They call themselves the “Rise of the Moors,” a Rhode Island-based group whose travel through Massachusetts Saturday shut down a portion of Interstate 95 and resulted in the arrest of 11 men who authorities described as being heavily armed.
In videos posted to social media, members of the “Rise of the Moors,” are all men who dressed in military gear and displayed military-style weapons and Morocco’s flag. During their hours-long standoff in Wakefield, the group’s leader identified himself as Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey and said he was a US Marine Corps veteran.
Driving a van and a pickup truck, the group said it had pulled over to refuel when Massachusetts State Police approached their vehicles early Saturday morning. The vehicles were carrying fuel and camping gear, according to Bey, who said the men were headed to private land in Maine to train and brought their own fuel because members feared they would cause alarm if they stopped at a gas station.
In video livestreamed from the scene early Saturday morning, Bey said the group’s members believe they are foreign nationals in the United States who were traveling through Massachusetts under a Moroccan flag attached to their vehicles.
Using a megaphone to amplify his voice, another man said their detention by police officers violated an 18th-century treaty between the United States and Morocco, according to one video.
“We choose to continue on our peaceful journey. Please do not infringe. We can settle this in court peacefully,” said the other man. “Please do not be a threat to us.”
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said “Rise of the Moors” is a relatively new and fairly small group that shares beliefs with sovereign citizens, a movement mostly composed of white people. The “Rise of the Moors” members in the social media videos are Black men.
“Rise of the Moors” has distinguished itself, Pitcavage said, by demonstrating an interest in paramilitary activity.
“Many sovereign citizen groups are armed, but very few of them actually engage in paramilitary activity like a militia group would, their sister movement,” he said. “But this appears to be one of the rare exceptions.”
Groups like the “Rise of the Moors” are an extension of the sovereign citizen movement and their adherents have formed organizations in cities along the East Coast, Pitcavage said.
The “Rise of the Moors” have drawn some of their beliefs from a religious sect known as the Moorish Science Temple, he said.
The “Rise of the Moors’s” website includes details about the life of Noble Drew Ali, who established the Moorish Science Temple of America in Chicago during the early 20th-century and is credited with founding the country’s first mass Muslim movement, according to a press release about a 2020 Ali biography.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Moorish sovereign citizen movement includes independent groups and individuals scattered throughout the United States.
The group’s website describes its organization as a collective of “Moorish Americans,” and its members believe they are the “original sovereigns of this land — America.” The website said the group is based in Pawtucket, R.I., and that its members refuse to pay taxes because they “are not represented within their body politic.”
“Rise of the Moors” claims to own a vacant residence on Broadway in Pawtucket, according to legal documents created by the organization and signed by Bey in 2019. The group is also soliciting donations, claiming on its website that it has “successfully claimed an abandoned home for our benefit as a people.”
In court papers, Midfirst Bank said it owns the property and has sued the “Rise of the Moors” in Providence County Superior Court to clear the title on the residence.
During the standoff, the men detained on I-95 vehemently denied being antigovernment or sovereign citizens.
“I reassured them that we are not Black-identity extremists. I reassured them that we are not anti-police,” Bey said in one video. “I reassured them that we are not antigovernment. I reassured them that these men here will not be pointing guns at them. I reassured them that we are trying to come to a peaceful resolution.”
Bey cited a Supreme Court case, Young v. The State of Hawaii, which he said authorized the “Rise of the Moors” to bear arms.
“Simply bearing arms is not a crime,” he said.
Christine Sarteschi, an associate professor of social work and criminology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, said the group’s legal citations are self-serving.
“They’re trying to pick things out that they think will get them out of trouble, but it never works and it’s contradictory to what they believe, which is that the United States has no authority over them,” she said.
Roadside interactions between officers and sovereign citizens are fraught and potentially dangerous, Sarteschi said, because many sovereign citizens don’t have government documents like driver’s licenses or motor vehicle registrations.
“Even the basic, ‘Can I see your ID,’ causes problems right at the get-go and so that tends to escalate,” she said. “This is quite dangerous.”
The timing of the group’s travel on Independence Day weekend is worrisome, Sarteschi said.
“I’m so thankful that nothing bad happened because I think it could have went a different way,” she said.
On Friday, the group published one photograph on Instagram showing members gathered in front of Providence City Hall and another photograph of one member who appeared to be Bey shaking hands with Frank J. Williams, a retired Rhode Island Supreme Court justice, with the caption, “Since when do Judges shake hands with domestic terrorist’s?” Another showed three men, wearing fezzes, at the counter of a gun store: “At the gun range with nothing but nationality cards and fezzes.”
On Saturday, the leader of the Rhode Island State Police, Colonel James Manni, said he is well aware of the group and a member with ties to Rhode Island.
Rhode Island troopers have been in constant contact with their counterparts in Massachusetts, Manni said.
At a news conference, Massachusetts State Police Colonel Christopher Mason declined to discuss the group, citing the organization’s broadcasts on social media.
In another video posted to YouTube, Bey spoke on his cellphone to an unidentified law enforcement officer, using the speaker phone.
“We’re not going to threaten you guys, we’re not going to coerce you guys, we’re not going to make you guys feel threatened in any type of way,” Bey said.
During his phone conversation, Bey said his men grabbed weapons Saturday morning on I-95 when they were approached by law enforcement because they felt threatened.
Bey asked to be served a summons, saying law enforcement officials could deliver the summons to a table that he offered to set up in the middle of the highway.
He expressed concern about being arrested and fingerprinted, which he described as a form of self-incrimination. He said he and his men wanted to go home.
“I want my men to be safe, alive, keep and bear their arms,” he said.
Spencer Dew, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Kenyon College, said some observers will see an “American racial double standard,” in the arrests because the Rise of the Moors members in the social media videos are Black men.
“I’ve sure seen a lot of people on the news, dressed in military uniforms with weapons, talking about citizenship, and I don’t see a lot of those people getting arrested,” Dew said.
In 2019, members of the group filed a lawsuit against the Providence Police Department, alleging officers violated their rights by interrupting a lecture at their temple on Acorn Street, The Providence Journal reported.
The lawsuit accused Providence officers of entering the temple without a warrant on Oct. 5, 2019 while Bey was addressing a gathering with a semi-automatic weapon strapped around his neck and a Glock 22 on his waist, the Journal reported.
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.