She Bought Her Dream Home. Then a 'Sovereign Citizen' Changed the Locks.
Shanetta Little at her home in Newark, NJ on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Little was surprised one day to discover that the locks on her new home in Newark had been changed by a man who claimed he was the rightful owner. (Bryan Anselm / The New York Times)
The official-looking letters arrived shortly after Shanetta Little bought the cute Tudor house on Ivy Street in Newark, New Jersey. The documents bore a gold seal and claimed, in honorable legal language, that an obscure 18th
She dismissed the letters as a joke.
So Little was surprised to find that Little found herself in her back yard on Ivy Street one June afternoon when a police SWAT team was negotiating with a man who had broken into, changed locks, and hung a red and green flag in the window. He claimed he was a sovereign citizen of a country that does not exist and to which United States law does not apply.
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Little fell victim to a ploy known as paper terrorism, a popular tactic by an extremist group that is one of the fastest growing, according to government experts and watchdog organizations. Known as the Moorish Sovereign Citizens Movement and loosely based on a theory that blacks are foreign citizens bound only by mysterious legal systems, it encourages its followers to violate existing laws in the name of empowerment. Experts say it lures marginalized people into its ranks with false promises that they are above the law.
The man who walked into her home, Hubert John from Los Angeles, was arrested on June 17 and charged with criminal mischief, burglary, trespassing and terrorist threats. New Jersey prosecutors are preparing to bring the case to a grand jury, according to Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County prosecutor's office. He was released on his own.
But the strange letters explaining that Little's home is not her own still come. You arrive in the New Jersey State Republic on fake consular letterhead named Lenapehoking of the Al Moroccan Empire. Lenapehoking was the land between New York City and Philadelphia, which includes New Jersey, and was the home of the indigenous Lenape tribe before it was colonized by European settlers. John and his group refer to themselves as Moors.
"The Moors claim it is about the liberation and opportunities of blacks and about the uprising of black people," Little said in an interview. "But he literally suppresses me and, as a black woman, takes what is mine."
Last summer, the Moorish movement exploded in public after Little posted viral TikTok reports of their ordeal and when police stopped members of a militant offshoot of the group on a Massachusetts freeway. This subgroup, known as the Rise of the Moors, held a stalemate with the police for more than nine hours, claiming that law enforcement agencies had no power to stop them because they were sovereign citizens. Nobody was injured; 11 people were arrested and charged, among other things, with illicit possession of firearms and ammunition.
Across the country, sovereign citizens are increasingly clashing with authorities, tying up resources, and destroying lives for their insistence that laws like paying taxes, complying with speed limits, and even getting a pet dog license do not apply to them.
People who claim to be Moorish sovereign citizens believe they are primarily bound by the law of the sea, not the law of the place where they live, said Mellie Ligon, an attorney and author of a study on its impact on the judicial system in the Emory International Law Review.
Originally supported by white supremacist groups, the sovereign citizen ideology first emerged in the US 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 similarly named religious group, the Moorish Science Temple of America, which disavow the sovereign civic movement.
Membership in the Moorish sovereign citizens' movement has been driven into the hundreds of thousands by the Internet, said the justice center. For example, on its website, Rise of the Moors cited reparations - part of national talks on race and justice - as a driving force behind its belief that its members can claim things as their own.
Rise of the Moors and members arrested in Massachusetts in July did not respond to requests for comment.
Like many Moorish followers, John adopted an Arabic influenced name, Jaleel Hu-El. He did not respond to several requests for comments. An employee of the Al-Moroccan consulate, where John is listed on the website as the consul general of the United States and China, had initially scheduled an interview by email, but then canceled it.
The events of June 17th are a clear departure from John's public figure: in sharp suits and often clad in a red fez, John is a self-proclaimed fashion mogul. In a podcast interview, he said he worked in banking for nine years before buying a one-way ticket to China after the 2008 financial crisis.
There, John said, he was scouted by a modeling agent. He was fluent in Chinese and produced several fashion shows that, according to several reports, focused on black designers and models.
How he went from being a neat businessman to a Moorish citizen confronted with a SWAT team from New Jersey is obscure. Around 2018, the social media accounts associated with Black X, its business association, changed the tone, with posts on how to get Moorish license plates and ID cards and explanations of outlandish legal tactics.
Why John targeted Little's house is unknown. They don't know each other, says Little, who says they've never met before finding him in her house.
In documents posted online, John refers to Little's house, which was built in the 1950s, as his "ancestor," but according to the Essex County Prosecutor, there appears to be no connection.
On June 16, Little came to see her dream home. She closed it in February and was planning renovations before moving in.
The purchase of the house felt like a triumph for Little, who grew up mostly in Florida as a foster child and only found security as a teenager when her headmaster took her in. She graduated from the University of Central Florida, but had problems as a young adult, temporarily living out of motel rooms. Now, as a Senior Customer Service Specialist at Jaguar Land Rover North America, she could afford to buy a home.
She tried to unlock the door but was confused: the locks had been changed. The next day she returned with a locksmith and was confronted by two men, one of whom was John, who said the house was his. After a heated conversation, she called the police.
When the police arrived, both Little and John showed documents claiming the house was theirs, according to a report by Brian O'Hara, Newark Public Safety Director. Little shared the title deed proving ownership, she said; he showed the manufactured papers with the al-Moroccan seal.
The men "claimed to be sovereign citizens of the Al-Moroccan Empire and their status allowed them access to the property," the O'Hara report said. Officials confirmed that Little had bought the house in February and told the men to leave. They did.
Thirty minutes later John came back, walked past Little on the porch, she said, opened the door with his own key and locked it behind him.
When she called the police a second time, they returned with a SWAT team.
Little is still shaken, angry every time an ominous letter arrives in the mail. "He feels entitled to take care of something that I've basically worked for all my life, something that was withheld from me all my life, especially as a kid who didn't have a safe place to call home," said Little. “I deserve to be drawn not for 'Land of Ancestors' or a scam attempted. I deserve it because I deserve it. "
For decades, supporters of the Moorish sovereignty movement remained largely off the radar and mostly appear in strange-looking news about their paper terrorism tactics.
But across the country they have clogged court records with these arguments, filed fake lawsuits, and buried district officials in a deluge of forged deeds, liens and other documents. Nationwide, police authorities have begun training officers to deal with people who drive without a license or with fake license plates, claiming the police have no powers over them.
When Jordan Fainberg, a real estate agent in Bethesda, Maryland, visited a mansion he sold for its owner in 2013, he was surprised to find a man named Lamont Butler who said he was the real owner, with papers referring to it the Vienna Agreement on Consular Relations and an 18th century peace treaty between the Sultan of Morocco and the United States. Butler was arrested and convicted of several crimes. He could not be reached for comment.
"That was the bizarre thing in the world," said Fainberg recently. "That was just someone who said the sky is purple when it's blue."
At Montgomery Circuit Court, Butler continued to claim his bog rights. Judge Terrence McGann disagreed: "Your rulebook states that every house is fair game, you own the entire United States, you own the oceans, you own everything you want," he reportedly said. "And that's not how a free, orderly society works."
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