The heavily armed militia members involved in a half-day standoff with police last weekend are linked to a national movement of so-called sovereign citizens, whose acolytes believe they are exempt from US law.
The Rhode Island Rise of the Moors group arose out of clashing legacies, a mashing of ideologies that have roots in the white supremacist and Black separatist movements, nourished by an antigovernment extremism that has drawn scrutiny from law enforcement, experts said.
Fueled by a decades-old conspiracy over supposed riches owed to followers, professed sovereign citizens have built a reputation in recent years for jamming the court system with frivolous lawsuits and liens, taking over buildings they do not own, and, in rare instances, committing violence, including fatal attacks on law enforcement. Founded in the 1970s, the movement surged after the 2008 recession, experts said, and now numbers around 300,000 nationally — slightly less than double the population of Providence.
Despite roots in white supremacism, today’s self-identifying sovereign citizens are multiracial and seem to bask in contradictions, citing made-up treaties and obscure laws to justify their behaviors. (The Rise of the Moors men who were arrested said they are foreign nationals traveling under an 18th-century treaty between the United States and Morocco that releases them from following US laws).
Adherents typically refuse to pay taxes or obey gun laws, though their particular beliefs diverge, sometimes significantly, from place to place. The sovereign citizen movement’s conspiratorial leanings have also attracted followers of QAnon, the Internet-based conspiracy theory that exploded under former president Donald Trump.
“There are 1,000 shades” in these groups and their beliefs, said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, a United Kingdom-based scholars group. “This is what it boils down to: that the government is involved in this massive rip-off, but you can free yourself from it.”
Law enforcement agencies have taken notice: a 2014 University of Maryland study found that police considered sovereign citizens to be the greatest terrorism threat to their communities.
The Rise of the Moors group arrested last weekend is an offshoot sect of the larger sovereign movement, some experts said, the grand-stepchild of a contradictory union between a white supremacist ideology and one rooted in Black separatism. The Rhode Island group has about 100 members, according to a leader’s court filings.
The sovereign movement traces its origins to the Posse Comitatus, an “intensely racist and anti-Semitic group” active in the 1970s and ’80s that believed the American government was illegitimate and that white people were granted citizenship rights directly from God, Potok said.
The Moorish influence came largely from a religious sect, the Moorish Science Temple of America, that held nearly opposite racial beliefs. Founded more than a century ago, MSTA members believe that Black people were the country’s original inhabitants and were thus entitled to self-government.
But the two philosophies had common ground, and in the 1990s, some followers began to thread them together, resulting in the Moorish sovereign movement. Today, as many as a third of all people who consider themselves sovereign citizens are people of color, said Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, and the number of Black sovereign citizens is increasing the fastest.
But even within the Moorish movement, there’s division among certain sects. The chief minister of the Moorish Science Temple of America-1928 told the Globe that he warned the leader of the Rhode Island group his views were misguided.
Shaykh Ra Saadi El called the Rhode Island group “delusional” and suggested they were seeking publicity with the highway standoff.
“They are on the imaginary island of ‘I Am’ — meaning, whatever I want it to be,” Saadi El said. “Now you’re going to see the island of ‘I Am’ meet the We the People.”
Those aligned with the larger sovereign citizen movement tend to go unnoticed, experts said, until a high-profile act of violence makes national news. In 2010, for example, a man who identified as a sovereign citizen and his teenage son killed two police officers during a routine traffic stop in Arkansas. Seven years later, a 29-year-old so-called sovereign allegedly opened fire in a Waffle House in Tennessee, killing four.
New England, too, has served as the setting for extreme violence tied to the movement.
In 1997, a 62-year-old self-identified sovereign went on a shooting spree in northern New Hampshire, killing two state troopers, a judge, and a newspaper editor in broad daylight before injuring four more troopers in a shootout in Vermont.
The movement’s propensity for “unplanned, spontaneous violence” is particularly disturbing, said Pitcavage of the ADL.
“To the state trooper it’s a routine traffic stop, maybe the tail light’s out, maybe they were speeding. To the sovereign citizen, this police officer has literally no right whatsoever to pull them over at all — no constitutional right, no legal right, no biblical right, nothing,” Pitcavage said.
While other elements of the sovereign movement can have direct ties to violence, Potok said, violence among the Moors has been much less prevalent. The standoff in Wakefield, for instance, ended without any shots fired — though that outcome was far from guaranteed, researchers said.
In addition to physical violence, the broad sovereign movement practices what the FBI calls “paper terrorism,” a strategy in which followers file fraudulent liens and lawsuits against perceived enemies to retaliate against them, said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has focused on the movement.
The Internet has been instrumental in spreading sovereign beliefs to new audiences. Websites for some groups can appear largely legitimate, said Goldwasser, using benign terms and making it more difficult for social media companies to crack down.
“Facebook can filter groups that call themselves ‘militia,’ ” said Goldwasser. But “it becomes more whack-a-mole to find these groups and stop their work.”
In recent days, the Facebook page for the Rise of the Moors has been filled with well-wishes and messages of support for those arrested. Some supporters have made claims of unfair media coverage of the incident, while others have maintained that those arrested violated no laws. “Just in case you did NOT know . . . No laws were broken or violated and the detainments/arrests were unlawful in accordance with the PEACEFUL JOURNEY LAW,” wrote one commenter.
Despite the groups’ growing numbers, pinning down their specific ideologies can be a tricky endeavor — even for those who’ve studied them for years.
“A lot of times sovereign citizens are mistaken for mentally ill people. Because some of the things they say sound crazy,” Pitcavage said. But their beliefs hail from things that “they were taught, and read about in books and attended seminars to learn. And thousands of other people believe the same thing.”
Amanda Milkovits and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.