At least three police officers were shot dead in Baton Rouge on Sunday morning as they were responding to a call about a man with a gun.

The incident is the nation’s fourth high-profile deadly encounter involving police in the last two weeks. The shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5, captured in an agonizing video, triggered a Justice Department civil rights investigation. A day later, a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., fatally shot Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, during a traffic stop. On July 7, a gunman who claimed he was seeking revenge for Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths killed five police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

What we know so far:

  • Three officers were killed, two of them from the Baton Rouge Police Department: Montrell Jackson, a black, 32-year-old father of a 4-month-old son who had worked on the force for a decade, and Matthew Gerald, a white, 41-year-old officer who had been with the department for less than a year. East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, 45, was also killed. The father of four had been with the sheriff's office for 24 years.
  • Three officers were wounded. One remained in critical condition Monday.
  • The gunman, Gavin E. Long, was killed at the scene. Police initially believed there were multiple suspects, but later said the dead shooter is the only gunman.
  • Long, a 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Kansas City, Mo. left a vast and angry online trail documenting his interest in black separatism and fury at police shootings of black men.

What you need to know about the sovereign-citizen group to which Baton Rouge gunman Gavin Long belonged

A frame grab from a video posted on YouTube on July 10 shows Gavin Eugene Long speaking as his online persona Cosmo Setepenra. (YouTube)
A frame grab from a video posted on YouTube on July 10 shows Gavin Eugene Long speaking as his online persona Cosmo Setepenra. (YouTube)

The Washitaw Nation, the sovereign-citizenry group that Gavin Long declared himself a member of, was founded decades ago by a black Louisiana woman named Verdiacee Turner, who called herself Empress Verdiacee “Tiari” Washitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey. Its core tenet is that followers are descendants of the “Ancient Ones,” or “black ones," who occupied the North American continent tens of thousands of years before white Europeans. 

Turner, now deceased, developed an entire mythology around the idea that land sold by France to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase was fraudulently obtained and actually belonged to her. In doing so, she falls into a long line of sovereign citizenry gurus who peddle fantastic realities and myths, said Ryan Lenz, a senior writer at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

The Washitaw group, which is made up of African Americans, is part of a larger movement of sovereign citizens in America — a phenomenon that has risen with the economic downturn and the influence of the Internet. Generally, they believe they are above all city, state and federal government laws. They dismiss governments as operating illegally, and they do not believe they have to pay taxes or respect law enforcement officials. 

In 2010, two Arkansas police officers stopped a white sovereign-citizen extremist and his 16-year-old son during a routine traffic stop on Interstate 40. The father jumped out of the vehicle and opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle, killing both officers. The following year, the FBI declared sovereign citizenry “a growing domestic threat to law enforcement” with extremists comprising a “domestic terrorist movement.”

“Once you go down this perverse rabbit hole of curiosity and accept all of these fantasies as true, then when you’re challenged on them, it becomes like a challenge to your fundamental reality, and then people start to lash out,” Lenz said.

One of the Washitaws’ core beliefs is that governments have put them in chains and that they're prisoners, he explained.

“In the process of declaring yourself a sovereign citizen, by definition, you are no longer beholden to any government, Lenz said. "That, of course, is not the way modern world is, and the concept of sovereign citizenry is by and large a complete fallacy.” 

The document that Gavin Long filed in court in 2015 amounts to pseudo-legal, “meaningless” paperwork, Lenz said.

 “According to sovereign citizens, once you do that, it becomes part of the official record and the government has been notified that you are no longer beholden to the laws, rules and regulations of that system,” he said. “There are no consequences of that. The consequences come when you believe that that mattered.”

“When you start to accept the fact that the federal government is a fictitious reality or a construct that has no real power over your freedom or liberty, you start to declare your freedom and liberty,” Lenz said. “When you’re challenged on that, that’s when things get dicey.”

The Washitaw Nation holds an annual conference. It is not clear if Long attended its last event: a three-day event in June of spiritual readings, dancing and feasts in Monroe, La.

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