ACROSS THE COUNTRY, FAR-RIGHT ACTIVISTS ARE BUILDING AN ALTERNATIVE JUDICIAL SYSTEM. WITH MILITIAS AS THEIR ENFORCEMENT ARM, THESE COMMON LAW COURTS ARE A INCUBATOR FOR TROUBLE.
by Devin Burghart and Robert Crawford
With the stand-off between law enforcement officials and self-proclaimed
Freemen near Jordan, Montana, the volatile white supremacist movement once
again has captured the media spotlight. After the March 25 arrest of
Freemen leaders LeRoy Schweitzer and Daniel Petersen on fraud and
conspiracy charges, some 20 followers dug in for a siege at the ranch they
renamed Justus Township. Armed for combat with a stockpile of weapons and
equipped with a fanatic commitment to battling federal and state
jurisdiction, the group holed-up near the small Montana town.
While the media provided breathless blow-by-blow coverage of the stand-off,
it largely has omitted any serious analysis of the social movement to which
the Freemen belong. The Freemen's leadership role in applying one of the
movement's recent tools for struggle the so-called common law court remains
Also known as citizen grand juries, common law courts are self-elected vigilante organizations that claim for themselves the authority of law. The Freemen, along with their fellow travelers in the Christian Patriot movement (see p. 29), use these courts to declare themselves outside the jurisdiction of federal and state laws, issue harassing liens against the property of political opponents, and proclaim
their right to arrest, judge,
and even kill their opponents.
Court activists patch the courts together from models provided by experts and by improvising. The United Sovereigns of America, a leading national advocate of such courts with links to efforts in at least 13 states, provides one model. In it, a committee formed at a court training session votes to establish Our One Supreme Court of Common Law and selects officers, typically court clerks, court justices (jurors), and a jury foreman.
Once impaneled, the court begins to hear cases. Because it is often a prerequisite for standing before the court, the most frequent early action
is the quiet title a declaration of independence from federal government
jurisdiction. Once petitioners have become sovereign, they may then use the
court as a vehicle to launch paper attacks on private citizens and public
officials. When these sovereign citizens bring a charge, the court claims
power of investigation and calls accused parties to appear. If they refuse,
the court generally finds them guilty in absentia and issues punishment
liens and threats of arrest, jailing, or death to be enforced by the militia
Oklahoma City federal building last year, common law courts have become a defining feature
of Christian Patriot strategy. To date, far-right advocates have set up
common law courts in over 30 states. Their threats and harassing tactics are
now an ominous part of the political landscape.
In California and Florida, common law court activists face felony charges for veiled death threats to judges and jurors. In the last year, common law courts have issued arrest warrants for judges and prosecutors in Montana and Idaho. They have threatened sheriffs with violent reprisals if they fail to
do their duty as interpreted by the militants.
The Freemen, led by Schweitzer, Petersen, and Rodney Skurdal, have played an important role in the development of this strategy, with an enormous impact on common law courts nationwide. According to the Justice Department, 800 people from 30 different states have attended Freemen training seminars conducted while the Freemen faced state and federal felony charges. In the seminars, far rightists received nuts-and-bolts training in how to set up common law courts. In the year that the Freemen remained fugitives, they became an inspiration to common law court groups nationwide. We recognize and
appreciate the sacrifices and successes of those who have gone before,
especially the work of those in Montana and Oklahoma, said one Oregon common
The courts share close ties with another spinoff of far-right traditions, the militias. Like many militias, these courts are, at their core, a tool for furthering the supremacist struggle to construct a white Christian republic on US soil. They weave conspiracy theories that scapegoat Jews and promote racist notions of citizenship. Their rhetorical and physical attacks on public officials and governmental agencies rather than being a product of
anti-government sentiment is rooted in a vision of replacing
Like many militias, the common law courts seek to establish a white Christian republic on US soil. Their threats and harassing tactics are now an ominous part of the political landscape.
existing governing institutions with their own.
MORE THAN MILITIAS|
That common law courts and militias are closely linked is no surprise; the two emerged from the same far-right terrain. In fact, movement leaders view the militias as the enforcement arm of the common law court. Oregon Christian Patriot figure Johnny Liberty (John Van Hove), told a regional movement gathering last fall, ... if the people who are using the laws and restoring the Constitutional courts do so in conjunction with the militia ... the militia will stand behind and defend the writs of those courts. ... That's a strategy that will work. In 1994, the Montana Freemen issued a full alert to all our militia to enforce the edicts of their court. Until a recent factional fight, the Freemen also had a close relationship with the white
supremacist Militia of Montana. Meanwhile, Florida common law
courts tried to enforce their edicts with threats from the Common Law
A document sold by the United Sovereigns, Militia Operation Plan American Viper, details the role of militias in a prolonged guerrilla war against the US government. Militias should engage in active high-level guerrilla operations to eliminate defended targets, larger troop concentrations and key leaders. Targets are to be eliminated by sniper tactics, explosives, ambushes, or chemical and biological agents.
The plan foresees the need to
establish temporary martial law under the Militia until it can reestablish
original Constitutional government.
The close relationship between militias and common law courts results from their common origins. Both are part of a system of parallel institutions constituting an embryonic alternative government for organized racists and anti-Semites. Like the militias, the courts' historical roots go back to the Posse Comitatus, a racist, anti-Semitic paramilitary organization that targeted farmers in the 1980s.
BLUE BOOK THE SEQUEL|
Posse doctrines permeate contemporary common law court thinking. And it is the Posse's lineal descendants Christian Patriots who took the lead in forming militias and common law courts. From the Posse's heyday in the mid-1980s to the recent growth of the common law courts, the far right has utilized quasi-judicial and paramilitary bodies. It has done so largely using tactics provided by the Blue Book, written by Posse Comitatus leader Mike Beach.
At the core of Posse thought was the notion that the county is the highest legitimate form of government and the
County Sheriff is the only legal law
enforcement officer in these United States of America. If the sheriff
failed to enforce the laws as understood by the Posse, it was the Posse's
duty to step in and enforce them.
The Blue Book spells out the role and process of the common law grand jury and gives blueprints for the warrants of arrest issued to public officials and political enemies. It also advises that any official who attempts to enforce unconstitutional laws is subject to arrest by the Posse and trial by a Citizens jury. This jury should be impaneled by the Sheriff from citizens of the local
jurisdiction, because the present method of impaneling juries
by the Courts is unlawful and should be repudiated.
Beach minces no words in describing the punishment awaiting officials of government who enforce what Christian Patriots have decided is unlawful legislation :
He shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.
THE POSSE REBORN|
Militias and common law courts clearly bear the Posse's mark. As heirs to the Posse's legacy of violence, common law court activists have wholeheartedly embraced intimidation as a political tactic. They also use the Posse's key texts and incendiary language.
The United Sovereigns, a leading common law court group, sells the Posse's Blue Book and use it as a training manual. The Montana Freemen's full alert in 1994 called on all our militia, our posse in and for Garfield county/comitatus to give aid to our special Constables in enforcing their edicts. A township in Littlefield, Arizona,claims to
have its own Legislature, Executive, Judiciary, Grand
Juries, Juries (and) Posse. Idaho common law court notices of arrest, issued
to public officials and others, declared that Pursuant to the law of the
POSSE COMITATUS, should you fail in the discharge of your sworn duty (i.e.,
to arrest those charged by the court), WE the PEOPLE shall bring you to
JUSTICE under the Law of the POSSE COMITATUS.
Common law courts also receive guidance from prominent Posse figures. In Smithville, Arkansas, Leonard Ginter reportedly leads a common law court. Ginter was a prominent Wisconsin Posse leader in the early 1980s and is
best known for hiding notorious Posse member Gordon Kahl while he was a
federal fugitive. Another Posse holdover, Gene Schroder, a leader in the Colorado-based American Agricultural Movement, attended 1982 paramilitary
training sessions led by Posse leader William Potter Gale. Now Schroder is
close to the United Sovereigns and has been involved in several prominent
common law court meetings.
DANCING WITH THE MAINSTREAM
quest to gain political traction, far-right leaders have adapted their programs to the political issues of the
day. Where the Posse sought to exploit the plight of farmers, modern-day
militia and common law court activists seek to capitalize on the political
space created by GOP- led attacks on federal environmental and property
regulation, affirmative action, and gun control. |
Such rumblings from the Patriot movement, coupled with the emergence of other right-wing attempts at local control, have helped pull the ruling parties rightward, including support for states' rights a position historically intertwined with white supremacy and attacks on fundamental civil liberties.
At the same time, the
opportunity provided by GOP, and to a lesser extent Democratic scapegoating of the poor and people of color has helped militia supporters capture state
and federal offices around the country.
It has also carried sympathizers into presidential campaign politics. Until forced to step down after his far-right connections were revealed, Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt was one of four co-chairs for Pat Buchanan's presidential bid. Pratt has declared that he works with the Militia of Montana,
voiced at least nominal support for common law
Mainstream scapegoating of the poor and people of color helps carry
militia supporters into state and federal offices around the country.
attended a string of meetings run by hard-core white
attended a string of meetings run by hard-core white supremacists.
A THEOLOGY OF GENOCIDE|
Whatever issues common law court activists play up, their strategy remains deeply rooted in the white supremacist movement. The Montana Freemen provide a prime example. Speaking in late 1995 at a training meeting at Justus Township, LeRoy Schweitzer spelled out just who could occupy the seats of government:
"This is in the family. Israel. The lost sheep. The select, the elect, the peculiar treasure, the royal priesthood, the Aryans, the battle ax. There's some 50 names for God's people in the Bible. This is it. The King's Bench."
Similarly, in a rambling 20-page document written in November 1994, for the
Freemen's common law court, Rodney Skurdal spells out his belief in
Christian Identity and, echoing Posse founder Gale, concludes: God is not a
God unto the other races, but only that of Israel, the white race ; Jews
were fathered by Satan ; and people of color are the beasts of the field of
Genesis. Skurdal then appropriates Leviticus 20:15-16 to argue for the
execution of interracial couples:
If a woman approaches any beast [i.e., person of color] and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death.
He concludes with a genocidal fantasy frequently found
in Christian Identity, nor are we to make any covenants with the
other races when we move into a new land, we are to kill all of
the inhabitants of the other races.
The Freemen are not alone in their bigotry. A training tape sold by United Sovereigns purports to expose those who are called Jews and have no genetic or racial ties to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and are of the synagogue of Satan. United Sovereigns also sells a tract by a North Carolina Christian Identity leader which reads in part, from the very earliest records of Scripture, we again have Talmudic Jews
ruling over us from behind
the scenes. They also peddle the notorious anti-Semitic tract and long-unmasked forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
SECOND CLASS CITIZENS
the 14th Amendment which extended basic citizenship rights to all created a
second class of citizen, Blacks and Aliens.
The bogus distinction between the rights of (white) state citizens and 14th Amendment citizens occurs time and again in the documents filed by common law court activists. Many describe the legal basis for the courts as our organic law," a reference to the Christian Patriot notion that the US should be reconstructed under the organic Constitution
the original Constitution
and Bill of Rights minus,
among others, the 13th and 14th Amendments.
ONE HAND WASHES THE OTHER|
Far from being anti-government, militia and common law court activists are decidedly pro-government, if and only if such a government resembles that of the pre-Civil War South. As such, the Christian Patriots' relationship with the state and status quo is contradictory. Their attacks on immigrant rights, affirmative action, taxation, welfare, and property regulation resonate among broad segments of US society. And their claim that the government has abandoned (white) middle America in favor of an alien element (non-whites) is only the
frank expression of white privilege usually voiced
in coded form.
Noting the pervasiveness of such sentiments, the mainstream political parties seek to co-opt them. By simultaneously adopting core arguments of the racist right, such as the canard that African American teenage mothers are responsible for the welfare mess, while attacking overt racism, politicians render respectable a rhetoric
more suited to a Klan rally than a
At the same time, Christian Patriots are radically opposed to democratic institutions of any stripe. The present system, though decidedly skewed in favor of the wealthy and the white, grants political rights to women and people of color and allows for political pluralism.
For Patriots seeking an exclusively white Christian republic, both parties veritable
pluralism compared to the Patriots stand in the way.|
The struggle for economic and racial justice in the United States demands a broad and unified opposition to this latest tool of the far right.
Progressives must both oppose organized racists as a distinct movement and struggle to erase the more subtle racism that permeates our institutions.
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