RETURN OF THE VIOLENT BLACK NATIONALIST
During a single month last year, America witnessed two of the most horrific shooting attacks against law enforcement in recent memory.
On July 7, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed Dallas police officers during a peaceful protest against police brutality, killing five officers and wounding nine others. Ten days later, Gavin Eugene Long shot six officers, killing three, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Both Johnson and Long were reportedly motivated by their strong dislike of law enforcement, grievances against perceived white dominance, and the recent fatal police shootings of unarmed black men under questionable circumstances, specifically the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Although many Americans were understandably upset and angry over the deaths of Sterling and Castile, killing others as retribution is certainly not justified. Authorities would later learn that Johnson and Long had ties to black hate groups.
That same month, six Christian churches in St. Louis, Missouri, were either burned or vandalized. Graffiti left at the crime scenes made reference to "Negroes Are the Israelites," "Wake Up!," "The Real Israelites Are Rising." These statements are indicative of Black Hebrew Israelite ideology, which portrays Christianity as "evil" and may point to motivation for the property destruction. As details developed about the Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Louis attacks, it was apparent that a domestic terrorist threat had re-emerged — a threat not seen since the 1970s. This cluster of attacks would later signify the return of the violent Black Nationalist.
On the rise
According to counter-terrorism experts and scholars, Black Nationalism rose in reaction to white racism during America's civil rights era. It encompasses hatred toward whites, homosexuals, and Jews. Black Nationalists have also advocated for a separate territory for African Americans within the country (similar to white nationalists who argue for a white homeland in the Pacific Northwest). According to their propaganda, Black Nationalists would like a portion of the Southeast United States reserved for a black nation. Further, they are known for their antigovernment and anti-police sentiments due to their long-held views on government corruption and police brutality.
Like most extremist movements in the United States, Black Nationalism's worldview is shaped by conspiracy theories. In their case, these conspiracies relate to perceived white oppression. They believe that whites — oftentimes conspiring with Jews — control the financial system, government and the media. They believe they are mistreated as a result of their race and ethnicity. For these reasons, they refer to incarcerated Black Nationalist inmates as "political prisoners." Similar to other hate groups, some Black Nationalist groups conduct prison outreach programs to recruit other inmates into their extremist cause. Some have also been known to recruit street gang members.
Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were not simply motivated by hate, they subscribed to a radical belief system seeking social and political change. For example, Johnson was motivated to shoot 14 police officers not only to avenge perceived unjustified killings of unarmed black men, but also to bring increased attention to these killings and, perhaps, change government policy. Johnson was later linked to Black Nationalism through his racist rhetoric and photos posted to social media. He also reportedly attempted to join a Black Nationalist group, the New Black Panther Nation (NBPN), but was ousted by NBPN leader Quannel X because of his radical views and perceived mental instability. Similarly, Gavin Long espoused antigovernment beliefs and affiliated with the Washitaw Nation, a Moorish sovereign citizen group comprised mostly of African Americans. Moorish sovereign citizens, like Long, do not recognize the authority of law enforcement or other government officials. Long regularly spoke of perceived police brutality on his social media accounts and chose to retaliate against the police, a symbolic target, as a result of his extremist views.
The recent rise of violent Black Nationalism may well have begun months before the Dallas and Baton Rouge attacks with the 2014 ambush shooting deaths of two New York Police Department officers in Brooklyn, New York. The NYPD officers were sitting in their marked patrol car when the shooter, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, came up to the passenger side window and opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol. Both officers died instantly after being shot multiple times in their heads and upper bodies. At the time, politicians and the media characterized the NYPD officers' deaths as "assassinations." And they were. Brinsley boasted on social media hours earlier that he wanted to murder cops in revenge for the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner who died during a struggle with police in New York City. In fact, Brinsley's violent action came just weeks after a jury acquitted the NYPD officer charged in Garner's death. "I'm putting wings on pigs today," Brinsley wrote on Instagram. "They take 1 of ours … let's take 2 of theirs," he said. Brinsley later killed himself. Despite having no known ties to Black Nationalist groups, Brinsley's violent actions appear to have been influenced by the killings of unarmed black men and anti-police sentiment which are indicative of today's Black Nationalist narrative.
Not long after Brinsley's attack, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made violent statements against the government. On July 30, 2015, in response to the suspicious deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, Farrakhan issued what amounts to a call to violence during a speech at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Miami, Florida. During his speech, Farrakhan said, "Retaliation is a prescription from God to calm the breasts of those whose children have been slain." He hatefully proclaimed, "So if the federal government will not intercede in our affairs, then we must rise up and kill those who kill us; stalk them and kill them and let them feel the pain of death that we are feeling!" Farrakhan's remarks that day likely inspired increased radicalization and mobilization towards violence among other Black Nationalists.
Black soldiers and white devils
More recently, another violent Black Nationalist lashed out at innocent civilians a week after killing a security guard at a motel. Kori Ali Muhammad mortally wounded three white males during a targeted shooting spree in Fresno, California, on April 18, 2017. According to his social media posts, Muhammad expressed a strong dislike toward "white people" as well as government officials. He made reference to "a race war against whites," the evils of "white devils" and being a "black soldier." Such racially charged terms, themes and phrases originated with the Nation of Islam. Since many Black Nationalist groups have splintered from the NOI, they too use these terms in their extremist propaganda and rhetoric.
Although not necessarily violent as organizations, groups such as the Nation of Islam, New Black Panthers, New Black Liberation Militia, the New Black Panther Nation and the Five Percenters are incubators of radical fanaticism. They attract violent individuals whom they indoctrinate, like Johnson, Long, Brinsley and Muhammad, encouraging criminal activity and violence.
Many Black Nationalists self-identify as "Muslim" and incorporate what they claim as "Islamic" teachings into their life to promote a sense of higher purpose. According to Chris Zambelis, a scholar on radical trends in African-American Islam at the Jamestown Foundation, "many African Americans see in Islam an opportunity to formally break with the injustices of the past [e.g. slavery, forced conversion to Christianity, severe discrimination, etc.]." Further, "others believe that they are reverting to the faith of their enslaved ancestors and hence are adopting a proud native tradition that they can call their own," says Zambelis. In a sense, African Americans' conversion to Islam traditionally represents an ethnic and racial identity in a society they view as replete with discrimination, injustice and alienation. These aspects of Islam are appealing to Black Nationalists seeking racial separatism and sovereignty.
Mainstream followers of Islam, however, reject Black Nationalist assertions that they are "Muslim." This is primarily attributed to various unorthodox teachings found in Black Nationalism such as the notion of blacks being God's elect as well as declarations of black sovereignty. Of particular concern to law enforcement, some Black Nationalists have expressed support for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. For example, on May 4, 2017, the FBI arrested Clark Calloway — who sympathized with ISIS and wanted to start a "race war" — for unlawful possession of a machine gun. Calloway had also expressed hatred toward white people and wanted to attack law enforcement. Also, in July 2006, the FBI arrested seven members of a Black Nationalist religious cult in Liberty City, Florida, called the "Universal Divine Saviors" and charged them with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and attempting to wage war against the U.S. government. Some group members reportedly had ties to Moorish-affiliated groups. In this respect, Black Nationalism may serve as a gateway to foreign-based extremism and international terrorism.