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A look at the Baton Rouge shooter's background: Black separatism, 'sovereign citizenship'




Robert Ossler, Chaplain of the Police and Fire Department of Millville, NJ visits a memorial for the three police officers who were shot and killed in an ambush on July 18, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Robert Ossler, Chaplain of the Police and Fire Department of Millville, NJ visits a memorial for the three police officers who were shot and killed in an ambush on July 18, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

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Three police officers are dead and three more are injured after law enforcement officials in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said they were “ambushed” Sunday. It's just the latest tragedy in a recent spate of violence touched off by two high-profile police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

The Baton Rouge shooter, Marine veteran Gavin Long, was killed in a gun battle with police Sunday. His trail of records showed he had previously declared himself a member of the Washitaw Nation separatist group, as well as as the Nation of Islam, although he had advised the public in a recent Facebook post not to affiliate him with any groups. 

Larry Mantle spoke with Brian Levin, criminologist and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State, San Bernardino, and LAPD Detective Lou Turriaga this morning to unpack the details of the tragedy and find out how local law enforcement is reacting.

What is Washitaw Nation?

Brian Levin: When we think of the "sovereign citizen" movement, often times we think of it as a white male movement – and it generally is. Sovereign citizens, many people have heard of the Posse Comitatus, are folks that believe the power of government doesn’t go past the county level and the county sheriff is the highest authority.

The Washitaw Nation is a little different. They’re similar to their white counterparts in the sense that they don’t generally recognize government – particularly federal authority. They are part of a black separatist movement and they are an offshoot of the Moorish sovereign movement. In the 1800s, and it still exists now, the Moorish Science Temple, had a presence in the North East —particularly in Chicago. There was later an offshoot of the Moorish movement, it was called Washitaw Nation.

Interestingly enough, another entity that Gavin Long was affiliated with, the Nation of Islam, was also an offshoot of the Moorish Science Temple. Its founder, Wallace Fard Mohammed, was with the Moorish Science Temple, but he left after he didn’t get a leadership role and founded the Nation of Islam.

Is it unusual for someone with a military background to be pulled into one of these groups?

Levin: It’s not unusual, but the United States military is one of the largest institutions in the country, and it’s also an institution whose membership are targeted by an array of extremists from Neo-Nazis and the Klan, to other folks as well.

So, the thing is, when these folks act out violently, they have training and that’s why they’re sought out. 

Law enforcement officers block the entrance to the Louisiana State Police headquarters after 3 police officers were killed early this morning on July 17, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Law enforcement officers block the entrance to the Louisiana State Police headquarters after 3 police officers were killed early this morning on July 17, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Do you suspect that Dallas triggered Long?

Levin: A lot of these people have a grievance that is individual, and the template that I use before Congress or when training law enforcement, is there are three types of folks who get involved with this: the ideological offender, the psychologically dangerous, or the person who’s seeking personal benefit or revenge. We can have one be a primary factor and the other be a supporting factor, and it varies by each individual.

But often times, people tie individual frustrations and goals for revenge with a broader movement to make them feel important. We see this across the board. With sovereign citizens, often times, at least with folks whom are traditionally Caucasian, we see violence with respect to law enforcement when there’s something being executed: a warrant, a car stop or a domestic violence complaint.

Here, this ambush thing is something we saw much more with the black separatists that took place in the 1970s with the Black Liberation Army, when we had over a dozen police officers murdered.

I think [Long] took a ladle not just to the Washitaw Nation and the Nation of Islam, but also to the more extremist side of the anti-police movement, which is different than people who are protesting for criminal justice reform. I don’t want to put those folks who are peacefully protesting for reform in the same category.

Can extreme rhetoric can be a trigger to actual violence?

Levin: I think extreme rhetoric can certainly be a supporting factor. 

Following Sunday's attack on law enforcement in Baton Rouge, LAPD Detective Lou Turriaga said Los Angeles police officers are acting cautiously to 9-1-1 calls.      

“Police officers came on this job to make a difference. We want to protect and save our citizens – that’s the calling. It always has been, and always will be,” Turriaga said.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Guests:

Lou Turriaga, LAPD Detective III and a director for the Los Angeles Police Protective League

Brian Levin, criminologist and attorney; director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at Cal State, San Bernardino where he specializes in analysis of hate crime, terrorism and legal issues; he tweets from @proflevin