Police in Massachusetts arrested 11 men Saturday after a bizarre hours-long standoff that led to a partial shutdown of Interstate 95 and a stay-at-home order for the surrounding area. The standoff with the men in tactical gear who claimed to be part of a Moorish American group ended up lasting almost nine hours. In the end, it was resolved “through a combination of negotiation and tactical measures,” Massachusetts State Police Col. Christopher Mason said.
The bizarre series of events started at around 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, when a state trooper saw two cars pulled over on I-95 with their hazard lights on in Wakefield. The officer saw men refilling their gas tanks with their own fuel and stopped to see if they needed help. The officer quickly realized the men were all wearing military-style uniforms and were armed with long rifles and pistols. The men refused to provide identification and their firearm licenses so the state trooper asked for backup and the men fled into nearby woods.
The men claimed to be part of a group called Rise of the Moors that “does not recognize our laws,” police said. The group describes its members as “Moorish Americans dedicated to educating new Moors and influencing our Elders,” according to its website. Officials said they were headed from Rhode Island to Maine for training. “Their self-professed leader wanted very much known their ideology is not anti-government,” Mason said. “Our investigation will provide us more insight into what their motivation, what their ideology is.”
While the standoff was going on a member of the militia hosted a livestream on the group’s YouTube page, insisting they had not been violated any laws and were not trying to cause any trouble. “We do not intend to be hostile, we do not intend to be aggressive,” he said. “We’re not anti-government, we’re not anti-police and we’re willing to give them any information they need so that way we can continue with our peaceful journey.” The man said they made the stop in the middle of the highway to avoid “making any unnecessary stops” while carrying weapons and they were traveling to their “private land.” Another member of the group says in the video that they are “foreign nationals.” The group was carrying a Moroccan flag.
Experts were quick to say that the men appear to adhere to the “Moorish Sovereign Citizens,” a movement that emerged in the early 1990s. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes it as an offshoot of the sovereign citizens movement, which has broad anti-government beliefs. Adherents see themselves as part of a sovereign nation and claim they aren’t subject to U.S. law. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have characterized it as an extremist movement. “It was very fortunate that no one got hurt today,” Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, tells the Washington Post.
Law enforcement refused to get to go into a lot of detail about the group and its beliefs. “I’m not going to talk about what their forum is, and what their ideology is—I think they’ve been pretty vocal on social media about who they are and what they espouse. I’m not going to propagate that—they can define that for themselves,” Mason said. Some wondered whether the standoff was part of a plan for the group to make itself better known. “These guys have hijacked social media and mainstream media in Massachusetts, to get their word out,” former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis told a local CBS affiliate. “It’s very unusual – unless the group has a plan; unless the group has been thoughtful about merging on the public scene. If that was their plan today, they’re achieving that goal.”