NEWS

Police Worry About Sovereign Citizen Movement, SPLC Reports

By Matthew Harwood

A civil rights group says law enforcement from across the country have contacted it to report “a dramatic increase” in the level of sovereign citizen activity.

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released its controversial annual report on hate and extremism inside the United States, “The Year in Hate & Extremism, 2010.”

The report claims that over 1,000 hate groups are now active in the United States, the most the SPLC has counted since it began keeping track in the 1980s. On top of hate groups, which the SPLC describes as groups with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” the organization counts 824 anti-government “Patriot” groups and 319 nativist extremist groups.

According to the SPLC, “taken together, these three strands of the radical right — the hatemongers, the nativists and the antigovernment zealots — increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22% rise. That followed a 2008-2009 increase of 40%.”

The SPLC says that the election of President Barack Obama combined with changing racial demographics and a faltering economy have produced this upswing in what it considers groups that espouse reactionary and conspiratorial theories aimed at minorities and the government.

Within the report, the SPLC notes that police nationwide have contacted it to report increased activity among sovereign citizens.

“Since the murder last May 20 of two West Memphis, Ark., police officers by two members of the so-called “sovereign citizens” movement, police from around the country have contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to report what one detective in Kentucky described as a ‘dramatic increase’ in sovereign activity,” the organization said. “Sovereign citizens, who, like militias, are part of the larger Patriot movement, believe that the federal government has no right to tax or regulate them and, as a result, often come into conflict with police and tax authorities.”

The SPLC also notes a Treasury Department report from this year that worries about increasing attacks and threats levied against IRS employees and facilities.

The SPLC believes that some elements of the radical right will continue to lash out violently to express their messages, pointing to incidents from early 2011. “In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted afterpolice dismantled a sophisticated anti-personnel weapon; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich., andcharged with possessing explosives with unlawful intent,” the report said.

The report’s release has provoked backlash from conservative and right-wing groups who criticize the SPLC for having a flexible definition of what constitutes a “hate group” and opportunistically using incendiary language for fundraising purposes.

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