What Is the Message in a Food Rights Activist Being Labeled a "Sovereign Citizen"? James Stewart Finds Out, Via Shackling, Isolation, Hypothermia, Food Deprivation
James Stewart was feeling "disoriented" when I caught him on his phone this morning in Los Angeles. He had just been released from a Ventura County jail last evening, finally, on $100,000 bail. "I feel like I just got off an amusement park ride," he said.
He was actually lucky he was just feeling disoriented. During his seven days in jail, "They tortured me, without touching me." The torture included being deprived of meals, being shackled for hours so tightly he couldn't move, being kept in 50-degree confinement cells with only a thin short-sleeve shirt, and being kept in solitary confinement.
The worst parts came during his first couple days of confinement, in Los Angeles, after he was arrested immediately following a courtroom appearance March 2 in connection with previous felony charges stemming from Rawesome Food Club's distribution of raw milk to its members. Also arrested during the courtoom appearance was Sharon Palmer, who had supplied milk to the food club. She is still in a Ventura County jail, as efforts to reduce her bail further, from $500,000 to $250,000, failed yesterday.
The March 2 arrests of Stewart and Palmer were in connection with new felony charges stemming from alleged mortgage fraud associated with the purchase of Palmer's Healthy Family Farms property in 2008.
The brutal treatment accorded Stewart almost certainly stems from the government's recent campaign to label him a "sovereign citizen." He says has never declared himself as such. Sovereign citizens supposedly detach themselves from ordinary linkages to government authority, such as drivers licenses and Social Security.
In recent years, American security authorities have sought to link people so labeled with "domestic terrorism" associated with "attacking Americans because of U.S.-based extremist ideologies." Here is what the FBI says in an Internet posting:
"Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States. As a result, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement.
"This causes all kinds of problems—and crimes. For example, many sovereign citizens don’t pay their taxes. They hold illegal courts that issue warrants for judges and police officers. They clog up the court system with frivolous lawsuits and liens against public officials to harass them. And they use fake money orders, personal checks, and the like at government agencies, banks, and businesses.
"That’s just the beginning. Not every action taken in the name of the sovereign citizen ideology is a crime, but the list of illegal actions committed by these groups, cells, and individuals is extensive (and puts them squarely on our radar)."
Stewart says he was questioned at one point during the holding-cell experience by officials as to whether he was a "sovereign citizen." "They tried to break me, get me to admit I was a sovereign." He says he never had declared himself such before, and didn't under questioning.
Several days later, during a hearing last week, a lawyer from the Ventura County District Attorney's office would, during a bail hearing, once again characterize Stewart as someone who believes himself tp be a "sovereign citizen."
While Stewart has never done anything hostile, he did, in running Rawesome, actively operate it as a private organization, outside normal licensing channels. When he was called on the carpet by health authorities immediately after the June 30, 2010, raid on Rawesome, he told them, via a lawyer representing Rawesome, that he believed Rawesome, as a private club, was outside the agency's jurisdiction. However, the lawyer never used any kind of remotely threatening language, or took any threatening actions.
More recently, Stewart has taken several actions that could be construed as threatening to authorities--though nothing an ordinary citizen would construe as threatening, or even disapprove of. For one thing, he decided several months ago to act as his own lawyer in the original Rawesome case.
Then, in the last couple months, as part of his effort to mount a defense in that case, he had been researching whether the various regulators and law enforcement officers connected to the original Rawesome case--those involved in obtaining search warrants, conducting searches, and arresting him and others-- had sworn oaths of office, committing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, on file with the state of California. Lo and behold, he had discovered that a good number didn't have oaths on file. And he had alerted authorities to his discovery.
Lawyers will tell you that the failure by officers involved in Constitutionally-sanctioned enforcement activities, like obtaining and executing search warrants, to have signed an oath of office, could eventually be interpreted during a trial or other judicial proceeding, as a significant procedural error .
So now the reason for Stewart's torture becomes clearer. The L.A. County and Ventura County District Attorney offices were sending Stewart a message: We know how to deal with people like you who would be brazen enough to even substantively question our authority. "Labeling you a sovereign is a convenient tool for them to claim you are a terrorist," says Stewart.
The worst of the torture occurred during his first two days of confinement, March 2-4, in Los Angeles. Immediately after his arrest, he was placed in a holding cell, and held for seven hours with no food being provided.
Then he was taken to Los Angeles' worst jail, and shackled and handcuffed to a desk for about five hours, before being placed in a holding cell from midnight to 3 a.m., where the temperature was in the 50s. When finally someone came to move him, "I was in hypothermia, I was shaking."
They then placed him in a jail cell, not far from three cells where the toilets overflowed. The sewerage seeped into his cell. "My shoes and shirt were on the floor." Nothing was done to clean the cell for many hours, until late in the afternoon, he was handed a squeegee and told to clean things up.
Sleep was nearly impossible, given the cold and/or fouled conditions, and banging on cells by other prisoners. That Sunday, he was placed into another cold cell for six hours, waiting for a bus to transfer him to the Ventura County jail.
Conditions improved a bit at the Ventura County jail. There he was held for the first few days in isolation for 22 hours each day, with two hours allowed for walking around in a small area outside his cell. "At least we were given three meals a day, even if the food was nothing I would eat." There was no fresh fruit during the entire time he was jailed, and just a few carrot sticks for vegetables.
I had originally reported when Stewart was arrested that his friends were concerned he wouldn't accept prison food or clothing. He said he never objected to either and accepted what was offered, "minimalist" though it was. Though Stewart is 65, he noted, "My body is strong, and I was able to tolerate the treatment."
He labeled the new mortgage fraud charges, filed in Ventura County, as "completely ridiculous. I never accepted any money for the property, or any commissions...I didn't offer anything for sale." A preliminary hearing in the case is set for March 19. He notes that prosecutors in his case requested $1 million bail, versus $500,000 for Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach accused of sexually abusing young boys. Both Stewart and Sandusky were eventually freed on $100,000 bail, though Stewart's was secured, and Sandusky's unsecured.
Is the Stewart torture affair a first step in an effort to begin discrediting private food clubs, and their operators, as involved in domestic terrorism? It wouldn't be the first time this country has resorted to extreme force and fearmongering to marginalize those deemed undesirable. We did it to Japanese citizens imprisoned during World War II, we blackballed and imprisoned so-called communist sympathizers during the 1950s, and since 9-11, we have thrown "terrorists" indefinitely into Guantanamo and other jails without charges or Constitutional guarantees.