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Right-Wing Dropouts

Puget Sound-ers
Photo by Christopher Gardner

Declaration of Independents: The Puget's Sound Agricultural Society--300 members nationwide, including local supporters Scott Brozinick, Greg Nichols and Diane Hupp--holds that it is shielded from government prosecution through "sovereign immunity."

Militia movement eggheads launch a fusillade of paperwork to foil the IRS, the DMV and other manifestations of the New World Order

By Rick Sine

Norm Baker gazed sternly at his little audience gathered late last month in a meeting room adjacent to a San Jose sports bar. "The New World Order is very real, folks," he warned the assembled. "They have sinister plans for the planet. The velvet glove is being removed to show the iron fist."

The 15 people in attendance had learned of Baker's biweekly lectures from Geoff Metcalfe's talk show on KSFO, from the World Wide Web, or from friends. At the door they had been provided with two thick handouts full of Federal Register regulations and obscure intergovernmental reports. In the main section of the meeting, Baker was to show them how to use these documents to allow them to pay "all the taxes you are legally obligated to pay," which in Baker's view means no income taxes at all.

But to say Baker merely teaches a class in tax evasion would be like saying your local church runs a soup kitchen just to prevent malnutrition. Baker (sheepskin leather jacket, poor teeth, reading glasses) has an ideology to sell, as his opening remarks make clear. He seeks to defend good Christians from the "heathens who seek to steal from you with the pretend laws we have today."

Tired of the government? Make your own! The ultimate in do-it-yourself.

Baker's State Citizen Service Center is a local chapter of the national Sovereign Citizen organization, part of the larger Christian Patriot movement (Baker's group has 150 "associates," as he calls them). These groups generally believe that the current U.S. government is a massive conspiracy to deprive citizens of their God-given rights. They believe that the only legitimate laws are expressed in the original state constitutions, in the common law expressed in the Magna Carta of 1215, or in the Bible. By their tenets, only non-whites and non-Christians must heed other laws.

The most devoted Sovereign or State Citizens have attempted to drop out of the sight of government altogether. With varying degrees of success, several people attending last month's meeting had attempted to revoke their Social Security cards, drivers' licenses, marriage licenses, even their U.S. citizenship itself, as well as not pay taxes. Some of them have enlisted Baker's legal research in struggles with the IRS, DMV or other government agencies, though Baker is reluctant to discuss individual cases.

Local authorities are familiar with the Sovereign Citizens, if not with the movement of which they are a part. Brenda Davis, Santa Clara County recorder, says someone comes in her office about once a week with a "common law lien" or with a request to revoke a Social Security number, drivers' license, or birth certificate. Davis rejects all such efforts, because none of these requests can be fulfilled through her office.

"I haven't heard the term sovereign or state citizen, but we do get a group of people in here who use an identifiable terminology. They call it the Republic of California instead of the State of California. They quote the Constitution, the Magna Carta, the Bible, any number of things. ...The assessor is familiar with them, as is the county clerk, the sheriff. And certainly," she adds knowingly, "the tax collector."

Baker starts off the meeting with a report on current events. The week before, the FBI had raided the Dublin offices of another far-right group, the Civil Rights Task Force. Baker said the Task Force had discovered that dollar bills were funny money, "fraudulent obligations" because the Federal Reserve, which issues them, is a privately held corporation. So the Task Force had issued "liens" to "discharge" those fraudulent obligations.

The Task Force was busted, Baker says, not because they were in thrall to a bogus idea, but because they should have made their claim in civil court before issuing the liens. (An FBI spokesman declined to comment on case, saying the search affidavits were sealed.)

Baker goes on to discuss how the United States was bailed out of bankruptcy in 1933 by international bankers on the condition that they enslave people through the income tax and the Federal Reserve. Today, he says, "your income tax pays for interest on the national debt and nothing else." This outrageous situation is bound to lead to another "Ruby Ridge or Waco kind of incident" within the next year.

A gaunt, sloe-eyed man named Gary Allan Dunn has set up a table of books at the front of the room near Baker's podium. The books exemplify the contradictions that shoot through the movement. Baker says Sovereign Citizens shouldn't fight government through "bullets and bayonets," but one of the books describes anti-armor warfare techniques. The movement says it isn't racist, but one of the books available is Charles Weisman's America: Free, White and Christian. (There's also a copy of George Orwell's Animal Farm.)

The meeting runs for more than three hours. Baker spends much of that time jumping from one table to another in the pile of paper the audience had been handed at the door. What the documents show, Baker says, is that the IRS told the Office of Management and Budget that it doesn't want to see gross income on its Form 1040, only interest income. Nonetheless, he notes, the average taxpayer has been tricked into putting their gross income on the line. "It's a game," says Baker. "They show you seven cards and they won't tell you which one counts."

Baker has been holding these classes for five years, and continues to hold them despite mounting evidence that his students may get into trouble. Last December, six promoters of the largest-known tax protester group in the country were convicted of tax evasion, mail fraud and conspiracy. The Pilot Connection Society, as it was known, had been launched in San Jose five years ago before moving to Stockton. The group had 10,000 members and sold 4,000 copies of its so-called "Untax package." It was also a Patriot organization.

"Untax promoters, who usually cloak themselves with an aura of being 'true patriots' out to expose government corruption, are frequently convicted by jurors who quite sensibly see through their lies and false defenses," U. S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi said upon the conviction.

Baker is familiar with the recent court rulings, but he doesn't seem worried. He says he hasn't paid taxes since 1973, and that the IRS has left him alone since 1982. "They don't play with me anymore," he says. (Baker declined to say whether he earned income above the taxable threshold.) Meanwhile, Patriot groups are still selling guides on how not to pay taxes through the World Wide Web.

Gary Allan Dunn, the man who sold the books, first got involved with the state citizens' movement when he was 21. "It was 1974, I was in jail, and this black man hit me with this book that just blew me away. It was the first book I had ever read front to back, even all through school. It was called None Dare Call It Conspiracy. They were talking about the New World Order long before George Bush had ever actually mentioned it."

Dunn is apparently arthritic to the point of needing crutches. He says he was trained as a carpenter, but no one will hire him because he doesn't have a Social Security number or drivers' license. He pulls out a signed judge's order to prove it. (He got the judge's order after a police officer pulled him over for not having a registration.)

Dunn bought his car from the federal government, believing that any other vehicle is owned by the state. He replaced his license plates with homemade plates bearing his name. Because he doesn't use his car for commercial purposes, he believes he doesn't have to register it.

I ask him if he drives the car. He says no, but he does "locomote" in it. You see, Sovereign citizens believe the term "drive" refers only to propelling commercial vehicles. They believe only commercial vehicles require licenses and registration. Beyond that, everyone has a "God-given right to travel," as a San Jose financial consultant named Jesse told me. "Do you need a law to breathe? Under what law do you have the right to breathe? There's such thing as a stupid law."

In the audience, I spot Jesse, who looks kind of bookish. He wears a beige sweater, curly brown hair, glasses. So I take him aside, and after the meeting we retire to the bar next door for a couple of Cokes.

Jesse blames government for two traumatic experiences in his life. First, he faced a huge tax bill for a home he had inherited. Then, he had to pay an $80,000 divorce settlement after a marriage of just one year. "You don't wake up one day and decide you're going to protest the system," Jesse tells me. "You go through a process."

Jesse has tried to rescind his U.S. citizenship and Social Security number. It's been tough to complete those processes, he says, because the government is "trying to make us jump through all sorts of hoops."

The IRS will be taking Jesse to court soon for back taxes. But Jesse believes that with the tips he has learned from Baker, he will succeed in getting all charges dropped. "It's an insult to call us a tax protester group," Jesse says. "We're protesting tyranny."

Norm Baker says he became disillusioned with government after fighting in the Vietnam War. Like his students, he doesn't use his Social Security number (calling it "the power of the beast"), doesn't have a drivers' license. He claims that 5,000 Santa Clara County residents have taken similar measures.

Professor Dan Wirls at the University of California at Santa Cruz says ultra-right-wing groups are "everywhere, not just in the backwoods of Montana or the South." One thing that's a little curious about this phenomenon, he points out, is that much of their fears focus on the federal government when many of the most intrusive aspects of government, like the zoning laws, are at the state and local level.

Sovereign citizens believe that lawyers, led by the American Bar Association, have literally taken over the country. They say this malicious guild has twisted laws and the very meanings of words to their own heathen ends. If their use of words seems strange, if they "locomote" or "travel" instead of drive, they believe they're just beating the lawyers at their own game.

That may sound bizarre, but the movement feeds on a genuine concern about the proliferation of lawsuits and the power of government. Radical movements often start with a legitimate gripe and then push it past the limit. After all, how different is the Patriot creed from that of black nationalists, who lay every problem on the doorstep of the white power structure? Or the hoary socialists who blame every social ill on cigar-chomping capitalists?

Wirls notes that American political beliefs are not so much a spectrum as a circle: the extreme left and extreme right often end up sounding alike. Both sides are suspicious of big government and promise to give power back to ordinary citizens. Many in the mainstream would agree with that idea, if not with extremist ideology. For extremism ultimately pulls people apart, instead of together.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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