions of PC texts. Over time, these networks evolved from groups of disaffected farmers to a wide range of individuals from all nationalities and creeds, all of whom claimed the rights of “Sovereign Citizenry.”7Belew, ibid. QAA, ibid.
Now relatively well known for their outlandish attempts to avoid paying taxes or traffic tickets, as well as their recurrent use of armed violence, Sovereign Citizens are the latest proponents of this older far-right ideology. No longer just rural white men, Sovereign Citizens draw from a wider range of Black Nationalist and New Age beliefs, refracting PC arguments through a wider network of online forums and social media influencers. No longer confined to ad spots in fringe newspapers or rural bulletin boards, social media platforms grant these PC legatees a much wider reach than they enjoyed during the farming crisis.
Aside from Sovereign Citizens, the legacy of the Posse Comitatus manifests in certain intellectual currents of the Trumpist right. The clearest, and most troubling example of this influence is the Claremont Institute’s work with law enforcement. Following the 2020 election, the Institute implemented an educational program for conservative sheriffs that forwarded the constitutional theory of county sovereignty. Wedding PC theory with West Coast Straussian philosophy, the program teaches its participants how they could defy federal laws they deem unjust and influence the democratic process in their municipalities.8Corasiniti, Nick. New York Times: “2020 Election Deniers Seek Powerful Allies: County Sheriffs.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/25/us/politics/election-sheriffs-voting-trump.html“West Coast Straussian legal theory” denotes a historical and legal framework developed by the historian Harry V. Jaffa. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to describe in full detail, this theory posits that the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence emerges from Christian “Natural Law.” As such, the laws of the United States develop from a narrow “Anglo-Saxon” tradition of Common Law, which inexorably ties the legitimacy of any given law to the “Anglo-Saxon” culture of the white English speaking American majority. See Original Intent & the Framers of the Constitution, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994). This work is referenced in, Know Your Enemy Podcast: “I Taught the Sheriff (w/Jon Ganz.)” 9/22/22
PC theory provided a rational and set of tactics that election deniers could pursue after their election challenges failed in the courts. Though laughable on the surface, this effort legitimizes and endorses PC legal crankery with the veneer of the constitutional theory of “Natural Law.” In rural jurisdictions, the de facto power of sheriff’s offices would allow PC-inspired law enforcement officials to ignore election results, terrorize undocumented immigrants, deny protection and services to minorities, and tacitly endorse vigilante violence.9QAA, ibid
The continued relevance of the Posse Comitatus should trouble Americans. Posse Comitatus offers both an organizational strategy and a wider set of ideological justifications for authoritarian rule and vigilante violence. Having now evolved far past the charred bones of Gordon Kahl, PC ideals have gained a wide appeal among both civilians and municipal law enforcement, particularly in the mountains and midwest. Armed, familiar with their localities, and potentially supported at the state or federal level by right-wing politicians, PC-influenced sheriff offices can abuse their power to advance a broader political program. The fact that law enforcement often serves as the only adequately funded state institution in large parts of the country makes this form of political entryism especially worrying. Echoing through the hollowness of popular democratic institutions, the paranoia of Posse Comitatus advocates appeals to law enforcement officials as well as isolated, downwardly mobile elements of rural America. Though Kahl may be long dead, those who look to emulate his deeds, both in uniform and outside of it, remain an emergent, disruptive force in US politics. ~
Isaac Suárez-Nugent is a freelance writer and researcher from Atlanta, Georgia. A 2016 graduate of Reed College and 2021 graduate of Portland State University, he works in addiction treatment and writes about a range of political topics, with published pieces on conflicts in the post-colonial world and the American far right. His particular areas of interest lay at the intersections of social history, imperialism, and contemporary politics.