Baton Rouge violence may signal a shift in sovereign citizen movement

Robert Ossler, a police chaplain from New Jersey who had come for support, comforted Baton Rouge, La., resident Stacey DeJohn while she dropped off flowers in memory of the three slain police officers on Monday.
Robert Ossler, a police chaplain from New Jersey who had come for support, comforted Baton Rouge, La., resident Stacey DeJohn while she dropped off flowers in memory of the three slain police officers on Monday. TNS

Sunday’s murderous rampage in Baton Rouge, La., could represent what some experts see as a troubling trend in the sovereign citizen movement:

A new crop of anti-government extremists who no longer care about inundating the court system with their bogus legal paperwork but instead are turning directly to violence.

“This is the next generation,” said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “The youngest generation, the ones in their 20s and now the teens, skip the paperwork stuff generally and go straight to the killing.”

Police say Gavin Eugene Long, 29, of Kansas City, ambushed officers Sunday, shooting to death three and injuring three others.

Although experts say his sovereign beliefs may not have been his main motivation in the attacks, Long had filed sovereign citizen documents in Kansas City and reportedly was carrying a sovereign-related card Sunday.

Sovereign citizens believe the government is corrupt and out of control and has no jurisdiction over them. The movement, which The Star profiled last year in a series on domestic terrorism, continues to swell, with violent incidents erupting on a regular basis, federal authorities say.

While today’s movement remains largely white and still has some followers with racist leanings, a surge in the number of nonwhite sovereign citizens has been underway across the country, particularly within an African-American branch called Moorish sovereigns.

Bob Paudert, the former West Memphis, Ark., police chief whose son was killed along with another officer by sovereign citizens in 2010, said Long was an atypical sovereign in some ways.

“Most sovereign citizens hate law enforcement, but they don’t go out actively looking or plotting to ambush them,” Paudert said. “Typically what they do is go about their way and when disturbed by law enforcement, that’s when they become dangerous. They don’t go out looking and seeking to kill.”

Long may be more typical of younger sovereigns, who don’t always wait for police to come to them.

For example, in 2014, a couple with sovereign citizen ties barged into a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas and gunned down two police officers.

Then Jerad and Amanda Miller went into a Wal-Mart, where Amanda shot and killed an armed customer who tried to stop them. When authorities surrounded the couple, Amanda, 22, turned the gun on herself as Jerad, 31, was shot to death by police.

MacNab refers to the new generation of sovereign citizens as the “am I being detained?” crowd because they often ask that question of officers when they are pulled over, then videotape the incidents and post them online.

“When you look at the young generation,” she said, “they’re actually going out trying to pick fights with cops in their cars so they can ask them questions on video.”

Court records show that Long was involved in a recent traffic stop in Kansas City, although there was no sign that he was trying to lure officers.

Police issued Long a citation May 3 after pulling him over at Bruce R. Watkins Drive and 63rd Street. He pleaded guilty on May 9 for failing to have license plates on his vehicle. Many sovereign citizens refuse to put license plates on their vehicles.

Long paid the $72.50 for the fine and court costs online on May 9.

Long filed documents last year with the Jackson County recorder of deeds saying he was with the United Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Mu’ur Nation, Mid-West Washita Tribes, a sovereign group.

The documents included a “live claim birth” record in which he changed his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra. The papers also included a “inter-American declaration on the rights of indigenous people.”

But Long’s sovereign citizen leanings may have been less a driving force in Sunday’s violence than the simple influence of the internet, MacNab said.

“He’s definitely a sovereign, but I don’t know how much that drove his killing of cops,” she said. “It’s kind of like most people on the internet. They absorb things from a variety of different places. He’s absorbing ‘kill the cops,’ and he’s also absorbing a hundred different other things.

“In this world, where you simply watch a bunch of YouTube videos and act on them, or you read a bunch of things on Facebook and act on them … I know it’s going to happen more and more. That’s because they talk constantly about killing police. Violent rhetoric is at an all-time high on the internet.”

Spencer Dew, assistant professor of religious studies at the Centenary College of Louisiana, said he read the sovereign documents Long filed and listened to some of his podcasts.

“I can’t make sense of what he was doing with that paperwork in Kansas City,” Dew said. “Here we have a guy who has got a lot stuff on the web spelling out his own personal philosophy. In terms of fleshing out what he’s thinking, it looks like we’ve got a lot to work with. And none of it has to do with Washitaw or sovereigns.”

Dew wondered if Long may have been introduced to the sovereign ideology through business dealings with a Washitaw group led by Alim El-Bey. The group has a website that sells diet and nutrition items, “magical jewelry,” spiritual oils and ancestral herbal blends, along with Washitaw documents.

Long also had a robust online presence and described himself as a life coach, nutritionist and spiritual adviser.

“The way he’s in the same circle as Dr. Alim El-Bey is this kind of self-help entrepreneurship,” Dew said. “The guy’s a self-help guru, and it’s got some Afrocentric stuff to it.”

Calls to the number on the website were not returned Monday.

Dew said the Washitaw Nation was not a single group.

“There’s hundreds of people who affiliate as Washitaw or claim to be Washitaw,” he said. “They say the first settlers of the U.S. were their descendants. So if you’re a Washitaw, you are due some land. So the Washitaw movement is interested in retaining that land, getting indigenous rights back.”

Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, said the Moorish sovereign movement came about in the 1990s.

“Basically, the black inner-city people started seeing the stories about how the white sovereigns were fighting their legal battles with this whole new legal strategy, so they adopted it into their own movements,” he said.

He said the black sovereign citizens are part of a new black nationalist movement.

“It’s got the Moorish sovereigns, it’s got street gang members, it’s got the New Black Panther Party, black militia — all these different groups are starting to coalesce,” Johnson said.

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report.

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas