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Why some far-right extremists think red ink can force the government to give them millions

The facade of the US Treasury Department, August 5, 2011.
The facade of the US Treasury Department, August 5, 2011.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

For decades, in courthouses and government offices all across the US, people have been filing bizarrely worded pseudo-legal documents filled with strange symbols, secret coded language, and even bloody fingerprints in an effort to unlock secret bank accounts set up for them by the evil impostor government that runs this country.

These people call themselves "sovereign citizens," and the complex symbolism they use in these documents offers a fascinating insight into the beliefs and practices of a fringe movement whose prominence in America has grown over the past few decades and whose ideology overlaps with that of many other, often more dangerous, far-right extremist movements in the US, including groups like the militia that recently took over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.

The bizarre conspiracy theory at the center of this all

The sovereign citizens movement is a far-right anti-government extremist movement in the US that believes the government — at all levels, local, state, and federal — is illegitimate and has enslaved the American people.

Their belief system is complex and rooted in a series of bizarre conspiracy theories that hold that the original US government set up by the Founding Fathers has been replaced with an evil secret government that has sold all US citizens into slavery by using them as collateral against foreign debt.

As explained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they believe the government creates a secret alternate identity for each American at birth and sets up a secret US Treasury account — sort of like a corporate "trust" — under that alternate identity. The US government funds these "corporate shell" accounts to the tune of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Because the US no longer uses the gold standard, it instead uses these accounts as collateral to back up its currency. The money is said to represent each citizen's future earning potential. The sovereign citizens thus believe the government has "pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans," according to the SPLC.

Part of their proof is that birth certificates and other government documents, said to represent this scheme, put names in all capital letters. So whereas Jennifer Williams is the real person, JENNIFER WILLIAMS is the secret Treasury account.

By declaring themselves "sovereign citizens," members of these groups say they are freeing themselves from government enslavement and separating themselves from their secret, government-created alternate identity.

According to the FBI, which considers this a domestic terrorist movement, "By declaring themselves 'sovereign citizens,' they [believe that they] are emancipated from the responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen, including paying taxes, possessing a state driver’s license, or obeying the law."

Things like driver's licenses, permits, and even zip codes are seen as "contracts" with the illegitimate US government that cede one's sovereignty. By rejecting these things, you're "tearing up" the contract and freeing yourself.

These beliefs may be nutty, but the groups are quite serious. A 2014 survey asked US law enforcement officials to rank terrorist threats to the United States. They ranked sovereign citizens as the highest threat — with Islamic extremists coming in second.

How sovereign citizens think court documents will unlock their secret accounts

Sovereign citizens believe they can tap into their secret US Treasury account (and get access to all that secret hidden money) by "filing particular government forms in a particular order, and by using precisely the right language," according to the SPLC.

This is what is known among sovereign citizens as "redemption theory": Basically, all you have to do is break the secret code, and the government — in particular, court judges, who are all in on the conspiracy — will be forced to unlock your account and give you access to all that money that is rightfully yours.

This is part of why sovereign citizens file endless court documents with strange wording, odd capitalization, fingerprints made in red ink or even blood, and other coded symbols. Take this document, for example, written by a sovereign citizen, in which he declares himself to be a superior court judge:

JJ MacNab, who tweeted the document, is an expert in far-right extremist groups who has studied and written extensively about the sovereign citizens movement. In a series of tweets, MacNab "decoded" the document, explaining the meanings behind many of the strange elements included in it.

Here are a few of those tweets, which are really fascinating (note: "sovcits" is sovereign citizens):

As mentioned above, sovereign citizens believe each person has two identities: a real identity, which they refer to as their "sovereign" or "flesh and blood" identity, and a secret government-created alternate identity, which they refer to as their "corporate" identity.

They use red ink (or sometimes even blood) instead of blue or black ink to signify to the evil shadow government and their puppet judges that it is the true flesh-and-blood person who is signing a particular document and not the corporate shell.

This is a signal to the judge both that the individual knows the secret code that will unlock his sovereignty (and Treasury account) and that the signature on the document is not to be interpreted as the individual signing over his sovereign rights in a contract with the shadow government.

This use of postage stamps and blood on legal documents, MacNab explains, is related to a broader "ritual" that is used to get one's sovereignty recognized by, of all things, the US Postal Service.

The strange way they write their names on documents — with odd punctuation and lowercase letters — is also part of the secret code.

According to a 2010 report by the Anti-Defamation League, it's "very common" for sovereign citizens "to use punctuation in their name — such as commas, colons, and semi-colons — to separate their first and middle names (their 'Christian appellation') from their last name, which many think is their 'government-given' name."

For example, "Michigan militia leader Mark Koernke, when he also became a sovereign citizen, began writing his name as 'Mark Gregory,, Koernke.'"

These are just a few of the odd, secret coded messages that are often included in these documents, but they give you a sense of the incredible intricacy of these rituals and how very seriously these people take their beliefs.

Okay, so they're weird. But are they actually dangerous?

As I mentioned, the FBI considers the sovereign citizens movement to be a domestic terrorist movement, and there have been a number of violent incidents involving sovereign citizens.

Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing was a sovereign citizen; Andrew Joseph Stack, who flew his small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, in February 2010, was also affiliated with the movement.

Sometimes violent incidents erupt from routine encounters between sovereign citizens and law enforcement. For example, on May 20, 2010, a routine traffic stop in West Memphis, Arkansas, ended in the deaths of two police officers at the hands of Jerry Kane and his 16-year-old son Joseph, both of whom were "deeply immersed" in the sovereign citizens movement. Both Kanes were also killed in the shootout.

Sovereign citizens also frequently find themselves in court for criminal activity. SPLC reports that sovereign citizens "are notorious for engaging in a variety of schemes involving money, false identification documents and the courts — scams that land them in criminal trouble with remarkable regularity."

But for a lot of sovereign citizens, their "activism" mostly comes in the form of harassing county clerks and judges by filing endless pseudo-legal documents in an attempt to "crack the code" and unlock their sovereignty and their secret US Treasury accounts.

Given that these secret accounts are completely fictitious and do not actually exist outside the minds of these people, they strangely never seem to be able to crack the code. So they just keep filing more documents.