The case made headlines last fall in the midst of the Ferguson unrest.
Two men with ties to the New Black Panther Party were charged with acquiring weapons in what was later revealed to be a plot to kill two public officials and blow up a police station.
The two pleaded guilty in June and will be sentenced Thursday in federal court in St. Louis. And in a lesser-known twist, one of the African-American defendants is an adherent of a movement that has its origins in racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.
Olajuwon Ali Davis is a “Moorish national” — an offshoot of the sovereign citizen movement.
Experts and authorities say the case illustrates the changing face of the movement, whose members believe the government is corrupt and out of control and has no jurisdiction over them.
While today’s movement remains largely white and still has some followers with racist leanings, a surge in the number of nonwhite sovereign citizens is underway across the country. And the biggest growth, experts say, is within an African-American branch called Moorish sovereigns, which is disseminating its ideas to a whole new batch of recruits.
“It’s a new world,” said J.J. MacNab, an author who for two decades has been tracking anti-government extremists. “And Missouri is like ground zero.”
The common denominator between sovereign citizens and more left-wing black separatists, MacNab said, is the sense of being powerless and having no voice.
“You have a group of right-wing people who feel voiceless,” said MacNab, who also is a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “You look at the angst in Ferguson and you hear a lot of the same things. They would not recognize it in each other, but they have a lot of the same complaints, which is that the world is changing and we don’t get a say in it.”
Bob Harris, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons case manager who teaches law enforcement officers how to identify and handle domestic extremists, acknowledged the irony of a movement with white supremacist roots being joined by an African-American group. But today’s sovereigns, he said, aren’t like those of previous decades.
“They are much more reflective of the demographics of society today,” he said. “You have white people, you have African-Americans, you have Asians, you have Native Americans. The sovereign citizen movement has really become a melting pot.”
And Moorish nationals are increasingly occupying a bigger portion of the pot, experts say.
“In the last several years, it’s exploded,” said Kory Flowers, a sergeant with the Greensboro, N.C., police department who trains officers and elected officials on sovereign citizen tactics.
A Kansas City area sovereign citizen told The Star that he’s not at all surprised to hear about African-Americans taking up sovereign ideologies.
“It just shows that more and more people are fed up with the government,” said Ken Auman, who has filed dozens of motions in lawsuits around the metro area, accusing city and county officials of corruption, harassment and violating his rights.
Auman said he welcomes African-American sovereign citizens into the fold.
The shift comes at a time when authorities say the loosely organized movement, which has been around in various forms for decades, is experiencing a surge in violence — a trend The Star explored in a series of stories in April.
A Department of Homeland Security assessment issued earlier this year said there have been 24 violent incidents associated with sovereign citizens since 2010. And the FBI now considers sovereign citizen extremists “as comprising a domestic terrorist movement.”
Harris said much of the Moorish sovereign activity in the past six or seven years has been concentrated along the Eastern Seaboard. But now, he said, it’s spreading.
“The Ferguson riots brought a lot of them out of the woodwork,” he said, “and a lot of them from other parts of the country are coming into Ferguson, Kansas City and the St. Louis area to recruit.”
He said it’s hard to tell exactly how many Moorish sovereigns are scattered throughout the country.
“I would say their numbers nationwide probably total in the few thousand,” he said. Estimates of traditional sovereign citizens run as high as 400,000. “But it is growing.”
Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, said he sees plenty of signs of the Moorish sovereign expansion, in part because of social media.
“All sorts of Moorish sovereign citizen videos on YouTube and links on Facebook have spread these ideas very quickly,” Pitcavage said. “It also explains why the movement has attracted a lot of younger people.”
Another reason, he said, is that sovereign citizens who were sent to prison in the 1990s and early 2000s started teaching the tactics to other prisoners.
“We’ve seen evidence of this in Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore, where even members of some street gangs have started adopting Moorish sovereign citizen stuff,” he said.
Although most of their criminal activity has involved mortgage and property fraud, the proliferation is a concern, Harris said.
“Right now, they’re more into the social upheaval movement rather than attacks on law enforcement,” he said. “But with their loose affiliation with the New Black Panther Party, who have called for the killing of police officers, that could change.”
In the past few years, Moorish sovereigns have been in the news for incidents of “squatting,” a tactic in which they quietly move into foreclosed and empty houses, invoke their “sovereign rights” and claim the property as their own.
In one case, a man laid claim to a $6 million Bethesda, Md., mansion in 2013, saying it was his because he was a Moorish-American national. Lamont Butler produced paperwork that he’d crafted, citing among other things a 1787 peace treaty between the U.S. and Morocco.
Moorish sovereigns often argue their beliefs in court.
In April, Tyre Wortham — who claimed the state of Washington had no jurisdiction over him — was sentenced to 72 years for robbing two banks at gunpoint in Spokane in 2014. And in July, Eric Rogers received a 55- to 178-year sentence for raping, robbing and beating five Pennsylvania women. In court, he refused to answer questions or sign documents and challenged the judge’s legal authority to sentence him.
Moorish sovereigns take their name from the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religion founded in 1925 by Noble Drew Ali, said Spencer Dew, assistant professor of religious studies at Centenary College of Louisiana.
“He started this religion to say, ‘Look, God doesn’t want us to be second-class citizens. God has a design for what the world should look like and what American democracy should look like, and we need a piece of that. We need full respect,’” Dew said.
The Moors believe that African-Americans settled in what is now the United States long before anyone else, including Native Americans, Dew said. Some have used that tenet, and a 1787 treaty between the U.S. and Morocco, to push the sovereign ideology that they have indigenous rights and aren’t subject to U.S. law.
Dew said, however, that the majority of Moorish Science Temple followers do not adhere to sovereign ideology.
“I think it’s a shame that all some folks know about Moorish science is some guy selling false paperwork off the Internet,” he said. “That does an injustice to the deep history of an interesting religion and the Moors who are trying to worship God and be good citizens.”
Pitcavage said because the Moorish Science Temple sect is not unified, decisions on what to do about sovereign ideology are almost on a temple-by-temple basis.
“There are people in the Moorish Science Temple who try to warn followers to stay out of this, but some of the Moorish temples are almost taken over by Moorish sovereign citizens,” he said.
The home office of the Moorish Science Temple of America has a statement on its website denouncing the Moorish sovereign citizen movement.
“We assertively declare that the Moorish Science Temple of America Inc. is in no form or fashion a Sovereign Citizen Movement or a Tax Protestor Movement, consequently our teachings are diametrically opposed to that ideology,” it says.
But Flowers, the Greensboro police sergeant, said authorities started seeing the Moorish sovereign movement “just explode” after the recession in 2008: “And we haven’t seen it slow down.”
Indeed, he said, he came across a Moorish sovereign last year on a flight to Oklahoma City, where he was conducting a training session.
“He gets on the plane wearing a fez and sits right behind me,” he said. “And he was going to Houston to scout out recently foreclosed houses to create false deeds on. What’s the chances of that?”
The man, Flowers said, is now in prison.
St. Louis case
On Nov. 21, three days before the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney announced that a grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson, the then-Ferguson police officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death, authorities arrested Davis and Brandon Orlando Baldwin.
The men were originally charged with illegally purchasing firearms and later with “conspiracy to damage or destroy by use of explosive a building, vehicle and other property,” which included plans to kill Ferguson’s police chief and the county prosecutor.
Media reports at the time cited sources who said the defendants’ plans also included planting a bomb on the observation deck of the Gateway Arch, a detail not mentioned in the indictment. The men pleaded guilty in June and face seven years in prison.
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said in a statement after their guilty pleas that “the disruption of this plot, coming as it did on the eve of the expected grand jury announcement, undoubtedly saved lives. Luckily for all of us, we’ll never know just how many.”
Davis, 23, has a Kansas City connection. At a hearing in June, he told the judge he had attended three years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, majoring in economics.
Davis was featured in a March 2012 “Tattoo of the Week” column in University News, the student newspaper. His tattoo, which covered most of his back, depicted a panther attacking an eagle.
(A university spokesman said a student by that name attended UMKC from 2010 to 2012.)
Davis explained his sovereign beliefs in a video posted on YouTube in November 2013.
“I am Olajuwon Ali, native of North America and free Moorish national of Northwest Amexem,” he said on the video. “Do you find yourselves being oppressed? Are you tired of being taxed? Are you tired of being harassed and assaulted and threatened by police simply because you are black? There is a solution. And that solution is called nationality.”
Davis said that in April 2013, he filed his “name correction and nationality” with the St. Louis County recorder of deeds.
Because of that, he said, “I am no longer a slave to the matrix. Thus, I am no longer obligated to pay taxes. I am no longer obligated to follow certain policies and ordinances that may be enforced by the same police who are supposed to be here to protect and serve.”
On the video, Davis displayed a photo of his ID card, something sovereign citizens often use in place of traditional identification. It listed his race as “human” and his nationality as “Moorish-American.”
Authorities in the St. Louis area continue to pay close attention to the Moorish movement.
On Aug. 21, the St. Louis FBI sent a notice to law enforcement officers alerting that a possible Moorish sovereign citizen had been shot by police and that black extremist groups were among those that had incited violence in other cities.
The bulletin, obtained by The Star, referred to Mansur Ball-Bey, an 18-year-old African-American who was shot to death Aug. 19 during the execution of a search warrant in St. Louis. Police said Ball-Bey pointed a gun at officers after being told to stop and drop his weapon. The shooting reignited clashes between residents and police.
A national spokesman for the Moorish Science Temple of America said Ball-Bey was a member of Subordinate Temple No. 5 in St. Louis but was “absolutely not” a Moorish sovereign citizen.
“That’s actually a teaching that the Moorish Science Temple of America is diametrically opposed to,” said Brother Azeem Hopkins-Bey.
Pitcavage and others note that as the sovereign movement continues to grow, most followers today aren’t aware of its racist roots.
“Even though the movement was started by white supremacists, what they focused on were anti-government ideas,” Pitcavage said. “So with each subsequent decade, white supremacists have become an ever smaller and less important part of the sovereign citizen movement.”
And that, he said, has made it easier for African-Americans and others to become sovereign citizens.
“Because it’s all about the government.”