Australia’s “sovereign citizen” community has made headline after headline recently following a spate of unhinged incidents.
Now, attention is turning to the bizarre movement – and what drives its members to commit such extreme acts of civil disobedience.
The movement gained national attention in December when the murderous Train family gunned down two young constables and an innocent neighbour during a routine missing person inquiry.
Gareth Train, his brother Nathaniel and wife Stacey were killed in the ensuing shootout with authorities, and it later emerged that they were part of the extremist sovereign citizen movement, a far-right conspiracy theory that views the state – and authorities – as illegitimate.
Since then, there has been a string of arrests across Australia involving sovereign citizens who refuse to co-operate with police after being pulled over for run-of-the-mill traffic stops.
For example, in Coffs Harbour last week, Helen Delaney was dragged from her vehicle after refusing to recognise the authority of Highway Patrol officers.
A similar case occurred in the Gold Coast in early December, when an unlicensed woman was eventually arrested after allegedly “trapping the officers … in the car window and refusing to follow directions”, according to Queensland Police.
The same month, a nearly identical incident happened in South Australia when a police sergeant was left with no choice but to smash the car window of a “sovereign citizen” who maintained he didn’t need a license to drive on state roads.
Deakin University terrorism expert Greg Barton told news.com.au recently that the Covid pandemic had been an “accelerant” for a string of dangerous conspiracies that had already existed, and that it had brought people with similar outlandish viewpoints together like never before.
“Most of the people who were drawn into anti-vax conspiracies were probably not from sovereign citizen groups, but the pandemic caused people who didn’t understand science, who were sceptical of the government, who didn’t like mandates and lockdowns and who were anxious about their employment to be linked with sovereign citizen types,” he said.
“It brought people together and accelerated things.”
Inside sovereign citizens’ twisted chats
While the sovereign citizen movement has existed for many years, it had a resurgence in Australia during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, which were among the toughest on earth.
Initially, anti-lockdown and sovereign citizen groups merged together through Facebook groups formed to organise Covid protests, where a range of conspiracy theories were shared widely.
But in late 2020, Facebook began cracking down on Covid disinformation, and many individuals and groups were barred from the platform, instead fleeing to alternatives like Telegram.
Today, there are countless sovereign citizen accounts and groups on Telegram, providing a frightening insight into members’ beliefs and state of mind.
While essentially sovereign citizens believe individuals aren’t subject to government rules and regulations unless they, as “natural beings”, consent to entering a contract with authorities, it doesn’t stop there.
Australian sovereign citizen chats are filled with a vast stream of disparate theories, with one major group sharing theories as diverse as chemtrails, the “5G apocalypse”, the “transgender agenda”, anti-vax rhetoric and QAnon ideas.
What members do have in common is incoherent and grammatically dubious rants about a broad range of topics, as well as an objection to the term “sovereign citizen” itself and scepticism of government.
“When they get scared they put out hit pieces and try to make people out to be nut jobs,” one Australian sovereign citizen posted on Telegram in response to a recent segment by The Project on the topic.
“No such thing as a Sovereign Citizen … And I answer to to (sic) b*stard on this rock, nor do I stand under … or above anybody! Fark them and their unratified corporation. They can eat my sh*t. They’ve f*cked around and now it’s time to find out!”
Another, who objected to the movement being described as “domestic terrorism”, posted: “In my opinion, the real domestic terrorist are the police and government very dangerous”.
“I CANNOT emphasise enough, how desperate they are to contain a mass awakening. When people realise our entire history, our reality, our medicines, our media, and more, has been managed and policed by a secret society then their (sic) will be no going back!” another shared.
In one popular chat group, a member randomly began posting about the weather supposedly being controlled, writing: “You can literally see them using the towers to control the wind also”.
Another accused the government of carrying out “piracy”.
“Not only are the Australian Government war criminals now they have no flag not even the blue one they are literal pirates committing piracy,” they posted.
Another shared part of the Australian Constitution, claiming it proves we shouldn’t have to pay water rates to council:
“Why the F**K is anyone paying water rates to a council? Because from the age of 5 you were taught to be in formation. You were told to sit down, be quiet and obey authority, or else! Canes, detention blah blah,” the post began.
“You were not taught to question! You were not taught to research your OWN thoughts! You were told to parrot back what you had been told AND if you parroted back exactly what you were told the FD network of filth praised you as an A student!”
And another urged “Anzacs” to make a stand against authorities.
“Come on ANZAC I need you all to join the dots here and mobilise toward those governors. Stand and use YOUR voice Anzac You are powerful Your presence is deafening Stand and instruct those Governors,” they wrote.
The chats are filled with bizarre and often threatening memes, including one, which is shared frequently, which includes a picture of gallows and a noose with the words: “The system can be fixed! All you need is some wood, and a little rope”.
Other memes claim “death by radiation poisoning” is coming, with 5G mimicking the symptoms of Covid, with one user sharing graphic pictures of oozing sores and claiming they were injuries caused by 5G towers.
That same user also shared a lengthy post explaining their efforts to “avoid towers”.
“[I] … have done my best to make a Faraday cage lining my walls and roof with alfoil and tin walls in the direction of the [nearest] tower to to block them as well, need to buy some yshield paint. I’m also digging a bunker to make into an emf proof bunker”.
While at first the movement appears odd yet harmless, Professor Greg Barton told news.com.au that conspiracy theories tended to snowball, and at the extreme end, adherents can come to think of taking and losing life as “some sort of crowning achievement” instead of a failure.
Prof Barton said Australia and the wider world was now past the “tipping point”, with more than half of counter-terrorism measures now focused on battling far-right conspiracy ideologies.