Micah Xavier Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, was increasingly drawn to black nationalist ideology and attended several meetings of the People’s New Black Panther Party.
Gavin Eugene Long, who killed three officers in Baton Rouge, said he belonged to the Washitaw Nation, an obscure black nationalist group that claims ownership to the huge swath of the United States obtained in the Louisiana Purchase.
The People’s New Black Panther Party and the Washitaw Nation have vastly different ideologies and no direct ties to each other, but they are part of a broad landscape of black nationalist groups playing a role in America’s violent summer 2016.
“There are a few big groups and a lot of little ones, and they are growing in an echo chamber where all they hear is ‘anger, anger, anger, anger, anger,’ ” said J.J. MacNab, an author and George Washington University researcher who specializes in extremism.
Some of these groups espouse extremist, anti-government views, and their numbers jumped from 113 groups in 2014 to 180 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism.
Ryan Lenz, an SPLC analyst, said that increase has partly been a response to a rise in white supremacist and white nationalist activity amid the racially charged environment of past two years, including the 2016 presidential campaign. For example, SPLC figures show that the number of Ku Klux Klan chapters increased from 72 in 2014 to 190 last year.
“There is tremendous racial tension in this political environment,” Lenz said. “The idea of an ‘us-versus-them’ ideology is being pushed very heavily no matter what political camp you are from.”
Analysts said it was impossible to determine exactly how many people are involved in black nationalist groups. But officials at both the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League, which also tracks extremism, said the numbers were probably in the hundreds at most. A former FBI official who supervised domestic terrorism cases in recent years also said, “We are talking dozens of people.”
Most of the black nationalist groups have formed in response to a perception that U.S. society is deeply racist against black people. How they organize themselves and what they actually do to achieve those goals varies greatly.
Some simply seem to exist as online forums for expressing rage, often against police. One group Johnson had “liked” on Facebook was the African American Defense League, which has a photo of an arsenal of guns as its profile picture.
Even though the group has more than 1,000 likes on Facebook, Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, called it “one guy with a Facebook page” and limited influence.
Following the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., the Anti-Defamation League said the site featured a photo of Wilson with this notation: “When you find Dar¬ren Wil¬son you know what to do! Who-ever finds him knows what must be done! Take every¬thing that he took from Mike Brown.”
A similar group, the Black Riders Liberation Party, which calls for armed revolution against racism in America, has a Facebook page with more than 9,600 likes. It is run by a man who calls himself General T.A.C.O. – short for “Taking All Capitalists Out” – who calls police “pigs.”
Earlier this month, the group posted on its Facebook page in response to police killings in Louisiana and Minnesota: “It’s on in 2016! R.I.P. to Alton Sterling in La and Philando Castile in Minnesota! We need recruits everywhere! Arm yourself or Harm yourself!”
Segal said those smaller groups “orbit around” the New Black Panther Party, a black militant separatist group started in Dallas in 1989, but don’t directly coordinate their efforts with them.
Other groups are larger and more formally organized, holding meetings and attending rallies, often wearing the classic militant uniform of black clothes and a black beret. In some cases, they carry weapons.
Analysts said some of those groups, particularly the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense (NBPP) and the People’s New Black Panther Party, an offshoot formed two years ago, attempt to take prominent roles at demonstrations to create the impression that they are bigger than they actually are.
The NBPP and other black nationalist groups have attended protests over the highly publicized deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and most recently Louisiana and Minnesota.
Washington Post reporters covering protests at this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland saw a small group of protesters wearing Black Panther logos on their clothes, but they were not armed.
The People’s New Black Panther Party in Dallas and a sister organization, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, hold semi-regular demonstrations in the Dallas area, in which members often carry long guns and dress in military clothes in a display of strength against the oppression of blacks in America, and “to let people of color know that it is legal to carry weapons,” said Babu Omowale, who said he was the group’s “minister of defense.”
“We want every black man and woman throughout the country to legally arm themselves,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. Omowale said Johnson, the Dallas shooter, came to several of the group’s social meetings but never attended any of those armed events.
Omowale said his group and its supporters see the police as “basically a military unit inside the black community,” so when they are in public facing off in a protest against a white supremacist group, as Omowale said they did a few months ago to defend a local Nation of Islam mosque, they carry guns.
Omowale and other party members and supporters, some bearing arms, were marching at the peaceful demonstration in Dallas on the evening that Johnson started shooting.
“A few of the comrades who are part of the community got arrested — and they were basically arrested because they had on military-looking clothing,” Omowale said. “One of the brothers had a flak vest. But all of these things are perfectly legal.”
In other cases, police have accused followers of black nationalism of plotting violence. Two men who met at the Ferguson protests over the shooting of Michael Brown were convicted last year of plotting to target law enforcement with guns and bombs. FBI officials said the two men were affiliated with the NBPP, which the group denied in a statement.
Many of the leaders and organizations that make up the ongoing and nonviolent Black Lives Matter protest movement are reluctant to even discuss black militant groups, arguing that these groups are outliers and that paying them any attention only provides them vital oxygen.
“Every black person in America has an issue with the fact that the police are killing black people disproportionately,” said Kayla Reed, an organizer in St. Louis who became an activist after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. “People have a right to identify with the movement, or say ‘black lives matter,’ but we can’t possibly be typecast based on the actions of any individual who uses a slogan.”
Reed recalled nights in Ferguson when small groups of more militant groups would often attempt to co-opt protests organized by nonviolent organizations. Members of groups such as the NBPP would show up at a demonstration and conduct interviews with members of the media in which they claimed credit for the entire gathering. Then, she said, political opponents of the protest movement would use those statements to demonize all black activism related to policing.
“The groups in our movement have been teaching and advocating nonviolent direct actions; it’s been a consistent theme since Ferguson,” Reed said. “It’s very easy to target and smear the group demanding change; it’s much harder to give us equity and actually listen to us.”
Analysts said the NBPP is the largest of the current black nationalist groups. National Chairman Hashim Nzinga recently told Reuters that his group has 36 chapters around the country, but he declined to reveal membership numbers. Phone calls and emails to the group seeking comment were not returned.
The SPLC has described the group as “a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law enforcement officers.”
In an official statement disavowing Johnson, the “National Central Committee” of the NBPP blamed “rabid, sick, twisted law enforcement agencies” for the recent deaths of black people by police.
The statement also noted that Johnson, a former U.S. Army soldier, received training from “your American Military.”
“The kind of training that ultimately, Mr. Johnson used against your officers in Dallas, TX,” the statement said. “White America, you must deal with what you produced, and that includes your very own racist hatred.”
The NBPP has been involved in various controversies. In 2009, the Justice Department filed civil charges accusing the group of voter intimidation in Philadelphia in the 2008 presidential election. A local NBPP leader appeared at a polling place and made what the government considered threatening and racist comments. The charges were later dropped.
The People’s New Black Panther Party, an offshoot of the NBPP that started about two years ago, is seeing “exploding” growth this summer, said Yahcanon, who said he goes by one name and is the group’s “national minister of information” as well as head of the group’s Houston chapter.
He declined to disclose how many members the group has.
Yahcanon said his group does “not condone any violence,” but “we understand when people take matters into their own hands and lash out at law enforcement.”
“Anytime you oppress a people, you’re going to have backlash,” he said.
Black nationalist groups have been around for decades protesting, and occasionally lashing out violently, against deeply rooted racism in American society. They often advocate a separate black nation and armed “self-defense” groups to protect blacks from racial oppression and violence, particularly from police.
The original Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 as a response to police brutality in California, and its members frequently clashed violently with police. But several of the group’s original members have denounced the New Black Panther Party as racist and too extreme.
Yahcanon said his group split off from the NBPP because of the same concerns. He said he believed the NBPP’s rhetoric was too violent, and his group is trying to follow the philosophy of the original Black Panthers.
“We don’t hate whites; we aren’t against anybody,” Yahcanon said.
He said his group supported the establishment a separate “Republic of New Afrika” in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina – an idea first proposed in the 1960s. He said those state should become a black-only nation and current non-black residents “are just going to have to move out.”
Long, the Baton Rouge killer, appeared intrigued by a distinct strain of black anti-government extremism.
The Washitaw Nation is a tiny part of the sovereign citizen movement, a subculture of anti-government extremists who have declared themselves “sovereign” and not subject to any laws.
In 2014, sovereign citizens were listed as the top U.S. terrorism concern in a Department of Homeland Security-backed survey of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officials. Sovereigns are often violent, and the FBI says sovereigns have killed at least six law enforcement officials since 2000. Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols was a follower of sovereign ideology.
An increasing number of African Americans are sovereigns. The largest group call themselves “Moorish” and often engage in elaborate scams, nuisance lawsuits and illegal squatting on properties that do not belong to them.
In the late 1990s, the Washitaw Nation became infamous across Louisiana and Texas for fraudulent schemes centered on identification cards and license plates branded with the name of the Washitaw Nation. In February, New Orleans police arrested four members of the Washitaw Nation after they illegally occupied a house and showed police a fraudulent deed they had forged.
At the time of his death, Long was carrying a Washitaw Nation identification card. Last year, he filed paperwork in Jackson County, Missouri, to change his name to “Cosmo Setepenra,” claiming that he was part of the Washitaw Nation.
A longtime friend of Long’s said he was surprised to see media reports suggesting that Long’s ties to the Washitaw Nation somehow fueled his anti-law enforcement beliefs. Felix Omoruyi, 29, of Dallas, said Moorish beliefs became trendy among their friend group of young black men several years ago.
Omoruyi, who is Nigerian American and was born in Missouri, said he himself never claimed affiliation with the Washitaw Nation or any Moorish groups. Omoruyi said Long, who traveled extensively in Africa, believed that his roots were African. He said it would not make sense for him to claim to be descended from an indigenous group in the United States.
Whatever Long’s bizarre beliefs were, he and Johnson shared some common convictions and goals, said Mark Pitcavage of the American Defamation League.
“They were both associated with fringe ideas and causes,” he said. “What they shared was a strong response to police violence against African Americans and what they perceived as unjust killings.”