It was 7 a.m on Monday when Fredrix Washington got a call from a cousin with some news: Washington’s photo was on television in a segment about the shooting deaths of three Baton Rouge police officers.
“Do we know Gavin Long?” the cousin asked. “Was he part of the empire?”
Gavin Eugene Long was the killer. The empire was the Washitaw Nation, an “indigenous” black group that claims ownership over vast swaths of the United States and Canada and of which Washington is a top leader.
In May 2015 in Jackson County, Mo., Long filed court papers declaring allegiance to the group, which has been monitored by the FBI and tied to sovereign citizen movements.
“I don’t even want to say his name,” Washington said Tuesday in an interview from his apartment in San Pedro. “He’s not one of us.”
Though the Anti-Defamation League considers the Washitaw Nation an extremist movement, Washington denied that his organization is a hate group or that it espouses violence.
“Black lives matter, blue lives matter,” Washington said. “I’m a humanitarian; all lives matter to me. This guy didn’t just kill white people, he killed a black cop. So how can he be related to us?”
Long, who was shot dead by police after his attack Sunday, left a trail of websites, social media posts and videos documenting his support of black separatist movements, hatred of white people and increasing anger at police shootings of black Americans.
Investigators have not tied the Washitaw Nation to the shooting. But Long’s attack has brought unwanted attention to the group, which Washington said prefers to operate quietly.
“You can’t stop a person from using the name Washitaw,” he said. “It’s just freedom of speech.”
In his living room, a painting of the black, red, yellow and green Washitaw flag hangs above displays of Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple.” At a desk, he keeps laminated copies of newspaper articles about his “idol,” President Obama.
The group was founded in the early 1990s by Washington’s mother, a former small-town Louisiana mayor who changed her name to Verdiacee “Tiari” Washitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey as she developed more Afrocentric views.
The group’s members believe they are descendants of Moorish Africans who lived on the North American continent tens of thousands of years before white Europeans.
El-Bey, who died two years ago, wrote a book on the “Ancient Ones,” as they are called, and traveled the country to give speeches promoting the idea that the land sold by France to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase was fraudulently obtained and actually belonged to her.
The claims have been rebuked by government officials, and in 2000 the FBI raided El-Bey’s compound in Louisiana on suspicion of fraud and tax evasion.
“I haven’t paid taxes in years,” El-Bey said to reporters at the time. “And why should I? This is my land. I’m not someone who calls herself an empress or who says she’s an empress. I am an empress.”
Washington said that after the raid, he instructed members to start paying taxes, and the group stopped illegally issuing items such as Washitaw Nation license plates and passports.
But a few people claiming to be Washitaw members have since been arrested for fraud, tax evasion and squatting.
Washington, who moved to Southern California four decades ago, said the group’s only aim today is to reclaim thousands of acres of land in Louisiana.
Like other advocacy groups, it has an annual conference, maintains a mailing list and petitions government officials. At one point, it was also a registered nonprofit in Louisiana.
The documents Long filed in 2015 amount to “meaningless” paperwork but are customary among sovereign citizens groups that launch “wars on paper” as a form of rebellion against the government, according to Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Since the death of Washington’s mother, splinter Washitaw groups have grown around the country. Each claims to be the true heir to her organization.
One group, the United Washitaw, has a website run by a North Carolina-based man who goes by the name “Dr. Amin El-Bey.” He did not respond to requests for an interview. Another group, Unity Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Nation, based in Atlanta, was also unreachable.
Washington and William McRae, a cousin who lives in New Jersey, called those groups “frauds.”
“I call them hijackers,” McRae said. “If you’re not affiliated with something and you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to be doing, that means you’re taking something and you’re using it for your own cause.”
Though they are not tied to Washington’s group, some people who consider themselves sovereign citizens of Moorish origin have carried out a string of criminal attacks and plots.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security who tracks sovereign citizen groups, has counted 18 instances since 2000 of Moorish sovereigns committing extremist violence and plots, ranging from traffic stop shootouts and prison escapes to rape and child molestation.
Long’s writings and videos on social media, where he praised “the black woman” and theorized about why blacks were superior to whites, fit in with the Washitaw world view, MacNab said.
“The belief system doesn’t say kill people,” she said. “It says you are brilliant, you are racially pure, you are of a noble race. You are perfect, you are entitled, you are above government. And when someone pops that bubble, a small percentage are going to go violent.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent and reported from Atlanta.