The shooter who held a Pittsburgh neighborhood under siege by firing hundreds of rounds at cops who came to evict him was a 63-year-old Black man who believed he was a “sovereign citizen”— a worldview that experts say has no basis in law or history but which is increasingly the motive challenge judges, cops and other authorities with sometimes deadly consequences.
On Wednesday, William Hardison Sr. was set to be evicted from his home in a Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when law enforcement arrived to serve the order, Hardison opened fire. That led to a six-hour siege in which several of Hardison’s neighbors had to be evacuated and that finally ended with Hardison dead of a gunshot wound.
A video uploaded to YouTube on April 28, 2019, appears to show Hardison involved in a tense verbal confrontation with police during a traffic stop. Pittsburgh police Chief Larry Scirotto acknowledged that video in a media briefing Thursday afternoon.
“Some of those behaviors we meet with sovereign citizens, but it doesn’t suggest for a moment that [the standoff] would have been the outcome — that they would meet us with firearms and violence,” Chief Scirotto said when asked about the video.
So what is a sovereign citizen, and what role could those beliefs had played in a Black senior citizen getting into one of the most violent shootouts in the history of an American city?
Experts who spoke to The Root said the term generally refers to individuals who believe they are not subject to the laws of the United States and are not under the jurisdiction of the federal government. There are many extremist groups, both on the right and the left, and conspiracy theorists who subscribe to this belief, including but not limited to the Moorish Nation, The Aware Group, the Washitaw Nation, the North Carolina American Republic, and the Republic of the United States of America.
These beliefs are not limited to any specific racial or ethnic group, including men in the Black community.
Hardison appeared to have considered himself to be part of the Moorish Nation. In a video taken four years ago during a traffic stop, he can be heard stating, “This ain’t their land. This is my land. I’m a Moor. I got every right to travel from here to Timbuktu. “Right to travel,” is a phrase often used by sovereign citizens during traffic stops and other encounters with police.
He also explains that a Moor is a descendant of Morocco, an African country he claims owns the United States.
While Hardison is just the latest example of someone using their “sovereign citizen” beliefs as a justification for crimes he’s committed, he’s not the first.
In the past, several people have found themselves in courts and shootouts because they believe police, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors have no authority over them, no matter the crimes they’re accused of committing.
Just type “Sovereign Citizen in Court” in your preferred search engine and the examples of people using their extremist views to defend their actions are never-ending.
Joseph Gutheinz, an attorney and former professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law (Texas State University), said that the majority of cases where he’s dealt with “sovereign citizens” have all been with White men except one, a Black man, and that the responses did not vary between suspects. When charged with crimes or sued, he said, they almost always appear in court “pro se”, or without representation by an attorney, he said, because they don’t recognize the court’s authority—even when faced with possible jail time.
“You were tipped off that they were there as they were surrounded by bailiffs and law enforcement no one knew quite what to make of them. They would overtalk the judges or ignore them outright.
When I listened to the Black man talk in comparison to the White men, there was absolutely no difference. They sounded exactly the same and they made the same claims.”
Why do some Black people gravitate toward this belief system?
While the sovereign citizen belief system was originally thought to be anti-Black, that way of thinking has slowly changed and an increasing number of Black Americans have subscribed to it.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “The core ideas of the sovereign citizens movement originated in the racist and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus group, which roiled the Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s and believed that the county sheriff is the highest legitimate law enforcement authority.”
Members of this group believed that America was given to White men by God and that the federal government could not take these rights away from white people unless they submitted to a “contract” with the government.
Black people weren’t considered citizens until June 1866, when the 14th Amendment passed, and as a result, were considered to be under a permanent “contract” with the government.
But that way of thinking has become somewhat outdated and Black people who have learned about the teachings of Noble Drew Ali, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America, have started to take on the same philosophies as other people who are considered “sovereign citizens.”
Ali taught that “Black “Moors” were America’s original inhabitants and are therefore entitled to self-governing, nation-within-a-nation status,” according to the SPLC.
Now Black people, such as Hardison, who see themselves as Moors have similar beliefs as the white sovereign citizens. They both believe that the rights they are entitled to pre-date the ones the current government lays out.
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