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What we know about the Baton Rouge gunman and the 'sovereign citizen' movement

Before he attacked police officers in Louisiana, gunman Gavin Long expressed interest in a black offshoot of the typically white anti-government movement.

by Brendan James
Jul 20 2016, 9:14pm

Image via YouTube/Cosmo Setepenra

Ask most Americans to imagine an anti-government "sovereign citizen" and they'd probably picture a white, bearded, gun-toting, middle-aged male clad in camouflage and speaking with a Southern or Midwest drawl. Gavin Long defied that stereotype.

The 29-year-old Long — a black ex-Marine and self-described "life coach" — was the gunman who recently killed three Baton Rouge police officers and wounded three others before he was fatally shot. He identified himself part of the Washitaw Nation, a black anti-government group that turns the idea of the "sovereign citizen" movement on its head.

The typical sovereign citizen group is a community of right-wing, anti-government agitators who have seceded from what they see as the tyrannical and illegitimate US federal government. Members style themselves as "anti-authoritarians" and usually have a militia mentality. The movement grew out of self-professed anti-black and anti-Semitic organizations like the Posse Comitatus in the '70s and '80s. Many sovereign citizens refuse to pay taxes and believe they have the right to pick and choose which laws to obey.

At first glance, the traditional "sovereign citizen" subculture seems incompatible with a black nationalist ideology. It may be an odd pairing, but it's a hybrid that has grown increasingly popular since the 1990s. The group's trick has been finding a new way to delegitimize the federal government without relying on the explicitly white supremacist literature of the rest of the movement.

Related: Everything we know about the Baton Rouge gunman and his bizarre online alter ego

The Washitaw philosophy draws on language and concepts usually reserved for white supremacist groups, rather than, say, the militant leftist Black Panthers. The group, which worships its late leader Wendy Farica Washitaw as a divine empress, has denied ever having any affiliation with Long, Reuters reported. A US official told the news agency that investigators are still looking into the group's possible ties to the gunman. Before the shooting, Long recorded video of himself denying that he was connected with any group.

"If anything happens to me... Don't affiliate me with nothing," he said in a July 8 video. "I'm not affiliated with the Nation of Islam... They try and put you with ISIS or some other terrorist group. I'm affiliated with the spirit of justice. Nothing more, nothing less. I made my own thoughts. I made my own decisions. I'm the one that's gotta listen to the judgement, and my heart is pure."

But even if Long wasn't formally linked to Washitaw, he still embraced some of the group's customs. He adopted the name Cosmo Ausar Setepenra, a switch that was in accordance with the group's practice of embracing one's "indigenous" identity over the false one recognized by the illegitimate US government.

Gavin Long during his attack on police in Baton Rouge. (Image via Louisiana State Police)

The concept of indigenous identity drives the Washita Nation. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks and studies domestic hate groups, has followed the group since the '90s. One SPLC report revealed that the group's mythology urges members to reclaim their true heritage as part of what its website calls "the Ancient Ones," a reference to a group of Africans — "a tribe of Israel" — that the group believes settled in Louisiana and created a sophisticated civilization that predated the arrival of European colonizers.

The mythology has a basis in truth. According to the SPLC, a mysterious society did at one point occupy the areas around Monroe, Louisiana, but anything beyond that historical gray area. The Washitaw definitely have no link to the alternatively-spelled Ouachita Native American tribe, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the the US government does not recognize Washitaw's tribal claims.

Related: Photos show Baton Rouge gunman shooting at police with assault rifle

But beyond its founding myth and African American recruitment, Washita basically operates the way any garden-variety "sovereign citizen" group does: Its members ignore federal law, avoid paying taxes taxes, and make use of non-government IDs and driver's licenses, the sales of which help fill the group's coffers.

One reason authorities are still looking into Long's associations to Washitaw is that the group isn't known to have committed any acts of violence that would have put them on notice. Beyond financial crimes detailed by the SPLC, Washitaw hasn't come under suspicion for actions that are usually associated with "sovereign citizen" groups, such as gun-running, terrorism, and sometimes bizarre cases of sexual slavery.

The group's most recent run-in with the law was in February, when members took over a house that was up for sale in New Orleans, justifying their presence with ancestral rights to the property. The owner eventually got them evicted without any violence.

Meanwhile, the broader movement of anti-government groups continues to expand. Sovereign citizen groups have been involved in at least 62 incidents of violence since 9/11, according to NBC. Now the Baton Rogue shooting has placed this kind of "sovereign" offshoot on the government's radar.

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