Maybe you first heard the term ‘sovereign citizen’ in a shaky iPhone video of some guy arguing with a cop. You could have read it in a strange Facebook post shared by your aunt. Christ, perhaps you heard it from Sunrise host David Koch, who this week asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the conspiracy theorists flouting lockdown rules.
In any case, Australia has been forced to reckon with the sovereign citizen movement and its adherents, who have garnered national attention during the coronavirus crisis.
Here’s what you need to know about the whole deal.
In extremely simple terms, sovereign citizens believe rules enforced by the government don’t apply to them. The ‘sovereign’ in ‘sovereign citizen’ is to be taken literally, and adherents claim they are unbound by the laws of Australia as they impinge on their personal rights.
The reasoning behind this worldview is complex, arcane, and frequently baffling. A lot of it involves creative interpretations of the Magna Carta, a legal document written by King John of England back in 1215, which promised certain rights to “free men”.
Sovereign citizen types often have a dim view of the Australian constitution. They sometimes riff on the Magna Carta instead, believing that certain legal loopholes, ‘contracts’, and cutesy turns of phrase will get them out of trouble, and that the Australian Government secretly knows this to be the case.
This is Mike Holt at a ‘Common Law Court’ meeting a few days ago. I think this is illustrative of the fact that it’s not so much that Sov Cits think laws shouldn’t exist, it’s just they feel they should make the laws. Judge, jury, executioner. pic.twitter.com/kw5L5jGTjY
— cam smith (@sexenheimer) August 5, 2020
This kind of argument sometimes manifests in old mates who argue over unpaid fines, but things get a bit more intense when the government comes to them – like in the middle of a pandemic, when the police enforce curfews, the use of face masks, and interstate travel bans.
There have been several extremely high profile incidences of Australians disregarding those laws in recent days, sovereign citizen or otherwise. Take conspiracy theorist Eve Black, whose car windscreen was smashed by Victoria Police after refusing to hand over her details at a Carlton COVID-19 checkpoint. Similarly, consider the footage of a Melbourne woman, whose haranguing of Bunnings staff who asked her to wear a mask captured public attention.
Some people are really, really not happy about the current guidelines, and seem content to put their ‘rights’ over public health orders.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Victorian Police Commissioner Shane Patton said officers have documented a small but “concerning” rise in the number of folks who refused to comply with new police directives. Echoing the arrest of Black, Commissioner Patton said officers “had to smash the windows of cars and pull people out to provide details” at least four times in recent days after “baiting” police at checkpoints.
Commissioner Patton further alleged that a female officer’s head was bashed into concrete by a woman who refused to wear a mask.
“Sovereign citizen, conspiracy theorist, they just have to obey the law, otherwise we will hold them to account,” he said.
“We’ve seen people who loosely describe themselves as sovereign citizens, some people who say the law doesn’t apply to them … We had to smash windows to get people out of cars because they didn’t want to comply.” – Shane Patton, @VictoriaPolice Chief Commissioner. #abc730 pic.twitter.com/5zvQ9y3nmq
— abc730 (@abc730) August 4, 2020
It seems very likely that we’re seeing more sovereign citizen spats with police simply because there’s currently more reason for police to be meddling in the everyday business of Australians. Like the vast majority of us, the lives of sov cits have been upended by Aunty Rona; mix that fear and uncertainty with a deep-seated distrust for the government and the increasing presence of the cops in many of our lives, and weird shit can happen.
This is to say nothing of the brain-melting power of Facebook, which serves both as a conduit for this type of theory to spread, and a platform for its true believers to share their own run-ins with the police. Counter-intuitively, the folks who share those posts just to dunk on sovereign citizens can spread those beliefs further, attracting punters who may have already fostered some unique views on the law.
Back in 2016, after One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts was outed for using some suspiciously sov cit-ish language, The Guardian’s Jason Wilson pointed out that “their current surge, from 2008, has also coincided with financial upheaval.” Through this lens, it makes sense that some desperate Australians, hit hard by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, would cling to anything that makes sense of the world, even if that ‘something’ is the belief that mask mandates are nothing more than an attempt to exert government control.
The sovereign citizen movement remains a vanishingly small percentage of the broader Australian population, and the same social media platforms which serve to highlight occurrences of loony behaviour can obscure the fact that most of us really are taking this quite seriously.
But, as long as people are anxious, thrown out of work, and buying into hysteria peddled by certain mainstream media outlets, some Australians will search for answers in dusty legal documents and the charismatic shit-talking of strangers on Facebook.
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