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Essays

Another Nation, Under Law

Just outside Boston on the Independence Day weekend, a stand-off between the Rise of the Moors group and the police was, in so many ways, quintessentially American—offering a dramatic tableau of religious claims about race, about guns, about law, about the state, and, finally, about another classical American concern: the power of the press and the need to control one’s own narrative.

In a livestream video from the July 3rd titled “We are not anti government,” Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey, in fatigues and body armor, states, “We’re not anti-government. We’re not anti-police. We’re not sovereign citizens. We’re not black identity extremists.”

The former Marine was speaking for the Rise of the Moors community, speaking from the side of I-95 in Wakefield, Massachusetts, north of Boston, during what the community describes as a “peaceful dialogue” with police, who shut down part of the highway and referred to the event as a standoff.

A convoy of Rise of the Moors vehicles had pulled over to refuel around 1:30 in the morning, using gas tanks they had carried to, as Bey put it, avoid “making any unnecessary stops” during their “peaceful journey,” albeit armed, through Massachusetts. “We were being extra careful as to not violate the federal laws of the United States,” said Bey, a former US Marine. The group had no desire to “alarm the public” as they headed north to Maine for “training.”

A state trooper had stopped when they pulled over. Having observed the group of men in tactical gear bearing rifles, he called for backup. The standoff followed, from 1:30 am to after 10 am, involving a partial shutdown of the highway and ending with the arrest of eleven members of the Rise of the Moors group—a self-described “well-regulated militia” armed with “three AR-15 rifles; two pistols; a bolt-action rifle; a shotgun; and a short barrel rifle” according to a State Police statement.

Just outside Boston, self-described “birthplace of the American Revolution,” and on the Independence Day weekend, the event was, in so many ways, quintessentially American—offering a dramatic tableau of religious claims about race, about guns, about law, about the state, and, finally, about another classical American concern: the power of the press and the need to control one’s own narrative.

Rise of the Moors is one community within the remarkably diverse Moorish Science Temple of America movement, a religion founded in the 1920s by Noble Drew Ali that sacralizes law and law’s authority. For Ali and his original community, “citizenship is salvation.” Moorish identity, in turn, was seen as a way of guaranteeing the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.

An example of what Judith Weisenfeld has termed “religio-racial identity,” Ali claimed that his followers were not “negro, black, or colored” but Moorish, and he insisted that these categories had distinct meaning under the law. Moors today frequently cite 1857’s Dred Scott v Sandford to prove that “negro” is a legal fiction, a category that, in the words of that decision, can “claim none of the rights and privileges” of a citizen of the United States.

Ali’s primary innovation was to teach his followers that by returning to their ancestral “national” identity as Moors and raising up their “national” flag (the red, one-star banner of Morocco) alongside the Stars and Stripes, they would be considered Moorish-Americans like other immigrant ethnic groups. Slavery had resulted from a forgetting of identity and its incumbent rights, spelled out for Moors particularly in the 1777 Moroccan American Treaty of Friendship between Morocco and the fledgling United States—another text cited by Bey on the side of I-95. “Our nation—which our flag is right here—has a treaty with your government,” he declared, having stated, again, that his group was not “anti-government.”

Indeed, his actions and words reiterated an allegiance to state power and state forms. Early in the standoff, he distributed copies of a Circuit Court decision on the right to carry firearms, Young v Hawaii, to police, and he and his community cited the Second Amendment and reiterated their commitment to remaining peaceful and abiding by the “federal laws and judicial opinions” of the United States.

The Rise of the Moors group, however, represents a strand within contemporary Moorish Science that rejects the idea of American citizenship and claims, instead, to be “foreign nationals.” They respect the government of the United States but see themselves as subject to a government of their own, outside of it. There was no American flag displayed in Wakefield. Rather, the Rise of the Moors militia held a large Moroccan flag in the middle of the highway, declaring their “nationality” while insisting they were abiding by the federal laws of the United States as “foreign nationals” travelling within it.

Despite this claim, the group exhibits distinctly American characteristics—a “well-regulated militia” that insists on their right to bear arms as a sacred right, a group who, when faced with the potentially violent power of the state, takes refuge in the protective power of the legal system. At several points Bey says that he was frightened during the standoff, but he continued to insist upon the legality of his action and cite legal precedent as a way of persuading the police to treat him with respect.

Contrary to an array of blaring headlines purporting to explain the event, Bey’s group denies the authority of neither US law nor the US judicial system; rather, both the law and the legal system are given profound authority. The centrality of both law and the legal system for the Rise of the Moors group was best expressed in Bey’s plea to police: having asked them “What is your probable cause?” for holding his group at the side of the road when, he insisted, they had committed no crime, he then asked, “Please serve us a summons… so that we can go to court and have a judge decide” if his interpretation of the law was incorrect. In Bey’s opinion, it was the police who were acting illegally, having stopped a convoy that was “peacefully travelling” and offering no probable cause for detaining them at the side of the road.

As I argue in my book The Aliites, it is a broadly held Moorish Science belief that the ultimate, divine law is reflected even in the imperfect and often unjust laws and legal decisions of the United States. Therefore, a judge—any judge—as someone familiar with and intimately connected to the law is likely, according to Moorish belief, to be persuaded of the truth of divine law.

The religion of Moorish Science is a faith in law. What struck many journalists as a defiance of law in Wakefield was, for the Rise of the Moors, an adamant devotion to a particular interpretation. Colonel Christopher Mason of the Massachusetts State Police nodded toward this conflict when he said that while the group was “not consistent with the firearms laws that we have here in Massachusetts… I understand that they have a different perspective on that.” This “perspective” is a religious stance, one that will surely be argued out in every court appearance the eleven arrested Moors now face. Indeed, these court appearances will themselves serve as religious events, as venues for speaking truth to power, as opportunities to set the law straight.

The Rise of the Moors group has a history of taking legal action—including filing lawsuits against police for violating their rights. They may well have been on their way to Maine to take part in a long-term plan they describe as an “Exodus” to their own territory—territory to be taken by “adverse possession,” described on their website as “taking what’s yours and not waiting for anyone to give it to you.” As indicated by this language, mixing the concept of exodus with an interpretation of the legal fiction of “adverse possession” is part of an imagining of a return to their own land within the claimed territory of but outside the jurisdiction of the United States. The same website sells a book, Are You Confused about Law: The Truth about the Black Man in the Judicial System, which links contemporary law enforcement with “genocidal acts” and spells out the religio-legal worldview of the community.

Beyond issues of race, guns, law, and state power, however, the event on I-95 also represents a struggle over the power of the press. Since they were first approached by police at the side of the highway, the Rise of the Moors group has been engaged in a campaign of contesting popular media coverage while offering a counter narrative through their own media.

Within hours of the arrests, a Rise of the Moors Instagram account, one of the group’s most used forms of publication, ran a meme with a picture of Moorish Science founder Noble Drew Ali and a quote associated with the founding of the first Moorish Science newspaper: “The greatest weapon in the hands of our group toward in America is our press. The truth will never be told… unless we express ourselves” through our own publications. This and other social media accounts have, since the arrest, offered a constant counter-narrative to the popular journalistic coverage—insisting upon the innocence of the arrested and the illegality of the arrests, while witnessing to the character of those arrested by soliciting affidavits from those in solidarity.

The live-streams of the standoff were, of course, also an attempt to set the record straight, to document the situation as it unfolded, accompanied by commentary and explanation from Bey. Bey wore a body camera, and he tried to get citizen journalists to interview him via his YouTube channel, as “They’re not letting the news in here. So no one really knows what’s going on.”

His repeated declaration of dis-identification—of not being “anti-government… anti-police… sovereign citizens… black identity extremists” also has the ring of a public relations campaign. These terms, created by watchdog groups and law enforcement organizations, are legal fictions. Bey sought to resist the reductive narratives they imply, just as Rise of the Moors continues to seek to frame the events in their own terms, via their own media.

The Rise of the Moors group is exceptional among Moorish Science organizations in its public display of weapons, military styling, and willingness to stage such a dramatic confrontation with police—rich with citation of legal interpretations and the display of their “national flag.” Yet now the confrontation will shift to the courtroom and the press, with Bey and his companions arguing their own political theology—their legal status and their understanding of law, both local, American law and universal, divine law—in the court and, through the group’s social media publication platforms, the court of public opinion. Already the hashtag #FreetheMoors, accusations of criminality against promoters of criminalizing narratives like the president of the watchdog organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, and insistence that popular coverage of the standoff is “Fake News” dominate the Rise of the Moors’ media.

This trend will surely continue as the arrested members are processed through the legal system—a system which they read as at once unlawful and as a venue of potential redemption. The courts are not merely venues for religious contestation and claims; they are locations of eschatological drama. As always for those within the religion of Moorish Science, the hope for the Rise of the Moors group is in their understanding of the law. Their hope is in the belief that divine law will ultimately manifest through the legal system of the state, that the so-called justice system might actually bring about what they recognize as justice.

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