The Creepy Trend That Sparked a Highway Standoff With a Black Militia

·12 min read
Michael Dwyer/AP
Michael Dwyer/AP

Days after a bizarre armed highway standoff in Massachusetts involving a group called Rise Of The Moors, prosecutors face an unusual problem: at least two of the 11 defendants in the case refuse to identify themselves.

“I am a free Moor, a national, a free, living man,” one unidentified defendant told a judge during his arraignment on Tuesday.

The testimony was faux-legal nonsense. But in some seemingly widening circles, this jargon verges on religion. Over the past year, from Massachusetts to Washington, a growing slate of court officials and bystanders have found themselves muddling through conspiratorial legalese from people who claim to be “Moors.” The feuds range from takeovers of homes, which self-proclaimed Moors incorrectly claim to own, to the tense nine-hour standoff on a highway.

Preaching an alt-history based on a fictitious treaty between the U.S. and Morocco, adherents to the Moorish Sovereign ideology claim that they and other Black Americans are governed by their own set of laws. But more reliably, after the standoffs end and the requisitioned houses are returned to their rightful owners, members of the Moorish movement have found themselves facing prison time.

Once an obscure offshoot of the sovereign-citizen movement, a typically conservative crowd that claims most U.S. laws are fake, the Moorish Sovereign scene appears to be having a moment.

“I’ve noticed it more,” Christine Sarteschi, author of a book on the sovereign-citizen movement, told The Daily Beast of Moorish sovereign citizens. “That might suggest it is [growing], but it’s hard to say with certainty.”

Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, likewise said the movement’s size was difficult to gauge. “It’s hard to say whether there are more Moors, but I can say a number are active at this time,” she told The Daily Beast.

Few organizations keep tabs on the Moorish movement, making their ranks hard to quantify. But in recent months, members of the movement have repeatedly attracted local police attention, and in increasingly outlandish fashion.

In December, an affluent suburban Washington neighborhood reported a rash of would-be home takeovers. The culprits didn’t try breaking into houses, locals told police. Instead, the men—some of whom wore red fez caps—served homeowners with obscure legal documents purporting to be from the “Moorish National Republic Federal Government.” The papers (full of “rambling somewhat nonsensical statements,” according to a police report) claimed the Moorish National Republic actually owned the houses.

The Moorish National Republic, which did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, is one of several new Moorish organizations that claims to be the legitimate U.S. government for Moors. According to the organization, and others like it, Black Americans—adherents prefer the term Moors—are the rightful rulers of the U.S., due to a (nonexistent) treaty with Morocco. Per this alternative legal worldview, Moors are within their rights to seize land and vast sums of money.

The group’s current leader recently filed a “lien” against a Pennsylvania school district for one-quadrillion dollars in gold.

While Washington’s would-be sovereign squatters never entered the homes, a Moorish group in New Jersey was bolder last month, when it allegedly changed the locks on a woman’s home, hung a Moorish flag in the window, and moved in while she was renovating. “Someone decided he wanted my house,” the woman, Shanetta Little, said in a now-viral TikTok. “So they sawed off the locks, put their own locks on, and he is now occupying the home.”

Little told The Daily Beast that she’d previously received letters from the “Al Moroccan Empire Consulate at New Jersey State Republic” claiming to own the home.

“I reached out to my realtor and my attorney,” she said. “They both told me that it was a scam, that there was really nothing to it. I had title insurance and I had a clean title. Me and my realtor looked up the group a little bit on YouTube, and realized they were kind of a weird fringe extremist group.”

Efforts to reclaim the home proved surprisingly difficult, she added. At first, she explained, police did not take a report when she called about the changed locks. When she called a locksmith, three men from the Moorish organization brandished fake papers, claiming to own the home. “I was telling the locksmith that ‘No, I have a title. This is my house,’” she recalled. “The locksmith was like, ‘Well, maybe they were scammed and they’ve got a title issue or something.’”

At one point, while she was sitting on the front steps, one of the men stepped over her and locked himself inside, Little claimed. She was eventually able to move back into her house after police sent a SWAT team to negotiate with the man who was hiding in her house.

She objected to characterizations of the group as property squatters. “They’re not squatters,” Little said, “they’re just thieves.”

That group, which did not return a request for comment, and other Moorish outfits making waves over the past few years are relatively new additions to a larger political front.

Many of the Moorish sovereign movement’s teachings can be traced to the Moorish Science Temple of America, an approximately 100-year-old Islamic-based faith that encourages Black Americans to embrace “Moorish American” nationality, which it describes as distinct from and compatible with U.S. citizenship. The Temple, which did not return a request for comment, has previously distanced itself from sovereign citizens.

“I believe they think that our organization is an easy target to utilize as an umbrella to hide their illegal activities,” a Temple spokesperson told the Wichita Eagle in 2018, after a Moorish sovereign tried filing paperwork to seize an abandoned amusement park while in prison for murder. “Those teachings in no way reflect the doctrine we teach.”

Nevertheless, by the 1990s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a new subset of self-described Moors was melding the church’s teachings with those of the broader sovereign-citizen movement. Like right-wing sovereign citizens before them, adherents called the U.S. government illegitimate and took up tax-protest talking points, but with a new twist.

“You are not to pay taxes to foreigners who are doing business within the borders of YOUR ancestral estate,” one Moorish sovereign instructed followers.

Within the past three years, some of the movement’s most bombastic groups have joined the fray.

A website for the Al Moroccan Empire Consulate at New Jersey State Republic, the organization accused of taking over the New Jersey home, was registered earlier this year. In March, the group issued a press release stating that “the Al Moroccan Empire Consulate at New Jersey is open for business.”

The Extremists Knocking on Doors and Claiming People’s Homes

One person, Hubert A. John, was arrested in the home takeover case. It is unclear whether John has an attorney, and efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

A website for the Moorish National Republic Federal Government, the group accused of taking over Washington homes, was registered in late 2018. During the group’s apparent three years of operation, multiple leaders have been arrested, and at least one of them accused of internal wrongdoing against the group.

One, Light Tajiri Bey (real name Pauline Ritchie Moore), was ousted from the group last year, after the Moorish organization accused her of “usurp[ing] authority by self appointing herself as ‘the Chief Justice of the de jure organic Grand Supreme Judicial body for the Moorish American Consulate’ without the majority vote from the de jure organic Grand Supreme Judicial Body.”

Cast out from the group, she continued to make videos about posting land reclamation notices on buildings, and was arrested for trespassing in Washington in February, according to court records reviewed by The Daily Beast. Ritchie Moore did not return a request for comment, but continues to produce regular videos on Moorish sovereign legal advice.

Meanwhile, the Moorish National Republic Federal Government’s current “Supreme Judiciary,” Sharon Tracey Gale, was arrested in a library in 2019 while giving a livestream presentation about Moorish law. During the arrest, she tried citing the legal doctrine, to no effect. “I’m Sharon Tracey Gale Bey, Moorish American national, in propria persona sui juris and propria solo and proprial heretus at all times and at all points in time,” she told officers (“policy enforcers,” per Moorish sovereign terminology). “I do not agree to anything and everything. I am a Moorish American national.”

Gale, who did not return a request for comment, was eventually convicted of trespassing, endangering the lives of children, and “risking a catastrophe” for powering a home with a combination of car batteries, heating devices, and wires. A Pennsylvania fire chief described it as probably the worst hazard he’d seen in his career.

Other Moorish groups came to Gale’s aid following her arrest. Among them was Rise Of The Moors, which penned an article accusing the police department of committing acts of genocide in its arrest of Gale.

The Rise of the Moors did not return a request for comment for this story.

In that article, and during their highway standoff with police last weekend, Rise Of The Moors dismissed the “sovereign citizen” label, instead calling themselves Moorish nationals.

“We’re not anti-government, we’re not anti-police, we’re not sovereign citizens, we’re not Black-identity extremists,” the group’s leader Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey said in a livestream during the standoff.

Eleven people—10 men and one 17-year-old—affiliated with Rise Of The Moors are currently facing a slate of weapons charges, after police spotted their vehicle stopped on the side of a Massachusetts highway, where they reportedly had run out of gas. Although some men wore body armor and carried guns, none were licensed to carry, prosecutors allege. Police said the armed group refused to give names or cooperate, with some members claiming not to follow U.S. laws and some fleeing into the woods. The standoff ended nine hours later without violence.

The Rise Of The Moors members said they were driving from Rhode Island to Maine for training, and that they’d avoided stopping for gas because they did not want to raise an alarm. On the group’s Facebook, after the arrest, supporters shared articles about cases in which roadside stops had gone bad, including horrific footage of a Virginia police officer pulling a gun on and pepper spraying a Black Army lieutenant on a dark road last year.

Police killings of Black Americans, which fueled a nationwide protest wave, can also serve to mobilize the Moorish movement, Goldwasser said, pointing to the group’s website, which likens police brutality to the history of violent religious crusades.

Observers of the Moorish sovereign landscape say an armed group is unusual; in the past, the movement has typically focused its efforts on the legal system. Still, the group’s brush with fame comes amid a rise of gun ownership, including among Black Americans, who historically have been less likely to keep guns at home, noted Robert J. Cottrol, a George Washington University law professor and editor of Gun Control and the Constitution.

“I think there are a number of incidents that have probably brought about an increase in gun ownership in the Black population, not the least of which is simple fear of crime,” he said. “If you’re in an urban area and the police, for whatever reason, don’t protect you, you’re going to seek means of self-protection.”

Armed Black self-defense groups are not new of themselves, Cottrol noted, pointing to a history of more successful civil rights groups that took arms against the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-20th century. Still, he continued, to describe those groups (like the Deacons For Defense And Justice) and Rise Of The Moors under the same “militia” banner is a stretch, he said.

Though Rise Of The Moors denies that members are sovereign citizens, their antics in a Massachusetts courtroom this week appeared straight out of that legal playbook.

Two of the defendants declined to identify themselves, while others shunned public defenders, asking instead for the group’s leader to represent them in court. (That request was denied, as the leader is not a lawyer.) Another asked that his case be heard in federal court.

“What makes this even more puzzling,” Cottrol said, is that there are provisions for legal gun transport, even in states like Massachusetts with stricter gun policies. Provided the guns were legally registered in their home states, the group could have passed through Massachusetts with their guns unloaded in a locked box.

The movement’s questionable legal tactics are already haunting the home takeover case in New Jersey, where Little is concerned about the group causing a spectacle in court.

“After the situation with the men in Boston, I ended up doing some more research on their YouTube pages and their Instagram pages before everything went private,” Little said. “They love to go to court [...] Everything that I’m learning about them makes me feel like they feel confident in the court system, trying to get things done or dismissed. They like to videotape and record things so they can make posts showing how they handle cops and judges.”

John, the man accused of invading her home, is due in court on July 19.

It remains to be seen if the group’s antics are part of a coherent broader legal strategy.

Sarteschi, the scholar studying sovereign-citizen movements, suggested Rise Of The Moors was likely trying to move its case to a higher court, where members might try to cite a gun precedent from Hawaii that they may believe allows them to open-carry. (In fact, the precedent actually upholds restrictions against carrying a gun outside the home.) But like the phony property deeds and tax loopholes before them, the tactic appears unlikely to succeed.

“The reality is that none of this is going to work,” Sarteschi said. “People have tried this time and time again. It’s never worked.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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