Posse Comitatus (organization)

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The Posse Comitatus (Latin, "force of the county")[1] was a loosely organized, far-right populist social movement which started in the United States in the late 1960s, its members spread a conspiracy-minded, anti-government and anti-Semitic message in the name of white Christians in order to counter what they believe is an attack on their social and political rights.[2]: 591 

Many Posse members practiced survivalism and they also played a role in the formation of armed citizens' militias in the 1990s. The Posse Comitatus pioneered the use of false liens and other types of "paper terrorism" in order to harass their opponents by mounting frivolous legal actions against them.[3] The Posse Comitatus' tactics and ideology went on to influence the Christian Patriot movement and gave birth to the sovereign citizen movement.[4]

Historical background[edit]

Due to the strong ties which they forged with the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, members of the Posse Comitatus believe that they are the true Israelites, the people who were chosen by God. They state that the Jews seek to help Satan destroy civilization, and undermine white citizens' rights by means of the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service.[2]: 591 

Posse charters were first issued in Portland, Oregon in 1969, by Henry Lamont Beach, "a retired dry cleaner and a one-time member of the Silver Shirts, a Nazi-inspired and clerical fascist organization which was established in America after Hitler took power in Germany."[5] One expert has considered William Potter Gale the founder of the movement.[6]: 2 

Posse members believe that there is no legitimate form of government above that of the county level and no higher law authority than the county sheriff.[7] If the sheriff refuses to carry out the will of the county's citizens: "[...]he shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law."[8][9]

Christian Identity[edit]

Some Posse members embraced the anti-Semitic and white supremacist beliefs of Christian Identity.[10] Some believe that the U.S. federal government is illegitimate and in the hands of a Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG), the supposed International Jewish conspiracy.[2]: 758  In 1985, a member of the Posse Comitatus announced: "Our nation is now completely under the control of the International Invisible government of the World Jewry."[11]

Federal taxes[edit]

Members of the Posse Comitatus frequently refuse to pay taxes, obtain driver's licenses, or comply with regulatory authorities. They deny the validity of United States fiat money because it is not backed by gold, which they claim the Constitution requires.[2]: 591 

They draw up unusual legal documents and attempt to record them, they declare their independence from the United States, or they claim to file "common law" liens against their perceived enemies such as Internal Revenue Service employees or judges. They are frequently involved in various tax protests, and they have invoked arguments which have been popularized by tax protesters.[2]: 591 

Criminal activities[edit]

The Posse Comitatus made national news when, on February 13, 1983, Posse member Gordon Kahl killed two federal marshals who had come to arrest him in North Dakota and became a fugitive. Another shootout ensued on June 3, 1983, in which Kahl and Lawrence County, Arkansas, Sheriff Gene Matthews were killed. Other members of the group have also been convicted of crimes ranging from tax evasion and counterfeiting to threatening the lives of IRS agents and judges.

The organization also demonstrated to support its members over other issues. On September 2, 1975, Francis Earl Gillings, the founder of a San Joaquin County Posse group, led a group of armed Posse members to prevent United Farm Workers union organizers from attempting to organize non-union tomato pickers. As sheriff's deputies attempted to arrest Gillings on a traffic warrant, one got into a scuffle with Gillings and a shot was fired.[12]

On August 15, 2012, five suspects were arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of two sheriff's deputies and wounding two others in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. Terry Smith, 44; Brian Smith, 24; Derrick Smith, 22; Teniecha Bright, 21; and Kyle David Joekel, 28, were identified, with Brian Smith and Joekel identified as the shooters in the incident. The men are rumored to be affiliated with a Posse Comitatus group.[13] On August 17, 2012, two more suspects—Chanel Skains, 37, and Britney Keith, 23—were charged with accessory after the fact.[14]


Christian Patriot movement[edit]

The direct ideological descendants of the Posse Comitatus movement were found in the "Christian Patriot" branch of the Patriot movement. Most Christian Patriot groups adhere to Christian Identity's white supremacist views as well as the Posse Comitatus' view that the American government had deprived citizens of their natural "common law" rights. They have notably espoused Gale's concept of "individual sovereignty", which developed into the broader sovereign citizen movement.[15][16]

Sovereign citizens[edit]

The legal theories of Posse Comitatus have been further developed by the sovereign citizen movement, which claims that a U.S. citizen can become a "sovereign citizen" and thereby be subject only to common law or "constitutional law," not to statutory law (including most taxes). The Uniform Commercial Code plays a part in these legal theories.[17]

Some within the movement see African Americans, who only gained legal citizenship after the Civil War and passage of the 14th Amendment, as "14th Amendment citizens" with fewer rights than whites.[18] However, African-American groups have adopted sovereign citizen ideology and developed their own version of the movement's beliefs.[19]

The sovereign citizen movement in turn gave rise to the "redemption movement," which claims that the U.S. government has enslaved its citizens by using them as collateral against foreign debt.[4] Redemption scheme promoters sell instructions explaining how citizens can "free" themselves by filing particular government forms in a particular order using particular wording.[20][21] The movement "has earned its promoters untold profits, buried courts and other agencies under tons of worthless paper, and led to scores of arrests and convictions."[22]

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) classifies some sovereign citizens ("extreme sovereign citizen extremists") as a domestic terrorist movement.[23] In 2010 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimated that approximately 100,000 Americans were "hard-core sovereign believers" with another 200,000 "just starting out by testing sovereign techniques for resisting everything from speeding tickets to drug charges."[24]

Alpine County, California[edit]

In the late 1970s, the Posse Comitatus attempted to take over Alpine County, California, by settling there and fielding candidates in local elections.[6]: 164 

Alpine County is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Stockton on the west and east slope of Ebbetts Pass on State Highway 4. The 2010 population is 1,175 people. The Posse thought winning local elections in Alpine County was their best opportunity to take control of a single county. The group fielded a candidate for sheriff and registered fictitious voters using post office boxes and vacant lots as their addresses. Six people were prosecuted for voter fraud, the false registration thrown out, and the incumbent sheriff was re-elected.[25]

Tigerton, Wisconsin[edit]

The posse had a presence in Tigerton, Wisconsin, until a crackdown by government prosecutors in the early 1980s left many of the group's leaders imprisoned.[26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solodow, Joseph (2010). Latin Alive: The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages. Cambridge University Press. p. 160. ISBN 978-0-521-51575-7. Retrieved February 19, 2021. Out of the phrase posse comitatus "the force of the county" arose our present use of posse for a group of men whom the sheriff calls upon in a crisis.
  2. ^ a b c d e Knight, Peter, ed. (2003). Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-812-4. Retrieved February 19, 2021.
  3. ^ Pitcavage, Mark (June 29, 1998). "Paper Terrorism's Forgotten Victims: The Use of Bogus Liens against Private Individuals and Businesses". Anti-Defamation League: Militia Watchdog archives. Archived from the original on September 18, 2002. Retrieved February 19, 2021.
  4. ^ a b Carey, Kevin (July 2008). "Too Weird for The Wire". Washington Monthly. May/June/July 2008. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved July 19, 2008.
  5. ^ Corcoran, James (1990). Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus: Murder in the Heartland. New York, NY: Viking Press. p. 29. ISBN 0-670-81561-6. Retrieved February 21, 2021.
  6. ^ a b Levitas, Daniel (2002). The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 0-312-29105-1. Retrieved February 16, 2021.
  7. ^ Atkins, Stephen (September 13, 2011). Encyclopedia of Right-Wing Extremism In Modern American History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio. p. 197. ISBN 978-1-59884-350-7. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  8. ^ Smith, Brent L. (1995). Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams. SUNY Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 0-7914-1759-X. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  9. ^ Pitcavage, Mark (July 25, 1997). "Common Law and Uncommon Courts: An Overview of the Common Law Court Movement". Anti-Defamation League: Militia Watchdog archives. Archived from the original on October 14, 2007. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  10. ^ Marks, Kathy (1996). Faces of Right Wing Wxtremism. Branden Publishing Company. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-8283-2016-0. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  11. ^ Christian Posse Comitatus Newsletter, n.d. quoted in Stern, Kenneth S. (1996). A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 50. ISBN 0-684-81916-3. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  12. ^ "U.S. judge Enjoins California From Enforcing Rule Giving Union Aides Access to Farms". The New York Times. September 4, 1975. p. 36. Retrieved April 24, 2021.
  13. ^ Russell, Gordon (August 17, 2012). "Picture of suspects in St. John Parish shootings starting to emerge". The Times-Picayune. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  14. ^ Finn, Kathy (August 17, 2012). "Seven charged in shootings that killed Louisiana police officers". New Orleans: Reuters. Archived from the original on August 20, 2012. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  15. ^ Eck, Diane (2001). A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" has become the world's most religiously diverse nation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 347.
  16. ^ Buck, Christopher (2009). Religious Myths and Visions of America: How Minority Faiths Redefined America's World Role. Praeger. pp. 107, 108, 213. ISBN 978-0313359590.
  17. ^ Pitcavage, Mark. "Message to Students: What is a Sovereign Citizen?". Anti-Defamation League: Militia Watchdog archives. adl.org. Archived from the original on January 13, 2013. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  18. ^ "What is a 'Sovereign Citizen'?". Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. Winter 2008. Archived from the original on March 5, 2009. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  19. ^ Pitcavage, Mark. "Message to Students: Are sovereign citizens racist?". Anti-Defamation League: Militia Watchdog archives. adl.org. Archived from the original on January 13, 2013. Retrieved March 4, 2021.
  20. ^ Netolitzky, Donald (2018). "A Rebellion of Furious Paper: Pseudolaw As a Revolutionary Legal System". SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3177484. ISSN 1556-5068.
  21. ^ Netolitzky, Donald J. (2018). "Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Arguments as Magic and Ceremony". Alberta Law Review: 1045. doi:10.29173/alr2485. ISSN 1925-8356.
  22. ^ "Beyond Redemption". Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. Winter 2002. Archived from the original on October 2, 2006. Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  23. ^ "Sovereign Citizens A Growing Domestic Threat to Law Enforcement". Federal Bureau of Investigation. September 11, 2011. Retrieved April 30, 2017.[permanent dead link]
  24. ^ MacNab, J. J. (Fall 2010). "'Sovereign' Citizen Kane". Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center (139). Retrieved April 23, 2021.
  25. ^ Duncan, Dayton (2000). Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier. University of Nebraska Press. p. 259. ISBN 0-8032-6627-8. Retrieved April 23, 2021 – via Google Books.
  26. ^ Imrie, Robert (September 23, 1990). "With Leaders in Jail, Posse Comitatus' Fate Is Uncertain". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  27. ^ "Posse Comitatus Manual Urged Terrorism, Sheriff Says". Shawano, WI: Associated Press. September 12, 1985. Retrieved February 22, 2021.

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