Letters of official appearance began to arrive shortly after Shanetta Little bought the pretty Tudor house on Ivy Street in Newark. Bearing a gold seal, in haloed legalistic language, the documents asserted that an obscure 18th-century treaty gave the shipper the right to claim his new home as his own.
She dismissed the letters as a hoax.
So it was with surprise that Ms Little found herself in her yard on Ivy Street one afternoon in June as a police SWAT team negotiated with a man who had broken into, changed his locks. and hung a red and green flag on his window. He claimed he was a sovereign citizen of a country that does not exist and for which the laws of the United States do not apply.
Ms Little was the victim of a ploy known as paper terrorism, a favorite tactic of an extremist group that is one of the most dynamic, according to government experts and watchdog organizations. Known as the Moorish Sovereign Citizen Movement, and loosely based on a theory that blacks are foreign citizens bound only by obscure legal systems, it encourages followers to violate existing laws in the name of empowerment. Experts say he draws marginalized people into his ranks with the false promise that they are above the law.
The man who entered his home, Hubert A. John of Los Angeles, was arrested on June 17 and charged with criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass and terrorist threats. New Jersey prosecutors are preparing to take the case to a grand jury, according to Katherine Carter, spokesperson for the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. He was released on his own accord.
But the weird letters declaring Mrs. Little’s house not his always arrive. They arrive on fake consular letterhead using the name Lenapehoking from the Moroccan Empire Al to the Republic of the State of New Jersey. Lenapehoking was the land between New York and Philadelphia which includes New Jersey and was home to the indigenous Lenape tribe before it was settled by European settlers. Mr. John and his group present themselves as Moors.
“The Moors claim to be about the liberation and opportunity of blacks, and the upliftment of blacks,” Ms. Little said in an interview sitting on a staircase inside her house. “But he literally oppresses me and takes what is mine as a black woman.”
Last summer, the Moorish movement exploded in the public eye, after Ms Little posted viral TikTok accounts of his ordeal and when police arrested members of an activist wing of the group on a highway in Massachusetts. This subgroup, known as the Rise of the Moors, engaged in a standoff with the police for more than nine hours, claiming that as sovereign citizens, law enforcement had no authority to stop them. No one was hurt; 11 people were arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, among other offenses.
Increasingly, sovereign citizens across the country have clashed with authorities, tied up resources and depleted lives by insisting that laws, such as duty to pay taxes, respect tax limitations. speed and even get, say, a license for a companion dog, does not apply to them.
People who claim to be sovereign Moorish citizens believe they are bound primarily by maritime law, not the law of the places where they live, said Mellie Ligon, lawyer and author of a study on their impact on the system. judicial in the Emory International Law Review.
Initially married by white supremacist groups, the ruler citizen ideology first appeared in America in the 1970s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Moorish permutation appears to have gained popularity in the 1990s, inspired in part by the black identity ideology of a religious group of the same name, the Moorish Science Temple of America, which disavows the sovereign citizen movement.
Membership in the Moorish Sovereign Citizens’ movement has been carried through the internet to hundreds of thousands, the legal center said. On its website, Rise of the Moors, for example, cited reparations – part of national conversations about race and fairness – as a determining factor in its belief that its members can claim things as theirs.
Rise of the Moors, as well as individual members arrested in Massachusetts in July, did not respond to requests for comment.
It is not known why Mr. John set his sights on Mrs. Little’s house. They don’t know each other, according to Ms Little, who says they never met before she found him at her home.
Like many Moorish disciples, Mr. John adopted an Arabic-influenced name, Jaleel Hu-El. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Via an email, a staff member at the Al Morocco Consulate, where Mr. John is listed on the website as the Consul General of the United States and China, initially scheduled an interview but later canceled .
The events of June 17 are a radical departure from Mr. John’s public personality: dressed in pointy suits and often wearing a red fez, Mr. John is a self-proclaimed fashion mogul. In a podcast interview, he said he spent nine years in the bank before purchasing a one-way ticket to China in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
There, Mr John said, he was spotted by a modeling agent, launching a foray into the fashion world. He is fluent in Chinese and produces several fashion shows with a focus on black designers and models, according to several accounts. “They never had the opportunity for us to show our talent, so I created the opportunity,” John said on the podcast.
How he went from a dapper entrepreneur to a Moorish national confronting a New Jersey SWAT team is opaque. Around 2018, social media accounts associated with Black X, his trade association, changed their tone, with articles on how to get Moorish license plates and ID cards, and explanations of tactics. legal abstruse.
In documents Mr John posted online, he refers to Ms Little’s house, which was built in the 1950s, as her ‘ancestral estate’, but according to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office, there does not appear to be a connection.
On June 16, Mrs. Little came to inspect the house of her dreams. She had closed it in February and was planning renovations before moving in.
Buying the home was a triumph for Ms Little, who grew up primarily in Florida as a foster child, only finding safety as a teenager when her high school principal took her in.
She graduated from the University of Central Florida but struggled as a young adult, living in motel rooms for periods of time. Now a senior customer service specialist at Jaguar Land Rover North America, she could afford to buy a house.
She tried to unlock the door but was puzzled: the locks had been replaced. The next day she returned with a locksmith and was confronted by two men, one of whom was Mr. John and who said the house was hers. After a heated exchange, she called the police.
When police arrived, Ms Little and Mr John showed documents claiming the house was theirs, according to a report on the incident released by Brian A. O’Hara, the director of public safety for Newark. She shared the deed proving ownership, Ms Little said, him the manufactured papers bearing the Al Moroccan seal.
The men “claimed to be sovereign citizens of the Moroccan Al Empire and that their status allowed them to own property,” said O’Hara’s report. Officers verified that Ms Little had purchased the house in February and asked the men to leave. They did it.
Thirty minutes later, Mr. John returned, brushed past Mrs. Little on the porch, she said, opened the door with his own key and locked it behind him.
When Mrs. Little called the police a second time, they came back with a SWAT team.
Mrs. Little is still shaken, enraged every time a disturbing letter arrives in the mail.
“He feels entitled to have something that I have worked for all my life, something that I have been deprived of all my life, especially as a child with no safe space to call for. home, ”Ms. Little said. “I deserve it, not because of ‘ancestral lands’ or some scam trying to get taken away. I deserve it because I won it.
For decades, followers of the Moorish ruler movement have largely remained off the radar, appearing mostly in odd-looking reports of their terrorism tactics on paper.
But across the country, they have clogged court records with these arguments, filing spurious lawsuits and burying county clerks’ offices in a flurry of false deeds, privileges and other documents. The country’s police services have started training agents on how to deal with people who drive without a license or with fake license plates and who claim that the police have no control over them.
When Jordan Fainberg, a real estate agent in Bethesda, Maryland, visited a mansion he was selling for its owner in 2013, he was surprised to find a man inside named Lamont Butler who introduced himself as the real owner, with documents referring to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and one peace treaty from the 1700s between the Sultan of Morocco and the United States. Mr. Butler was arrested and convicted of several crimes related to the home invasion. He could not be reached for comment.
“It was the weirdest thing in the world,” Fainberg said recently. “It was just someone who said the sky is purple when it’s blue.”
In the Montgomery County Circuit Court, Mr. Butler continued to claim his rights as a Moor. Judge Terrence McGann disagreed: “According to your set of rules, every house is a fair game, you own all of the United States, you own the oceans, you own everything you want”, a- he declared. according to reports.
“And that’s not how a free and orderly society works.”
Kitty bennett and Jeffrey E. Singer contributed to the research.