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Eleven armed men who had a nine-hour standoff with Massachusetts State Police on I-95 over the holiday weekend say they shouldn’t have been arrested because they didn’t break any laws by driving through the state with a collection of firearms and tactical gear.
The group is a self-proclaimed militia and political organization called Rise of the Moors, based in Rhode Island. According to police, the group is an offshoot of the Moorish Sovereign Ideology movement, whose followers believe they have no obligation to obey U.S. laws due to an alleged treaty with the nation of Morocco in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
While the group maintains they did nothing wrong possessing weapons as they made their way across the state, they were arrested and charged with several weapons offenses, including unlawful possession. When they appeared in court on Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 of the 11 men pleaded not guilty, with a majority of them opting to represent themselves. They’re each being held on $100,000 bail at Billerica House of Correction in Middlesex County.
One of the men agreed to a court-appointed lawyer Wednesday morning, according to NBC News affiliate 10 Boston. Another defendant, who has continually refused to provide his information to authorities, is being held until authorities can identify him.
"I am a free Moor, a national, a free, living man," the man, known only as John Doe #1, told the judge Tuesday. He was eventually removed from the court for repeatedly interrupting legal proceedings.
A minor who was arrested will be arraigned at a later date.
Although Rise of the Moors did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment, its leader, former U.S. Marine Jamhal Tavon Sanders Latimer, who also goes by the name Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey, said its members don’t consider themselves sovereign citizens but rather foreign nationals.
“We’re not anti-government, we’re not anti-police, we’re not sovereign citizens, we’re not Black-identity extremists,” Bey said Saturday on a YouTube livestream hosted during the standoff. “As specified multiple times to the police, we are abiding by the peaceful journey laws of the United States federal courts.”
He explained in another livestream recorded the same day that he and his group were following the rules of their state of origin and therefore have the right to make their way to their destination as long as they don’t make any unnecessary stops. He cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. Hawaii that says restrictive open-carry laws infringe on Americans’ Second Amendment rights.
“The federal laws of the United States specify that as long as we are not prohibited from bearing arms in the state that we are coming from, we have the right to peacefully journey through the states as long we are not making any unnecessary stops,” he tells police during the livestream.
Bey says the group carried containers of gasoline and only pulled over to refuel.
On July 3, at around 1:30 in the morning, Massachusetts State Police said one of their troopers came across two vehicles that had pulled over on the I-95 breakdown lane with their hazard lights blinking. Hoping to assist, the police cruiser pulled up next to the vehicles and found multiple men armed with tactical vests, complete with body cameras, AR-15-style weapons, and pistols.
The trooper asked the men for their licenses and registrations for their vehicle, as well as licenses for their weapons. When the men told the trooper that they did not have any, the trooper called for backup as several of the men ran into the nearby woods.
What followed was a search and subsequent standoff between law enforcement and the armed men, which shut down the roadway for hours. Police also put a shelter-in-place order for residents of the nearby town of Wakefield. Establishing a perimeter around where the men were and using the department’s hostage negotiations teams, police were eventually able to talk the men into surrendering peacefully around 10:15 a.m.
Police later reported that they found a total of eight firearms in the group’s possession.
The men range in age from 17 to 40 and are from New York, Rhode Island, and Michigan, according to police. Aside from the 17-year-old, who was released into the custody of his parents shortly after the standoff came to a close, the men were all arrested and charged with:
unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, use of body armor in commission of a crime, possession of a high-capacity magazine, improper storage of a firearm in a vehicle, and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Three of the men and the juvenile face an additional charge of providing a false name to law enforcement.
In Bey’s version of events, told in the YouTube livestream that day, his group was cooperative and making their way to privately owned land in Maine for some firearms training.
“The police seen us on the side of the road with our guns secured. We were afraid, so we got out with our arms,” he said. “I reassured them multiple times that we’re abiding by the federal laws as well as the judicial opinions of the United State Supreme Court. But they keep portraying us as anti-government.”
“We have the right to peacefully journey through the states as long we are not making any unnecessary stops.”
Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told VICE News that those who follow the Moorish sovereign ideology are part of the larger sovereign citizen movement in America, which includes groups of all backgrounds, including white supremacists. They don’t believe they’re subject to U.S. laws and often don’t pay taxes. On the Rise of the Moors website, they say they don’t have an obligation to pay taxes as they are not represented in the government.
“All of these sovereign citizen movements have different ideologies and sub-ideolgies. What bands them all together is the idea that they, in fact, are living within a legitimate jurisdiction, whereas the United States itself is illegitimate,” Goldwasser said.
In 2014, the sovereign citizen movement was considered one of the top terrorist threats in America, according to the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
The Moorish movement in particular was popularized in the mid-1990s when some people merged sovereign citizen movement ideas with those of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religious organization that claims African Americans are descendants of the Moabites, a kingdom once located in the modern-day nation of Jordan, and belong to the Islamic faith, according to the SPLC.
The Moorish Science Temple of America denounces the sovereign citizens concept, according to Goldwasser.
One of the dominating theories in the Moorish Sovereign Ideology movement states that a 1789 treaty between George Washington and then-Sultan of Morocco Muhammed Ibn Abdullah gave all of the country’s descendants living in the U.S. immunity from the law of the land.
While Goldwasser called the Moroccan treaty “entirely fictitious,” she explained that states like New Jersey, Louisiana, and Illinois all have Moor sovereign citizen groups within their boundaries who claim to be the true inheritors of the land.
Many of them also believe they’re the true owners of the land in their specified states, as they have ties to the Indigenous peoples who settled in America before the establishment of the U.S.
Though Bey denies any association with the Moorish Sovereign Ideology movement, he said in a different video uploaded to YouTube Tuesday that his organization does believe in the Moor-U.S. treaty of more than 200 years ago. He also says that his organization’s members are strict followers of federal law.
Bey’s father, Steven Latimer, has since come forward to reassure the public that his son ha no intentions of harming anyone with his beliefs.
“They are not a terrorist group in waiting,” Latimer told local NBC affiliate 10 Boston, explaining that he’s worried for his son. “My son has no ill will in his heart. He wants to help people, not destroy and hurt.”
While many people and groups that are part of the sovereignty movement resort to peaceful confrontation of the law, like the Rise of the Moors, according to Goldwasser, there have been several violent, and even fatal incidents involving the movement in recent years.
In 2016, for example, Gavin Long, a member of the Washitaw Nation, another Moorish sovereign group, shot six police officers, killing three, in Baton Rouge. He was shot and killed by police during the confrontation. In 2017, Markeith Loyd, who was wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend at the time, shot and killed an Orlando police officer and has referenced his status as a sovereign citizen in court.
During their court appearance on Tuesday, Rise of the Moors members maintained they did nothing wrong and said they didn’t intend to harm anyone during their pit stop in Massachusetts. The men refused court-appointed counsel, agreeing to represent themselves in court. One even asked the judge to have Bey represent him in court.
When Bey himself appeared in court, he reiterated to the judge that he had no intentions of harming anyone and that his group only held their weapons because they wanted to protect themselves.
“I don’t understand how these charges can be brought against me,” Bey said in court.