'Moorish' connection in Baton Rouge shootings

The man who apparently shot dead three police officers before being brought down himself in Baton Rouge on July 17, Gavin Eugene Long, was a former Marine sergeant who went by the online name Cosmo Setepenra. His blog seems to be still online, as well as his YouTube rants in which he made clear that he did not want to be associated with any organized groups, apparently in anticipation of his attack. "I'm affiliated with the spirit of justice: nothing else, nothing more, nothing less," he said in one clip. But the Kansas City Star notes that he filed documents last year with county authorities at his Missouri home declaring himself a "sovereign" affiliated with the "United Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Mu'ur Nation, Mid-West Washita Tribes." It is a little strange to suddenly see the Washitaw Nation making headlines on NBC, and being mentioned in CNN, the New York Times and the like.

The Washitaw Nation (or Empire) purports to be a sovereign entity of indigenous "Moorish Americans" covering much of contemporary Louisiana and the greater Louisiana Purchase area. They claim descent from the Ouachita Indians, pointing to their possible origin in a tri-racial isolate community. But they are also adherents of the Moorish Science movement, founded a century ago by the Noble Drew Ali, which holds that African Americans are inheritors of a great Moorish civilization that throve on both sides of the Atlantic in an ancient past. This was an important precursor of the Black Muslim movement, and the Moorish Americans do consider themselves followers of Islam. This has led to much media confusion about their possible jihadist links—despite the fact that Moorish Science is not actually considered part of Islam by orthodox Muslims—much less by the ultra-orthodox Salafists of ISIS, al-Qaeda and so on.

However, we have noted the strange convergence in recent years between Moorish Science and the "sovereign citizen" notions of the radical right. There's certainly a deep irony here, as this is basically an updated version of the doctrines of "interposition" and "nullification" used by the South's white establishment to justify slavery and Jim Crow—and rightly condemned in Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. What explains the seeming contradiction is a Black nationalist embrace (although Moorish Americans generally reject the terms "Black" and "African American") of the politics of secessionism. Long-Setepenra seems to have been obsessed with this stuff. His online rants are full of this rhetoric (as well as an unseemly masculinist vanity he likely picked up in the Marines).

It should be noted that it is only offshoot tendencies of Moorish Science that adhere to the "sovereign citizen" theories. The mainline Moorish Science Temple of America explicitly rejects such "anti-government" ideas (as they are generally, and not quite accurately, called today). Azeem Hopkins-Bey, a national spokesman for the MSTA, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Regarding the shooter in Baton Rouge, he has no affiliation or ties with the Moorish Science Temple of America. In fact, his ideologies and his actions are diametrically opposed to [our] teachings... At the Moorish Science Temple of America, all life is sacred."

At a Philadelphia press conference in black suit and red fez, he emphasized that the MSTA "is no separatist group, it is not an anti-government organization." While calling for peaceful protests over the ongoing police killings of Blacks, he even broached the post-modern concept of "race" as a social construct: "The solution is not having more discussions about race. Black and white are political terms that describe the condition and status of a people."

Even the MSTA today is apparently factionalized. It evidently has two websites: MSTA1913.org and MSTA1928.org. These URLs seem to reference the year that Noble Drew first promulgated the doctrine of Moorish Science, and that of his death (shortly after being brutally beaten by the Chicago police), although the bio at the MSTA1913 site and other Moorish websites place his death in 1929. The 1913 website sports an American flag along with the Moorish flag.

There's also a page about the Moorish Science movement at the FBI Vault, the agency's archive of material from closed investigations. This is due to another misconception about the movement from another period of xenophobic paranoia. In World War II, the FBI investigated the MSTA as possible Japanese agents, because of their use of the term "Asiatic race" to describe all non-whites. The FBI eventually realized they were off base and closed the books.

So in the aftermath of the vigilante-style assassinations of cops in Baton Rouge and Dallas (which do nothing to build social movements and only provide propaganda for their repression) we not only have to guard against demonization of Black Lives Matter. We also have to oppose attempts to stigmatize as extremist any expression of Moorish identity.

There is also, of course, the danger that the ongoing police terror that led to the emergence of Black Lives Matter will be lost amid the ugly backlash of "Blue Lives Matter." The Times-Picayune reports that Amnesty International has taken note of the vicious police response to the protests in Baton Rouge on July 11, after the police killing of Alton Sterling. Police apparently ordered protesters off the street—then arrested people standing on the lawns and even porches of private homes, back from the sidewalks. Heavy military-style gear and vehicles were deployed, and high bails set, which "appeared to be aimed at scaring protesters into not returning to demonstrations."