What started out as a seemingly routine stop by a State Police trooper to help motorists on the shoulder of Interstate 95 early Saturday morning spiraled into a surreal hours-long confrontation between nearly a dozen men with high-powered rifles and police, who were forced to shut down a busy highway on a holiday weekend and order nearby residents to shelter in their homes.
Remarkably, the standoff ended peacefully, without so much as a single shot fired.
All 11 men were arrested, numerous firearms were seized, and the stretch of highway between Lynnfield and Stoneham was finally reopened late morning, State Police Colonel Christopher Mason said.
“You can imagine 11 armed individuals standing with long guns slung on an interstate highway at 2 in the morning certainly raises concerns,” Mason told reporters, “and is not consistent with the firearms laws we have here in Massachusetts.”
The encounter put a spotlight on a little-known fringe group called the “Rise of the Moors.” The group’s website describes the organization as a collective of “Moorish Americans” whose members believe they are the “original sovereigns of this land — America.” The website says the group is based in Pawtucket, R.I.
Driving a van and a pickup truck, the group said it had pulled over to refuel when Massachusetts State Police approached their vehicles, which they said were carrying fuel and camping gear. One member said they were headed to private land in Maine to train and brought their own fuel because they feared causing alarm if they stopped at a gas station.
During the standoff, the men repeatedly broadcast their negotiations with police in real time over social media. One member, who identified himself as Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey and said he was a Marine Corps veteran, repeatedly claimed they were not antipolice and did not intend any violence.
“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 said in a video he posted Saturday morning.
Clad in a military-style helmet and uniform, Bey spoke at length from the closed-off highway on constitutional matters, federal law, and court decisions that he claimed would allow the group to travel through the state with their weapons.
Bright police lights illuminated the scene in parts of the videos. At one point, Bey yelled out his name and phone number to officers so they could call him.
During a news conference later, Mason took note of the group’s social media posts but did not comment on the messages. He said it was against state law for people to carry loaded or unloaded firearms on public ways like an interstate highway.
“I understand they have a different perspective on that; I appreciate that perspective,” Mason said. “I disagree with that perspective.”
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said the men are expected to face “a variety of charges” Tuesday in Malden District Court. Investigators were obtaining search warrants for the two vehicles towed from the scene, she said.
Late Saturday, State Police identified eight men in the group, including two from Rhode Island, 29-year-old Jamhal Tavon Sanders Latimer, also known as Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey, of Providence and 40-year-old Quinn Cumberlander, of Pawtucket.
Two of the men in the group have refused to identify themselves to authorities, State Police said. One of the males arrested is 17 years old.
State Police said all will face charges including unlawful possession of a firearm (eight counts), unlawful possession of ammunition, use of body armor in commission of a crime, possession of a high capacity magazine, improper storage of firearms in a vehicle, and conspiracy to commit a crime.
The Boston office of the FBI is working with authorities in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island to investigate what the group had planned to do with its stockpile of handguns and long guns.
Earlier in the day, State Police said the booking process was being delayed because the men refused to give their names. Video of the group posted to social media foreshadowed their plans to be uncooperative.
Before sunrise, Bey told the group not to answer any questions from authorities, according to one Instagram video.
“When they ask you what your name is, what you gonna say?” Bey asked.
The men yelled back, “Speak to Jamhal!”
The men shouted the same refrain when Bey asked what they would say if authorities asked them where they were headed, their dates of birth, or who owned the vehicles.
At another point, Bey encouraged police to call the Moroccan consulate and yelled out a telephone number.
The group spotted a drone overhead, and directed the two men holding their flag to position it vertically so the drone could see it better.
As the night dragged on, Bey encouraged one man to stay alert.
“Don’t let them see you tired,” he said.
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.
In the social media videos, the “Rise of the Moors” members 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.”
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” 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, and is an offshoot of the antigovernment sovereign citizens movement.
JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who has extensively followed the sovereign citizen movement, said on Twitter on Saturday afternoon that the Moorish offshoot believe that they belong to a sovereign nation that has a treaty with the United States but otherwise operates outside of the federal and state laws.
What is a Moorish Sovereign, and why does it matter? A thread.— JJ MacNab (@jjmacnab) July 3, 2021
“They rely on an alternative history that borrows from Moorish Science Temple, Black Hebrew Israelism, Nation of Islam, UFO theories, phony Native American tribes, and the pseudo-legal arguments crafted by white supremacist ‘patriot’ groups in the 1970s,” MacNabb wrote.
During the standoff, the men vehemently denied being antigovernment or sovereign citizens.
“I reassured them that we are not Black-identity extremists. I reassured them that we are not antipolice,” 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.”
Rhode Island State Police Colonel James Manni said Saturday that police are well aware of the “Rise of the Moors” group and had been in constant communication with Massachusetts State Police regarding the standoff, Manni said. Maine law enforcement officials also said they are aware of what happened in Massachusetts and were monitoring the situation, according to Shannon Moss, a spokeswoman for the Maine State Police.
Christine Sarteschi, an associate professor of social work and criminology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, said the group’s legal citations are self-serving.
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.”
Spencer Dew, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Kenyon College, warned some will see an “American racial double standard” in Saturday’s arrests of a group of armed 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 ... but these guys are immediately locked up,” Dew said.
“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.
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.
Three of the men were sent to a local hospital Saturday because of preexisting conditions but not because of their encounters with police, Mason said. Two have been returned to State Police custody, while the remaining suspect was still undergoing an examination at the hospital.
The two vehicles operated by the group were swept for explosives before being towed away, he said.
“The results of the search warrants we hope to execute on the vehicles, as well as any interviews we conduct, may factor into charging decisions,” Procopio said.
The incident began when a state trooper on patrol along the highway northbound spotted two vehicles on the side of the road in Wakefield about 1:30 in the morning.
At first, the scene looked like any other breakdown on the side of Interstate 95: hazard lights blinking and passengers outside assessing the problem.
The trooper pulled over and was facing a group of men clad in military uniforms, some with handguns in holsters, others with long machine guns slung across their bodies. The men were refueling the vehicles, Mason said.
The trooper began asking questions. Did they have licenses to drive, or licenses for the guns?
They indicated they did not have them or did not have any with them, Mason said.
The trooper called for backup.
State Police established a “hard perimeter” surrounding the group and negotiators began speaking with them.
Some of the men fled into nearby woods, while others remained with their vehicles. Police arrested them all over the course of a few hours Saturday morning.
Investigators are reviewing video and other evidence to determine which of the men were armed, Mason said.
Mason said he had seen some of the trooper’s body camera footage documenting the initial encounter with the men, and he praised the trooper’s conduct.
Mike Cherven, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, noted the tense event ended without any violence.
“Far too often, events like these end in tragedy,” he said. “The dedicated troopers who deescalated this situation should be thanked for their quick thinking and response.”
The highway, which was closed during the standoff, was reopened late Saturday morning and officials lifted a shelter-in-place notification for area residents.
“I hope everyone understands that what we did was out of an overabundance of caution to make sure the residents and the people of Massachusetts were safe,” said Reading Police Chief David Clark.
From her second-floor window, Jessica Cicerano, 38, can see the overpass that stretches over Parker Road, near where the standoff occurred. After waking up to a reverse 911 call Saturday morning, Cicerano watched her street, lined with police cars.
“I definitely had that ‘oh my God’ feeling for about an hour,” Cicerano said.
Kelli Stromski, 49, of Wakefield, said the incident was out of place for the quiet suburb.
“It’s so weird. We’re a very sleepy town,” she said. “Nothing ever happens here.”
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story named the wrong court for the arraignment. The suspects will be arraigned in Malden District Court.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.