Sovereign Citizens, Violence, and Native Title

Pascale Taplin and Claire Holland

Pascale Taplin is an anthropologist with over twenty years’ experience in community-led development projects and native title research in the Northern Territory and North Queensland. Pascale’s current research interests include disinformation and Australian conspiracist communities.

Claire is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Conflict Management and Resolution Program at James Cook University.  She is a practicing mediator, conflict coach, workplace facilitator, and conflict management trainer. Her research interests include mediation and conflict resolution processes, interfaith dialogue, coaching and capacity building.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Recent media around the tragic shooting of two police officers and a civilian in Wieambilla South-West Queensland suggests that the perpetrators subscribed to anti-State Conspiracy theories (sometimes called “Sovereign Citizen” beliefs). Scholarship on the Sovereign Citizen narrative in America clearly demonstrates that these narratives cause social harm and can lead to violence. For example, Sarteschi (2021) in a narrative review with implications of violence towards law enforcement plots 74 instances of violence, many fatal, perpetrated by Sovereign Citizens against American law enforcement officers between 1983 and 2020.

In relation to the tragic events in Wieambilla, Joanne Grey, a scholar with the University of Sydney, is reported as saying that research suggests that people who have a distrust of institutions and are looking for someone to blame, may be more vulnerable to conspiracy theories (Baker, 2023). Elements of conspiracy theories are often adopted into the narratives of individuals who feel persecuted or harmed by governments or legal systems, as they may provide ‘victimhood narratives’ to explain perceived persecution or harm. This blog will highlight a current example of conspiracy narratives in the native title sector. With increasing numbers of people being drawn into anti-State and Sovereign Citizen conspiracy beliefs, it is critical that there is increased investment into understanding the societal drivers of these narratives.

Conspiracy Narratives and Native Title

Anecdotal evidence from native title practitioners suggests that Sovereign Citizen narratives are becoming increasingly common in the native title sector. Anti-State and conspiracist thinking disrupts the progress of native title claims by casting native title practitioners as agents of an evil, illegitimate corporation posing as government, thus introducing additional conflict, fear, and distrust to native title consultative processes. A forthcoming short reflection paper in press with the Dispute Resolution Review will explore what may drive claimants to bring conspiratorial beliefs to native title discussions, and the responses of practitioners and agencies of the State to such beliefs.

My friend is a dignified old fellow in his 80s, with carefully considered and warm old-fashioned manners. He grew up on a mission in North Australia, where he suffered abuse as a child. He speaks of the mission as a local arm of a far-reaching “Government” or “State” and the forced removal of First Nations people as calculated to enable the theft of their countries. After the National Apology, he formed a view that the government had found compassion for First Nations people and wrote a letter to the Queensland Premier describing the state sanctioned abuse he had survived. The Premier did not reply, or acknowledge receipt of, his letter.

Now my friend holds to a different set of beliefs. He says he is not an Australian citizen – which explains the lack of response from the Premier. My friend believes he is a “Sovereign Citizen” or a “SovCit”, under no obligation to observe Australian Law. He believes all government funded employees – including me – work for an illegitimate corporation which has run out the real Australian Government and is now intentionally conning him and all Australians for profit. In his view, he has discovered “the Truth”.[1]

The Sovereign Citizen (SovCit) movement, has been described by the Anti-Defamation League (2012) as among “…the most problematic domestic extremist movements in the United States”, and which counts among its founders white supremacists and violent extremists. SovCits thinking originated in the US, but is now transnational, having provided some impetus for the Australian “Freedom Rally” or “Canberra convoy” to Old Parliament House in February (Roose, 2022).

Any relationship to the longstanding Indigenous sovereignty movement in Australia is very recent, and in our view is not benign. Jack Latimore (2022) in an article in the Age says that alt-right SovCit actors co-opt Indigenous agendas, and have attempted a calculated “hostile takeover” at the Tent Embassy. Latimore calls the deliberate use of emotive political phrasing to capture Indigenous audiences “Blackfishing”.

In the reflection paper “Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title” Taplin will argue, that rather than acknowledging First Nations’ sovereignty and on that basis entering into inclusive dialogue about recognition, native title keeps structural power, including the power to judge certain types of cultural legitimacy in the hands of ‘experts’ in positions of authority. In this way, the native title claim process arguably perpetuates historical policies of State coercion and control. This birds-eye view exposes the structural issues that lead to disillusionment, and thus may make people vulnerable to conspiracist thinking. Taking a close-up view, Taplin speculates that the uptake of belief in conspiracy theories may be in part, a function of individual responses to those structural issues. She further argues that in the land rights / native title space, seeded from epistemic mistrust, belief in conspiracy theories fills the gap between the intention and the reality of the land rights movement in Australia.

Some of the native title practitioners Taplin has worked with trivialize claimant-come ‘bush lawyers’ who expound Sovereign Citizen narratives. Some give these people short shrift as a lost cause, at the same time disregarding the legitimate complaints that may well seed the issue. This is not a helpful response, and further alienates practitioners from clients. This only increases the risk of social harm. There are systemic drivers lending momentum to the uptake of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Narratives and Violence

In an analysis of the relationship between belief in conspiracy theories and violent extremism, Basit (2021) observes that both conspiracy communities and violent extremist groups narrate “… an ‘us versus them’ world view where a sharp in-group and out-group distinction, punctuated by distrust and polarization, exists”, and further that “conspiracy theories are linked to threat perception, prejudices and negative attitudes about powerful outgroups.” Unfortunately, the recent police and citizen killings in South-West Queensland demonstrate the potential for violent action to stem from Sovereign Citizen narratives in Australia. Until now, Australia had been relatively unaffected by radicalized, violent Sovereign Citizens. The question moving forward is how do Native Title practitioners, and other stakeholders, engage with Sovereign Citizen beliefs.

Learning how to manage, negotiate and/or navigate through multiple worldviews is increasingly going to be an essential skill for police and practitioners working across fraught legal, cultural, and historical contexts. Further research is required for a deeper understanding of the phenomena of Sovereign Citizen conspiracy beliefs in Australia. A practice note is forthcoming: Taplin, P (2023, in press) Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title, Dispute Resolution Review, (2), p 1-11, and a research project on contemporary issues in dealing with Sovereign Citizen narratives and conspiracy theories in Native Title anthropology is currently underway.

For engagement with the authors, please email pascale.taplin@outlook.com


[1] Extract from upcoming publication, Taplin, P (2023, in press) Contextualizing belief in conspiracy theories: A case study in Native Title, Dispute Resolution Review, (2), p 1-11.

REFERENCES

The lawless ones: The resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement. (2012). Anti-Defamation League ADL100 Special Report. (2nd ed.) https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Lawless-Ones-2012-Edition-WEB-final.pdf

Barker, J. (2023, December 13). As a principal, he was feted for his success. Now he’s linked to two police killings. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/queensland/as-a-principal-he-was-feted-for-his-success-now-he-s-linked-to-two-police-killings-20221213-p5c601.html

Basit, A. (2021). Conspiracy Theories and Violent Extremism. Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, 13(3), pp.1-9.

Latimore, J. (2022, January 8). Blackfishing’: Alt-right pushes to co-opt Aboriginal Tent Embassy to cause. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/blackfishing-alt-right-pushes-to-co-opt-aboriginal-tent-embassy-to-cause-20220105-p59lzj.html   

Roose, J. (2022, February 15). How ‘freedom rally’ protesters and populist right-wing politics may play a role in the federal election. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/how-freedom-rally-protesters-and-populist-right-wing-politics-may-play-a-role-in-the-federal-election-176533

Sarteschi, C.M. (2021) Sovereign Citizens: A narrative review with implications of violence towards law enforcement. Aggression and Violent Behavior (60)https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2020.101509

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