Law & the Courts

Who Was Gavin Long?

Gavin Long on YouTube
He rejected U.S. law and claimed allegiance to a fantasy nation built on a fantasy history.

Gavin Long was there, in Dallas. It was July 10, and the frustrated Long was venting. He had mixed feelings. Sure, like others, he wanted justice. But he felt that people were pursuing it in the wrong way. Many protestors expressed a similar sense of frustration after Micah Johnson’s effort to kill as many white police officers as he could: They insisted that racial justice was their end, but rejected Johnson’s brutal means. But Long, proselytizing to a webcam, explained the conflict along horrifyingly different lines. For him, racial justice could be achieved only through brutal violence. One week later, Long would unleash the latest in American horrors: He would target, ambush, and kill three police officers in Baton Rouge.

Despite the insistence by some that his motives will remain forever unclear, Long left behind a substantial trail of evidence that casts light on his motivating ideology. And it is quite the ideology.

Foremost is his YouTube video. It leads off with a twisted comparison:

Independence Day is really based on George Washington and the Americans fighting against their oppressor. And we celebrate that. We tell them they’re right. But when an African fights back, it’s wrong . . . We’ve got to start questioning our mindset.

Long went on, his words a harrowing sign of what was to come:

A hundred percent of revolutions — of victims fighting their oppressors — have been successful through fighting back. Through bloodshed. Zero have been successful through simply protesting. It has never worked, and it never will . . . We know what it’s going to take. It’s only fighting back, and money. Revenue and blood, that’s all they care about. Revenue and blood. Revenue and blood. Revenue and blood.

Long rejected Black Lives Matter for being weak and wrongheaded. He preferred to think of himself as a maverick, a righteous outlaw. He believed that he stood alone — or perhaps alongside an isolated few — in understanding that violence is necessary to achieve racial justice. In his mind, he was a revolutionary figure free of conventional constraints on thought and action. And not just the constraints of organized protest movements or even of logic: Long, claiming sovereignty, believed that he was independent of the law. Indeed, he was a member of a fringe group that blended sovereign-citizen beliefs with a marginal version of black nationalism.

Long rejected Black Lives Matter for being weak and wrongheaded. He preferred to think of himself as a maverick, a righteous outlaw.

His plunge down the rabbit hole of legal absurdity is illustrated in a bizarre claim that Long filed last year. In the document, which at first glance resembles standard legal paperwork, Long attempted to change his name from “GAVIN EUGENE LONG” to “Cosmo Ausar Setepenra” and cited an entirely fictitious body of law as justification. He wrote:

I am restored to my own aboriginal-indigenous appellation in propria persona sui juris and nunc pro tunc without colorable law (legal) contract from GAVIN EUGENE LONG to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra in accord with the laws, customs, religious practices, traditions, distinct identities, characteristics and divine principles, and language(s) of my ancestors (Achputpannuku), with power and authority deriving from Universal Law, Natural Law, Common Law, and Ecclesiastical Law.

Long further noted that the name change was “made Pursuant to U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” He claimed allegiance to the “laws of my indigenous society, United Washitaw De Dugdahmoundyah Mu’ur nation” and espoused “a non-obligatory respect for the laws of the united States of America.” The document was headed: “IN-THE-TRUTH-LANGUAGE-UNITY-DE-DUGDAHMOUNDYAH-NAGA-MU’UR NATION.”

What this gibberish masquerading as legalese means is that Long was part of the Washitaw Nation, a fringe group that combines elements of the sovereign-citizen movement with Moorish Science. Mind you, sovereign citizens possess little to no sovereignty, while Moorish Science, as its followers call it, is hardly scientific. But adherents to both believe they have found the combination that frees them from society’s oppression.

The sovereign-citizen movement is an umbrella term for unaffiliated groups of people; what unites the groups is a belief that the laws of the United States are illegitimate and do not apply to them if they take the right legal steps to establish their standing outside the system. Moorish Science is part of the early-20th-century reaction to Jim Crow, lynchings, and the general racism of American society. It is one of several organizations that latched on to faraway symbols of black achievement. The founder of the movement surveyed world history and decided that black Americans were really Moorish and thus connected to the Ottomans whose tottering empire once held sway over North Africa. Moorish Science arose from the same wellsprings as the Nation of Islam and Marcus Garvey’s “Universal Negro Improvement Association.” The Washitaw Nation is a concatenation of parahistorical wishes and beliefs; its members assert that they are both Moorish and indigenous to American land.

The Washitaw Nation is, charitably put, a marginal movement. Its message is incoherent, its website nearly unnavigable, its reading of history inscrutably deluded. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that active membership is around 200 (with more, perhaps, registered on paper). Its version of black nationalism is far on the fringe, by no means the same as mainstream varieties that Malcolm X and others made fashionable. The fable driving the Washitaw ideology — that a great nation of Moors once populated the American continent — is nonsensical and entirely its own.

But the process by which such fable becomes history is not uncommon. This is what the Washitaw Nation owes to Moorish Science, which concocted a history out of pure fantasy, inventing a glorious past to make up for an unsatisfying present. If we are beleaguered now, the fable goes, remember that we were once leaders, before the evil interlopers stole the spotlight.

Seeing myth as history could be healing if it remained an in-house tale, part of a religious or cultural inheritance. But Long is a case study in how devotion to fake history can be every bit as delusional and dangerous as the sovereign-citizen rejection of the law. Moorish Science seeks to deliver adherents from the actual events of human development; the Washitaw Nation seek to negate the social contract and affirm its right to stand alone. Taken together, it is a dangerous combination.

Of course, no narrative can fully explain the complexity of human motivations. CNN reports that Long was also involved with a group called “Freedom from Covert Harassment and Surveillance,” which describes itself as a “non-violent human rights organization.” But Long insisted that he not be defined by his group affiliations, saying that his only devotion was to “justice.” And what effect could Long’s stint in the military — he spent time in Iraq as a data-network specialist for the Marines — have had on his psyche? One can only piece together the available information. But Long’s own words show that he rejected the legitimacy of America as a nation and that he was preoccupied with racial grievance and antagonism.

On July 10, leaning toward his computer and sharpening his staccato cadence, Gavin Long implored viewers for their attention:

Let me tell you our mindset in Africa. One of the elders was telling me, before the Europeans even arrived, our mindset was this: When we would battle with outside entities, when the men would go out to fight the enemy, the woman would tell her man, “If you come back here defeated, I’m killing you myself.” The man knew he couldn’t go home. Either he killed his enemy or he died.

What Long actually knew about African history in all its richness and tragedy is beside the point. What he thought he knew is the problem.

His enemy, as he saw it, was police officers. They upheld the law of the United States, part of a system denying him his place in the sun. He rejected the law and the nation in pursuit of a mission informed by fringe and perhaps psychotic beliefs. That formula is hardly novel. The 20th century alone saw scores of millions killed because ideological fanatics spun a version of history that justified a violent reordering of the world. Thankfully, very few people share Long’s crackpot theories. But we should all heed the lesson of what happens when one buys into an ideology of that sort: tragedy, bloodshed, and barbarity.

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