Cop-killer Gavin Long and the danger of the "Sovereign Citizens" movement

Long was reportedly affiliated with growing anti-government organizations considered as domestic terror threats

By Chauncey DeVega
July 18, 2016 7:40PM (UTC)
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Gavin Long (YouTube/Cosmo Setepenra)

On Sunday, three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana were killed and three others wounded by a gunman. Gavin Long, age 29, has been identified as the alleged shooter. He is African-American, from Kansas City, and a former United States Marine.

As indicated by his social media and other online activities, Gavin Long was a self-described “life coach, nutritionist, and personal trainer.” He was also a conspiracy theorist.


In a Facebook post written under his alias “Cosmo Setepenra," Long discussed his anger at the recent killings of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police and how African-Americans should stop protesting peacefully and instead use more forceful and direct means of obtaining collective justice.

Baton Rouge-area law enforcement sources have indicated that Long was the only active shooter. However, the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC have reported that he was affiliated with anti-government organizations including the sovereign citizens movement and the “New Freedom Group." CNN reports that Gavin Long belonged to a black sovereign citizens group called the “Washitaw Nation”.

As reported on Sunday by the Kansas City Star:


Long declared himself a sovereign citizen in records filed with the Jackson County Recorder of Deeds last year.

“No doubt at all,” said J.J. MacNab, an author who for two decades has been tracking anti-government extremists. “He’s 100 percent sovereign citizen.”

MacNab said he falls into the Moorish Sovereign category, more specifically the Washitaw Nation of Mu’urs.

“This group believes that they are indigenous to the continent and therefore above all federal, state, and local laws,” said MacNab, who also is a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “These documents show Long’s attempt to separate his flesh and blood ‘indigenous’ self from his legal entity self.”

Sovereign citizens believe the government is corrupt and out of control and has no jurisdiction over them. Federal authorities consider the movement a domestic terror threat and it continues to swell, with violent incidents erupting on a regular basis.

Long filed the document with the Jackson County recorder in May 2015, saying he was with the United Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Mu’ur Nation, Mid-West Washita Tribes.

The document included a “live claim birth” record in which he changed his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra.

The sovereign citizens movement is a right-wing network of individuals and organizations numbering in the hundreds of thousands who believe that the United States government is illegitimate.

If true, Gavin Long's attack on police is part of a larger pattern of violence by right-wing domestic terrorists against police, firefighters, and other representatives of state authority. The vast majority if not all of these attacks have been committed by white men.

In August of 2015,  The Kansas City Star ran a feature on the sovereign citizens movement —which also attracts white supremacists — and how it has expanded to included African-Americans and other people of color.


In “Sovereign citizens now consist of all colors and creeds," Judy Thomas writes:

The case made headlines last fall in the midst of the Ferguson unrest.
Two men with ties to the New Black Panther Party were charged with acquiring weapons in what was later revealed to be a plot to kill two public officials and blow up a police station.

The two pleaded guilty in June and will be sentenced Thursday in federal court in St. Louis. And in a lesser-known twist, one of the African-American defendants is an adherent of a movement that has its origins in racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.
Olajuwon Ali Davis is a “Moorish national” — an offshoot of the sovereign citizen movement.

Experts and authorities say the case illustrates the changing face of the movement, whose members believe the government is corrupt and out of control and has no jurisdiction over them.

While today’s movement remains largely white and still has some followers with racist leanings, a surge in the number of nonwhite sovereign citizens is underway across the country. And the biggest growth, experts say, is within an African-American branch called Moorish sovereigns, which is disseminating its ideas to a whole new batch of recruits.

“It’s a new world,” said J.J. MacNab, an author who for two decades has been tracking anti-government extremists. “And Missouri is like ground zero.”

The common denominator between sovereign citizens and more left-wing black separatists, MacNab said, is the sense of being powerless and having no voice.
“You have a group of right-wing people who feel voiceless,” said MacNab, who also is a fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “You look at the angst in Ferguson and you hear a lot of the same things. They would not recognize it in each other, but they have a lot of the same complaints, which is that the world is changing and we don’t get a say in it.”

Thomas continues:

Bob Harris, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons case manager who teaches law enforcement officers how to identify and handle domestic extremists, acknowledged the irony of a movement with white supremacist roots being joined by an African-American group. But today’s sovereigns, he said, aren’t like those of previous decades.

“They are much more reflective of the demographics of society today,” he said. “You have white people, you have African-Americans, you have Asians, you have Native Americans. The sovereign citizen movement has really become a melting pot.”
And Moorish nationals are increasingly occupying a bigger portion of the pot, experts say.

“In the last several years, it’s exploded,” said Kory Flowers, a sergeant with the Greensboro, N.C., police department who trains officers and elected officials on sovereign citizen tactics.

A Kansas City area sovereign citizen told The Star that he’s not at all surprised to hear about African-Americans taking up sovereign ideologies.

“It just shows that more and more people are fed up with the government,” said Ken Auman, who has filed dozens of motions in lawsuits around the metro area, accusing city and county officials of corruption, harassment and violating his rights.

Auman said he welcomes African-American sovereign citizens into the fold.

The sovereign citizens movement has been involved in at least 24 violent sovereign citizen-related attacks since  2010.

The sovereign citizens movement is an example of a broader phenomenon in the United States, where since 9/11, right-wing domestic terrorists (most of whom are white Christian men) have been identified by law enforcement officials as being a larger threat to domestic security than Islamic extremists.


If Gavin Long is indeed affiliated with the sovereign citizens movement, Fox News and the other parts of the right-wing echo chamber will have to adjust their narrative to reconcile how a black man who was upset about police brutality against people of color latched onto the ideas of a radical right-wing political movement and then proceeded to kill 3 police officers in Baton Rouge.

To do this, the right-wing news media’s frame will emphasize Gavin Long’s race, highlight his anger at police brutality, and fabricate his connections to the peaceful human rights movement Black Lives Matter. The right-wing news entertainment propaganda machine will also use Gavin Long’s alleged attack on the Baton Rouge police to gin up white racial resentment, overt racism, and anxiety about “law and order” to win support for Donald Trump as well as to continue their hysterical slurring of Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president.

The right-wing news media will also obsess about Gavin Long’s supposed exposure to the teachings of  the Nation of Islam, an organization they will inevitably describe as a “black hate group".


Conversely, the right-wing news entertainment media will totally ignore or significantly downplay how the sovereign citizens movement as recently seen with Cliven Bundy, and more broadly endorsed by conservative opinion leaders such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and others has repeatedly committed acts of violence against America’s police.

The American public and its opinion leaders prefer simple, flat narratives about complex issues. The case of Gavin Long and the Baton Rouge shooting shows us, once again, how reality rarely cooperates with that desire.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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