Last year, when the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism surveyed hundreds of law enforcement officials about what they believed to be the greatest terrorist threat in the U.S., the answer was not neo-Nazis or Islamic extremists.
It was “sovereign citizens,” a strange subculture united by little more than anti- ;government ideology and a sense of desperation. Adherents are said to include Terry Nichols, who helped plan the Oklahoma City bombings, and Jerad and Amanda Miller, who killed two police officers and a civilian who attempted to intervene in Las Vegas last year.
According to authorities, the philosophy also found a fan in 23-year-old Allen “Lance” Scarsella, the man charged with shooting five people at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis last week.
Scarsella and three other men, who prosecutors say were also armed, allegedly showed up at the demonstration last week intending to set off a confrontation with people protesting the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark on Nov. 15.
Scarsella allegedly fired eight shots, wounding five people. He and the three others are facing second- ;degree riot charges.
Though the shooting is not being investigated as a hate crime, Prosecutor Mike Freeman had no doubt the crime was racially motivated.
“The defendants’ own statements, their videos, show that these are sick people,” he said in a statement.
According to the criminal complaint, Scarsella, who is white, spoke derogatorily about blacks and stored racist images on his cellphone. He allegedly filmed himself and another man (identified as J.T. in the complaint) headed to an earlier Black Lives Matter protest dressed in camouflage clothing and pledging to “make the fire rise” – an apparent reference to an anarchic character in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”
A Minnesota police officer who knows Scarsella described him as having “very intense” pro-Constitution and sovereign citizen views.
The “sovereign citizen” subculture is less a coherent movement than a loose philosophy, according to a report from the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analysis Section.
People attracted to its ideas typically attend a seminar or view an online video, then make their own decisions about what to do with their newfound knowledge.
The basic tenets of the sovereign citizen ideology are complicated and wildly conspiratorial. They say they aren’t American citizens but instead “non-resident aliens” not subject to taxes, government regulations or any local, state and federal laws.
They deny the legitimacy of the Fourteenth Amendment, which in the wake of the Civil War guaranteed citizenship and civil rights to everyone born in the U.S. – an argument sovereign citizens have used to justify discrimination against blacks.
They also believe common law in the American legal system has been secretly subverted by a new system under which citizens are slaves.
Their reasoning: When the dollar was taken off the gold standard in 1933, instead backed by the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government,” that meant the government was putting citizens up as collateral.
Birth certificates and Social Security cards aren’t guarantees of identity but evidence that a corporate trust has been set up in that person’s name, letting the government restrict their rights and effectively enslave them.
For that reason, many sovereign citizens carry false driver’s licenses, prefer personal seals or fingerprints to signatures and alter their names with colons and other odd punctuation marks – distinguishing their true identities from the “straw man” accounts set up by the government.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, writes that the sovereign citizens movement is “rooted in racism and anti- ;Semitism.”
Many sovereign citizens also believe that Jews have manipulated government and financial institutions to seize wealth and power.
Not all sovereign citizens subscribe to racist and anti- ;Semitic ideology – indeed, in the early 2000s, a group of blacks accused of drug dealing and other crimes in Baltimore federal court used sovereign citizen ideas to defend themselves against prosecution.
And though people citing sovereign citizen beliefs have been implicated in a whole swath of violent crimes – cop killings, arranging a hit on a federal judge, a plot to abduct, torture and kill police, an attempted armed assault on a Georgia courthouse – they’re much better known for what the Southern Poverty Law Center termed “paper terrorism.”
In dozens, even hundreds of cases across the country, sovereign citizens have filed frivolous lawsuits and legal claims on property called liens to intimidate or harass law enforcement officers.
It’s not clear how much, if it all, sovereign citizen ideology motivated Scarsella, the alleged Minneapolis shooter.
The criminal complaint against him alleges he and the other three men left a digital trail of racist posts and plans for the shooting, including cellphone photos of them holding guns in front of a Confederate flag and racist images.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the four men charged Monday got to know one another at school and through “/k/,” a weapons- ;related message board “with racist overtones” on the website 4chan.
On the Facebook page that appears to belong to him, Scarsella doesn’t mention the sovereign citizen movement or its tenets. Scarsella’s “liked” pages include “Epic Vines” and the movie “Braveheart,” but also a pro-Second Amendment group whose profile picture is the numeral III surrounded by stars – a symbol of the anti-government “three percenter” movement. His cover photo is an image of the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” the unofficial Confederate banner at the start of the Civil War.
“This isn’t the somalian flag, btw” he commented on the image.