She Bought Her Dream Home. Then a ‘Sovereign Citizen’ Changed the Locks.
A New Jersey woman was preyed upon by a fast-growing extremist group that claims its members are sovereign Moors, not bound by U.S. laws.Published Sept. 26, 2021Updated Sept. 29, 2021
Shanetta Little was startled one day to find that the locks on her new home in Newark had been changed by a man who claimed he was the rightful owner.Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
The official-looking letters started arriving soon after Shanetta Little bought the cute Tudor house on Ivy Street in Newark. Bearing a golden seal, in aureate legalistic language, the documents claimed that an obscure 18th-century treaty gave the sender rights to claim her new house as his own.
She dismissed the letters as a hoax.
And so it was with surprise that Ms. Little found herself in her yard on Ivy Street on a June afternoon as a police SWAT team negotiated with a man who had broken in, changed her locks and hung a red and green flag in its window. He claimed he was a sovereign citizen of a country that does not exist and for whom United States laws do not apply.
Ms. Little was a victim of a ploy known as paper terrorism, a favorite tactic of an extremist group that is one of the fastest growing, according to government experts and watchdog organizations. Known as the Moorish sovereign citizen movement, and loosely based around a theory that Black people are foreign citizens bound only by arcane legal systems, it encourages followers to violate existent laws in the name of empowerment. Experts say it lures marginalized people to its ranks with the false promise that they are above the law.
The man who entered her house, Hubert A. John of Los Angeles, was arrested on June 17 and charged with criminal mischief, burglary, criminal trespass and making terroristic threats. Prosecutors in New Jersey are preparing to take the case before a grand jury, according to Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s office. He was released on his own recognizance.
But the strange letters declaring that Ms. Little’s home is not her own still come. They arrive on faux-consular letterhead using the name Lenapehoking of the Al Moroccan Empire at New Jersey State Republic. Lenapehoking was the land between New York City and Philadelphia that includes New Jersey and was home to the Indigenous Lenape tribe before it was colonized by European settlers. Mr. John and his group refer to themselves as Moors.
“The Moors claim to be about Black liberation and opportunity, and uplifting Black people,” Ms. Little said in an interview seated on a staircase inside her house. “But he is literally oppressing me and taking what’s mine as a Black woman.”
Ms. Little still receives strange letters like the one that upended her life in June. Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
This past summer the Moorish movement exploded into public view, after Ms. Little posted viral TikTok accounts of her ordeal and when the police pulled over members of a militant offshoot of the group on a Massachusetts highway. That subgroup, known as 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 injured; 11 people were arrested and charged with unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition, among other offenses.
Increasingly, across the country sovereign citizens have clashed with the authorities, tied up resources and frazzled lives in their insistence that laws, such as the requirement to pay taxes, obey speed limits and even obtain, say, a license for a pet dog, do not apply to them.
People who claim to be Moorish sovereign citizens believe they are bound mainly by maritime law, not the law of the places where they live, said Mellie Ligon, a lawyer and author of a study of their impact on the judicial system in the Emory International Law Review.
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Initially espoused by white supremacist groups, sovereign citizen ideology first cropped up in America in the 1970s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Moorish permutation appears to have picked up in popularity in the 1990s, inspired in part by Black identity ideology of a similarly named religious group, the Moorish Science Temple of America, which disavows the sovereign citizen movement.
Membership in the Moorish sovereign citizen movement has been driven by the internet into the hundreds of thousands, the law center said. On its website, Rise of the Moors, for example, has cited reparations — part of national conversations about race and equity — as a driving factor for its belief that its members can claim things as their own.
Rise of the Moors, as well as the individual members arrested in Massachusetts in July, did not respond to requests to comment.