Illinois State University Professor of Politics and Government Lane Crothers is the author of Rage on the Right: The American Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Homeland Security. He says militia groups like the one occupying buildings on federal land in Oregon, have a unique interpretation of citizenship under the U.S. Constitution that motivates their actions.

The group in Oregon is a branch of the militia movement known as the Constitutionalists. The Constitutionalists, among other things, have concocted a theory of liberty and the Constitution that creates two classes of citizens: people who could have been citizens of the United States when the Constitution was written, referred to as Sovereign Citizens, and everyone else.

image of Lane Crothers

Lane Crothers

People who could have been citizens of the United States at the time of the writing of the Constitution include white, male, property holders. Such people, according to the Constitutionalists, have special rights under the Constitution. The theory is that such people are Sovereign Citizens, the people who made the social contract that the Constitution represents. Those citizens by definition cannot agree to any transgressions of their rights on the part of the State they created to protect their rights. This, in turn, empowers them to nullify or otherwise refuse to follow federal and state laws that they find inimical to their rights. They are the sovereigns since they made the contract. The state is their servant.

This is the source of such group’s claims that the federal government has no authority over them; that only duly representative legal agencies in force before the Constitution was written can have legal authority over Sovereign Citizens. And since the federal government cannot have, by definition, existed before the Constitution was written, its agents (law enforcement or the Internal Revenue Service) cannot have power over the Sovereign Citizen.

According to this belief, everyone else–women, minorities, immigrants – are 14th Amendment citizens. They were guaranteed their rights by the 14th Amendment. This allegedly means that they are not Sovereign Citizens since they were made citizens by the Constitution, rather than making the Constitution as such. Hence women and minorities have no rights beyond those granted–or taken away–by federal action (court orders, laws).

In the standoff with the militia group in Oregon, the worst thing the government could do is rush in with guns and try aggressive law enforcement. This just feeds the militia narrative of an abusive state. Besides, the underlying crime(s), whether trespassing or illegal ranching, are not death penalty offenses. There is no reason to storm in and fire away to remove trespassers, even armed ones, likely causing the deaths of both the militia and many law enforcement officers. In any case, this group will eventually give up, and can always be arrested when there’s no group of armed reactionaries defending them. Or, if they stay, they effectively imprison themselves. We do not need another Ruby Ridge or Waco, two colossal government blunders that did not in any way justify the militia movement, but undoubtedly empowered it.

Crothers is currently on a Fulbright working in Finland. You can read more on his blog.