Massachusetts standoff reveals growing extremist threat

Massachusetts standoff reveals growing extremist threat
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Last Saturday, July 3, U.S. law enforcement members once again confronted heavily armed extremists. The 11 men arrested along I-95 near Wakefield, Mass., are not, however, white supremacists from the Oath KeepersThree Percenters, or Proud Boys but members of a little-known African American group, the Rise of the Moors. The episode reveals that the threat from domestic extremist groups is widespread and increasingly diverse. 

The incident began when a Massachussets State Trooper stopped to assist drivers of two vehicles refueling by the side of the road. Seeing that some of the men wore body armor and were armed with pistols and long guns, the officer asked them for identification, which they failed to provide. Several of the men fled into the nearby woods, but they eventually surrendered. The standoff lasted nine hours. To their credit, the officers resolved the situation peacefully. 

The group’s leader said they were a militia from Rhode Island traveling to Maine to engage in training on private land. The suspects insist they did nothing wrong and were exercising their second amendment rights to “bear arms.” However, the local district attorney charged them with having unlicensed guns and other firearms violations. At their arraignment, the defendants denied the charges, and one claimed that the court had no authority over him because he is a “foreign national.”

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That refusal to acknowledge legal authority indicates a core tenant of the group’s ideology. The Rise of the Moors are Moorish Sovereign Citizens, a subset of the larger Sovereign Citizens movement. Sovereign citizens, most of whom are white, reject the authority of the federal and state governments, refuse to pay taxes, and consider themselves bound only by common law and answerable solely to the locally elected sheriff. White sovereign citizens have traditionally been racist and antisemitic, and many white supremacists today harbor a deep distrust if not outright hostility to the government.

Like their white counterparts, Moorish Sovereign Citizens reject government authority, but their argument rests on a different premise. They insist that as Moors, which they claim as the true identity of African Americans, they are the original inhabitants of the United States. This argument allows them to claim that they are not “sovereign citizens” but the true government of the country. A variant of this theory argues that status of Moorish Americans stems from a letter written by President George Washington to the Sultan of Morocco in 1789. The letter actually acknowledges the signing of a commerce treaty between the two countries and contains Washington’s promise of American friendship. Rise of the Moors, however, interprets it as “evidence of Moors having sovereignty or supreme power over the Americas.”

While individual Moorish Sovereign Citizens, like their white counterparts, have committed crimes, they have not done paramilitary training in groups. That fact makes the stated goal of the 11 suspects worrying. Why did they describe themselves as a militia? Were others planning to join them at the site in Maine? Most importantly, are the Rise of the Moors a fringe group or indicative of a broader movement? Situated in the context of militia activity in general and the recent appearance of a more militant African American group in particular, the Massachusetts incident becomes an even greater cause for concern. 

In 2017, the Not F--king Around Coalition (NFAC), an all-Black militia, formed in response to “racial inequality and police brutality.” NFAC recruits veterans (just like the Oath Keepers) and engages in paramilitary training at a site in Georgia. The group is led by John Fitzgerald Johnson, also known as Grandmaster Jay, a controversial figure who opposes Black Lives Matter, wants to establish an independent Black nation in Texas, and has been accused of tweeting antisemitic comments. NFAC has conducted marches in several cities, often in response to racial incidents such as the March 2020 police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. The group has been careful to coordinate its demonstrations with local police and has avoided confrontations. A former member has been charged with shooting a Daytona, Fla., police officer, and Grandmaster Jay has been indicted for allegedly pointing an assault rifle at officers in Louisville, but NFAC as a group has not been involved in any violent activity or civil disturbance. 

NFAC and the Rise of the Moors have some characteristics in common with white militias, but they differ in key respects. Both harbor a deep distrust of government and share the belief that they must defend their own people. For Black militias, however, that conviction stems from real oppression; for white groups, it arises from a perceived loss of privilege. White militia members are also far more numerous and have engaged in many more violent crimes. No African American group has done anything remotely like the Jan. 6 insurrection. These distinctions do not mean that Black militias are a good thing. All such paramilitary groups should be disbanded.

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All 50 states have laws or constitutional articles restricting or prohibiting paramilitary activity by private citizens. Forty-eight states have constitutional provisions subordinating all military bodies to the civil authorities. Twenty-nine states have laws banning the formation of private military groups without government approval, and 25 states have laws prohibiting at least some paramilitary activities. However, many of these laws lack teeth, or there is a lack of political will to enforce them. 

The potentially dire consequences of continuing to ignore the militia menace are not hard to imagine. A repeat of Jan. 6, either in Washington or at any number of state capitols, could easily occur. Hate crimes perpetrated by groups, their members, or fellow travelers are a virtual certainty. If armed bodies of white extremists continue to train and appear on American streets with impunity, threatened minorities are sure to respond with organizations of their own. Armed engagements between rival groups akin to gang wars that plague so many cities are a horrific but very real possibility.

Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author ofViolent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”