Like any new religious movement, the Washitaw Nation—to which Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long adhered—has a fantastical origin story.
Its empress was born encased in her own placenta as the Louisiana bayou flooded. “I kicked out of [the placenta] on my own, and then [the placenta] rolled up on my head like a crown,” Vediacee Turner—known by followers as Empress Veriacee “Tiari” Waashitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey—claimed, according to a profile of the movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After a career that included being the twice-elected mayor of Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, Turner would go on to declare herself an indigenous American Washitaw, and claim that she was the rightful owner of land sold in the Louisiana Purchase. (The Washitaw Nation is not recognized as an indigenous tribe.) She also founded the movement that inspired Long to legally change his name and declare himself a sovereign citizen, not bound by the laws of the United States. Police reportedly found an identification card for the Washitaw nation in his pocket.
Documents obtained by the Kansas City Star on Monday show Long filed notarized documents to “correct” his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra in May 2015. The vaguely legalese-sounding document carried the name of the United Washitaw De Dugdahmoundyah Mu'ur Nation. He also attached a certificate of Live Claim Birth—a type of birth certificate—from the group.
It’s not clear who the supreme leader of the Washitaw currently is; Turned died in 2014. But a website proclaiming to be the “official” site of the movement says that Turner’s primary concern was asking people, “Have ya’ll read my book?” The Return of the Ancient Ones laid out the foundations for the movement.
“[The Washitaw] are, in the weird language of the empress, ‘indigenous’—descendants of the ‘Ancient Ones,’ the ‘black ones’ who Goston insists peopled this continent tens of thousands of years before white Europeans arrived,” according to the SPLC.
The SPLC’s Ryan Lenz told The Daily Beast the Washitaws are best described as “a black sovereign citizen group.”
Their self-proclaimed sovereignty means they offer identification cards and birth certificates, and members believe they don’t have to pay state or federal taxes, and that the laws of the United States do not apply to them. A passport from the group cost $250 in the 1990s, according to a 1999 report on the group by the SPLC.
The “official site” run by Alim El-Bey includes numerous references to the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religious movement founded in the United States in early 20th century, and widely believed to have inspired the Washitaw Nation and other Moorish separatist movements. (Alim El-Bey shared at least one of Long’s posts on his Facebook page, as The Daily Beast reported on Sunday.)
The MST was the “first mass religious movement in the history of Islam in America,” according to a book by religion scholar Richard Brent Turner, though its similarities with mainstream Islam were quite limited. In fact, self-appointed prophet Noble Drew Ali even created his own Qur’an and clung to Islam as a way to distance himself from his Christian oppressors.
“It was urban, anti-Christian, and multicultural, and it developed as a distinct missionary and Pan-Africanist political agenda,” Turner wrote.
Drew Ali incorporated aspects of Marcus Garvey’s beliefs, Islamic movements from the Indian subcontinent, and ideas from the black Freemason movement into his new creation. Fundamental to the Moorish Science Temple’s ideology is the understanding of black people not as black, but members of a greater “Moorish” nation that is supposedly part of the Asiatic race. Through such an understanding, members essentially shed designations given to them by white people and created another identity as part of a mythically powerful nation.
In Drew Ali’s heavily modified Circle Seven Koran, Marcus Garvey is hailed as a sort of minor prophet.
“In these modern days there came a forerunner of Jesus, who was divinely prepared by the great God-Allah and his name is Marcus Garvey, who did teach and warn the nations of the earth to prepare to meet the coming Prophet,” it reads, referring to Drew Ali as the prophet who “was prepared and sent to this earth by Allah, to teach the old time religion and the everlasting gospel to the sons of men.”
While the Washitaw Nation would later claim to be descendants of the “Ancient Ones” who dwelled on American land, according to some legends, Drew Ali was raised by Cherokee Indians, though he didn’t claim Native heritage. And, just like the Washitaws, Drew Ali’s organization issued “nationality cards,” while members wore the national uniform of fezzes and turbans—in part because of Drew Ali’s belief that they came from Moroccans. Drew Ali gave his followers names like El and Bey, which seemed to come together in the Washitaw empress’s chosen name of El-Bey.
Drew Ali’s attempt to rebrand his African-American adherents as Asiatic Moors, however, clashed with the Washitaw Nation’s vision in that it was fundamentally an attempt at assimilation. Drew Ali hoped that “he could change the political and economic fate of African Americans in the Jim Crow era by ethnicizing the name of the race and by changing the names of his followers, thereby erasing the stigma and slavery and distancing them from ordinary Negroes who were not respected as Americans,” Richard Turner, the religion scholar, wrote. As the Moorish nation, Drew Ali thought they would be able to integrate and assimilate, just like everyone else.
Drew Ali died under mysterious circumstances in 1929, and the organization sprouted offshoots after his death. Member Wallace Fard Muhammad would go on to found the Nation of Islam, which would preach its own distinctive form of Islam to African Americans.
In the 1990s, some members of the MST proclaimed themselves Moorish sovereign citizens, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. They adapted the ideas of the largely white—and often racist—sovereign citizen movement for their own needs.
Their members intermingled with those of the Washitaw nation, seeking to establish black personhood “through means that are powerfully upending, and at the same time completely fictional,” Lenz said.
And Long is not the first sovereign citizen in recent years to shoot at police. Father and son duo Jerry and Joseph Kane shot and killed two police officers during a West Memphis, Arkansas traffic stop in 2010. Under sovereign citizen logic, the government can’t stop them at traffic stops, because those laws do not apply.
“It’s a person who doesn’t want to be ruled,” Lenz said. “This is the most free country in the world. And yet this is a revolt against the concept of government.”