Nine days before embarking on a shooting rampage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that left three police officers dead and three others wounded, Gavin Eugene Long posted a YouTube video in which he declared that he should not be “affiliated” with any groups. Instead, the man who later would gun down police with a AR-15 style rifle ominously insisted that his “actions” should be associated only with himself.
“I just want to let y’all know, don’t affiliate me with nothing,” he said. “I’m affiliated with the spirit of justice, nothing else.”
Despite Long’s pleas, however, news agencies who covered Sunday’s shooting clamored to find some hint of a motive, and outlet such as the Kansas City Star quickly noted the felled murderer’s connection to an often militant groups known as the “sovereign citizens movement.” They pointed to 2015 documents in which he declared himself a “sovereign citizen” and asked to legally change his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra.
Long does, in fact, appear to have maintained at least some affiliation to the anti-government group, as evidenced by the continued use of the name Cosmo, which he filed for as part of the Washitaw Moorish Nation — a sovereign citizen organization.
But what is the sovereign citizens movement, how was Long actually connected to it, and does it explain his apparent antipathy towards police officers?
Here are some answers.
What is the sovereign citizens movement?
At its core, the sovereign citizens movement is a loose collection of individuals who hold extreme, often militant anti-government beliefs. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, the ideology originated with the Posse Comitatus, an anti-Semitic group that was active in the Midwest beginning in the 1970s. Early sovereign citizens claimed their followers were exempt from all legal systems in the U.S. other than “common law courts” that have no lawyers — all of their followers, that is, except for black people, who they dismissed as “14th Amendment citizens.” They argued that black people are, in fact, subject to federal laws because they only became legal American citizens after the passage of the 14th Amendment, and thus cannot enjoy the same freedoms as their white followers.
People influenced by part or all of this ideology are known to lash out against police and government authorities when they feel threatened.
People influenced by part or all of this ideology are known to lash out against police and government authorities when they feel threatened. In 1995, a sovereign pulled a gun on an officer in Ohio during a traffic stop, only to be shot dead by police himself. In 1997, a sovereign citizen in New Hampshire used an AR-15 to kill two police officers and two civilians (and wound three more officers) before dying in a hail of gunfire. Two sovereign brothers in Idaho also opened fire on police officers later that same year, killing one and wounding another before being killed themselves. In 2010, a father-and-son team in West Memphis, Arkansas murdered two officers using an AK-47 after they were pulled over on the interstate, fleeing the scene before they died in a shootout with police. And in 2012, Kyle Joekel and the “Smith family” ambushed four Louisiana Parish deputies, killing two and wounding two others.
Almost all of the culprits listed above were white, as was Terry Nichols, a sovereign citizen and domestic terrorist convicted of helping enact the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and wounded 680 others. For this and other reasons, sovereign citizens were ranked the number one threat to American citizens by law enforcement officers in 2014.
Why is Long connected to a group rooted in racism?
Over time, the movement — whose central tenet is anti-government sentiment above all else — accrued black followers who either did not care about or were simply unaware of the group’s racist origins. This gave rise to a number of strange, fringe entities such as the Washitaw De Dugdahmoundyah (i.e., the Washitaw Moorish Nation), a majority black group based in Louisiana that insists they are exempt from most U.S. law because they claim to be an indigenous tribe. According to a 1999 report from the SPLC, the nation — of which Long appears to be a member — believes they are derived from “black ones” who inhabited North America thousands of years before Europeans arrived, and their “empress” insists that the land sold to United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase by France was not the result of a legitimate sale, and thus belongs to the Nation.
The result is a tiny group that uses a “common law” ideology created largely by white supremacists to issue its own (illegal) driver’s licenses, license plates, and birth certificates — documents similar to those filed in Jackson County, Missouri in May 2015 by Long to change his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra.
The Nation and groups like it often overlap with so-called “black separatist groups,” which sometimes teach — or, in many cases, preach — militant ideologies. These groups, which are also tracked but he SPLC, have reportedly expanded their memberships in recent years, as have hate groups of all types. SPLC researchers have implied that this uptick is in many ways a reaction to the resurgence of white supremacist groups: in 2015, the two hate groups with the largest membership spikes were the Ku Klux Klan and black separatist groups.
How connected to the group was Long?
Outside of the May 2015 document filings and the continued use of the name Cosmo, it’s unclear how deep Long’s affiliation with the Washitaw Nation goes. Moreover, although leaders of the Nation have been charged with a number of crimes (they and other sovereign organizations — including majority white ones — often file false liens to harass their enemies with expensive legal fees) wanton, widespread violence against police does not appear to be one of them.
Regardless, if Long shared anything with the broader sovereign citizens movement, it’s the pattern of attacking public servants: before the shooting, Long’s YouTube account reportedly showed that he “liked” a video by known sovereign citizen activist Larken Rose.
The video was entitled, “When Should You Shoot A Cop?”