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Published July 19, 2016
The former Marine who killed three Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers identified with a growing movement that originated among white supremacists and whose adherents believe they're immune to most state and federal laws, including paying taxes and getting driver's licenses.
Gavin Long, a 29-year-old black man from Kansas City, Missouri, filed documents last year declaring himself a sovereign citizen, as a member of the United Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah. Members of the mostly black group, which was founded in Louisiana, claim the government has no control over them and that they own much of the Louisiana Purchase land. Members have sold fake licenses, passports and license plates.
Nothing in that group's ideology calls for violence, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok added that he would hesitate to tie Long's claimed connection to the Washitaw Nation with Sunday's shooting because it appeared that Long was "shopping around" for an ideology, including once claiming he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Washitaw Nation spokesman, Fredrix Joe Washington, said he'd never heard of Long.
However, other individuals who have declared themselves sovereign citizens have become violent, including Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. Several law enforcement officers also have been killed in the past 15 years, Potok said. He said it often happens during traffic stops because many members of sovereign citizen groups don't carry a driver's license or register their car.
One such incident took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 2010, when Sgt. Brandon Paudert and another officer were shot and killed during a traffic stop by Jerry R. Kane Jr. of Forest, Ohio, and his 16-year-old son Joseph.
Paudert was the son of former West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert, who now travels the country warning police officers not to underestimate potential violence.
"My experience in the last six years is: The more confrontations and the more encounters they have with law enforcement, the more dangerous they become," he said.
The sovereign citizen movement generally traces its origins to the 1970s, when members were avowed white supremacists. But the unifying ideology was about government rather than race, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.
"As a result, over the decades, the proportion of white supremacists became ever smaller and smaller a proportion of the movement as a whole," Pitcavage said. "That fact opened the movement up to people of all sorts of other backgrounds who had anti-government leanings."
The movement is largely unorganized but has doubled in size since the 1990s, particularly after the Great Recession, to an estimated 300,000 people and has attracted many African-Americans.
Some sovereign citizens try to gum up state and federal legal systems by submitting complex lawsuits or bogus liens, and often insist on representing themselves in court while simultaneously denying the authority of judges and juries.
Cherron Phillips, a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen from Chicago, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2014 for filing bogus $100 billion liens against high-ranking federal officials in apparent retribution for her brother's drug conviction.
There also are no apparent connections between Long's motives and those of Micah Johnson, who killed five Dallas police officers earlier this month, Potok said. Authorities said they're investigating whether Johnson was directed or emboldened by black militant groups who called for retaliation against officers after this month's police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
But federal officials still are wary of the larger sovereign citizen movement, with the FBI in 2011 issuing a document that called it a domestic terrorism threat.
Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director who oversaw criminal investigations, said it's difficult to distinguish the "talkers" from those committed to violence.
"You're looking for steps to plan the revolution, acquisition of weapons, explosives, minting your own money," he said.
Holland and Tucker reported from Washington. Federal court reporter Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.