The Siege of I-95

It began with a routine stop in the dead of night near the outskirts of Wakefield. It ended with dozens of police troopers in a standoff with armed militiamen, all of them wondering if they would make it out alive.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

It was 10 minutes past 1 a.m. on a rainy summer night in 2021 when Massachusetts State Police Trooper Ryan Casey saw a black Ford Transit van with its hazard lights flashing parked along the side of I-95 in Wakefield. Like he had so many times before, Casey pulled over and approached the vehicle with his body cam rolling.

As he walked between the van and the guardrail, a figure stepped out of the darkness and into the beam of Casey’s flashlight. The officer gasped. Standing before him was a man dressed in full paramilitary gear—camouflage head to toe, heavy boots, and a bulletproof vest—with a thick black beard and his hair wrapped in a turban. A semi-automatic rifle was slung casually across his chest, dangling next to his hip. Two other men, identically dressed, one of whom was visibly armed, walked up behind him.

“What’s going on, man?” Casey called out, his voice starting to tremble.

“My name is Jamhal,” the first man said. He extended his right hand as if to shake hands, but Casey, who was holding his flashlight in his right hand, didn’t take it. “We’re with a local militia in Rhode Island,” said Jamhal, who goes by the surname Bey. He and his cohorts were in two vehicles: a Honda pickup truck and the van. “We’re headed to Maine. We don’t plan on making any unnecessary stops. We have fuel in our truck, so we’re just going to gas up here so we can just keep going through.”

Casey paused, taking it in.

“All right,” Casey said. “I need you to sit in the car. You understand that this is a little different from the things I normally deal with.” He sounded calm, as though it were, in fact, not so different from his typical traffic stops. Inside, though, he was terrified.

Casey walked back to his vehicle and grabbed his radio. “I’m on a stop, 95 northbound, prior to North Ave.,” he told the dispatcher. “Can you send someone over?” He provided no additional details. Then he walked back to Bey and the two men standing with him and started asking questions. “So, uh, what’re your guys’ big plans?” he asked.

“I’ve got some private land in Maine,” Bey said. “We’re going to do some training up there. I already spoke to the sheriff, he says it’s fine.”

Struggling to make sense of it all, Casey walked around the van to the driver’s side and asked the man behind the wheel for his license. The motorist replied that he was “traveling,” and handed Casey something labeled an “International Road Travel” ID that listed his name as Will El Musa. Instead of a birth date, the card stated his “life date.”

“You’re traveling,” Casey said, his voice seeming to drop with recognition. “Okay. You need a license to drive in Massachusetts. We’re not doing this ‘traveling’ thing.” A dog started to whine from inside the van.

None of the other militiamen had state-issued licenses, either. Casey asked Bey for a Social Security number and Bey claimed he didn’t have one, even though he was born in the United States. Bey volunteered to write down his information. Casey passed him a piece of paper, and Bey scribbled something down and passed it back. When Casey read it, he saw that Bey hadn’t provided an actual telephone number, but rather the words “telephone number.” Bey then turned to the men standing next to him and told them they did not need to give Casey any information.

“Okay,” Casey told him, “I’m just trying to figure out the situation. You’re on the highway. You’ve got AR-15s.”

“We were trying to pass through without making any unnecessary stops,” Bey responded confidently. “There are laws that specify that as long as you’re not making an unnecessary stop in a state, you can travel with your arms.” Soon after he offered several pages of text, which looked like they were printed from the Internet, that he said referenced federal law and supported his assertions. Casey flipped through the documents and carried them back to his police car.

By then, another officer had already arrived and Casey greeted him with a fist bump. “Before you get freaked out,” Casey told him, “there are like six guys with AR-15s over there.”

As additional officers trickled onto the scene, tensions seemed to rise with each new arrival. A pair of baby-faced and clearly nervous officers from the Wakefield Police Department soon showed up. One of them had been on the job for only a year, while the other had just six months under his belt. One of them kept telling Casey to be careful. “At any second,” he said, “they could, like, flip a switch, you know?”

The cops huddled together on the side of the road as cars whizzed by them, trying to get a handle on what they were facing. They didn’t know how many militia members were in the vehicles, nor how many dogs. They didn’t know how many weapons the brigade had, nor quite what the group’s purpose or motivation might be. Was this all a trap? Only one thing seemed crystal clear to them: The police were convinced they were outnumbered and outgunned. If Bey and his militia were looking for a battle, the officers didn’t stand a chance. As one of them who was standing near Casey put it, “We brought knives to a gunfight.”

Jamhal Bey and his militia, the Rise of the Moors, were armed and on their way to train in Maine when state police officers happened upon them on the side of I-95 in Wakefield.

Standing on the side of the highway, Bey, a former U.S. Marine, felt himself snapping back into military mode. The way he saw it, now that the cops had interrupted his group’s trip to Maine, he had two primary jobs. The first, to protect the men in his militia from the police, whom Bey generally viewed as hyper-aggressive. They represented, he thought, people known to murder Black men like himself and the others with him. The second, to try to reason with them peacefully.

“I gave you information in a good-faith attempt for us to pursue our peaceful journey, which is authorized by the federal laws of the United States,” Bey calmly but defiantly said. He clasped his hands in front of him, as if standing at attention, and squared his shoulders. “I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution for the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We’re trying to come to a peaceful resolution. We understand you have a job to do. We’re not at odds with each other. We’re trying to go on our peaceful journey, that’s it.”

Bey’s choice of language—words such as “traveling” and “peaceful journey”—read like red flags to some of the officers who had been trained, or heard from other cops, about so-called sovereign citizen groups, which is what they presumed this militia was. “You gotta read up on this shit,” Casey told another officer. “I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos on this stuff.”

“Sovereign citizen” is an umbrella term for an amorphous movement of occasionally violent individuals. The FBI defines them as “anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign’ from the United States.” Sovereign citizens often don’t have legitimate license plates, don’t believe in or adhere to traffic regulations, and don’t recognize that police have legal authority over them. Problematic traffic stops with these groups are not unusual and have even become deadly. “Every year, sovereign citizens kill people, usually a police officer,” says Mark Pitcavage, the director of fact-finding at the Anti-Defamation League and an expert on extremist groups. “There are armed standoffs and shootouts. The most common form of serious sovereign citizen violence is unplanned, like during a traffic stop. Traffic stops are the most dangerous because there are all kinds of ways for them to go wrong.”

In recent years, police departments throughout the country have conducted officer training related to sovereign citizens, including what to do when these groups are encountered in the field. Pitcavage leads many of them himself. When he started paying attention to the groups in the 1990s, he says, virtually nobody was aware of them. Now, when he conducts trainings and asks rooms full of officers if they’ve heard of sovereign citizens, nearly every hand goes up.

Many New Englanders don’t tend to think of the Northeast as a hotbed of militias or extremism, but the sovereign citizen movement has a long history here. In 1997, a sovereign citizen shot two state troopers, a judge, and a newspaper editor in New Hampshire, and then injured four more officers during an ensuing police chase through the Granite State and Vermont. In 2007, meanwhile, a New Hampshire couple who had been convicted of federal income tax violations engaged in a six-month armed standoff with U.S. Marshals.

Despite its early association with white supremacism, sovereign citizen ideology in the 1990s began to overlap with Moorish Science, a belief system founded in the early 20th century that posits that African Americans are descended from the Moroccan empire and are therefore Moorish by nationality and Muslim by faith. In 2011, the Moorish Science Temple of America disavowed association with sovereign citizens, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of an Afrocentric subgroup, known loosely as Moors, that experts consider to fit the description of sovereign citizens groups. Exact numbers can be hard to pin down, but J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, tracks membership of certain Facebook groups and YouTube accounts and believes they’re easily in the tens of thousands. Bey’s militia is just one of many groups that are quickly growing in number, particularly along the eastern seaboard.

Within an hour of Casey discovering the group readying to fill their gas tanks along the side of the highway, the trooper’s supervisor, Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Matthew McDevitt, arrived to take charge. Stony-faced and all business, he got a quick briefing from Casey before approaching Bey and asking him and his men to stand close to the guardrail on the side of the highway. The roads were wet, he explained, plus it was late and drunk drivers could be anywhere. He didn’t want anyone to get sideswiped or injured.

That was the extent of McDevitt’s progress. Bey and his men still refused to put their weapons away. For police to even make the request, they said, was a violation of their Second Amendment rights. It was becoming obvious to the officers that the situation was not going to end anytime soon. If anything, they feared, things were only going to get worse. At 2:18 a.m., an officer called for the shut down of the northbound side of the highway.

Meanwhile, Casey thought he had spotted some of the militiamen stepping over the guardrail and walking toward the woods behind the side of the road. Standing back near the police vehicles, he trained his flashlight into the thick brush. In the narrow ray of light, he thought he saw a man standing about 15 feet deep into the woods.

Suddenly, McDevitt heard the unmistakable sound of someone chambering a rifle in the woods. Bey ordered his men to back up. “They’re racking their rounds,” he said. “They’re ready for battle. We’re past the point of negotiating.”

Jamhal Bey and his militia, the Rise of the Moors, were armed and on their way to train in Maine when state police officers happened upon them on the side of I-95 in Wakefield. / Photo by John Tlumaki/Boston Globe/Getty Images

Colonel Christopher Mason was in a deep sleep at his Cape Cod home when the phone rang. He fumbled to answer and then listened intently as an officer told him what was happening in Wakefield.

As the Massachusetts State Police’s commander, the head honcho, Mason has been in law enforcement for decades and is used to receiving emergency phone calls. Still, he rarely goes to the scene of any situation. But that night, he hung up the phone, scrambled out of bed, put on his uniform, grabbed his service weapon, and sped north in his cruiser, an unmarked Chevy Tahoe, with its blue lights flashing.

As Mason made his way north, Bey and his men were starting to feel increasingly frustrated and misunderstood. The cops didn’t seem to be getting what was going on, nor did they seem to understand what the militia members’ rights were. Maybe, Bey reasoned, their Instagram audience would. Standing near his van, washed in a flood of blue flashing lights, Bey faced the cell-phone camera of one of his militia members to explain. “Okay, for the record, we’re traveling according to the peaceful journey laws of the United States,” he said, glancing back toward the police cars lined up on the highway behind him. “Right now, we believe that they’re loading guns, although we’ve made every attempt to come to a peaceful solution.”

Bey cited, as he repeatedly did over the course of the night, the U.S. Supreme Court case Young v. State of Hawaii, claiming the court’s decision gave him and his crew the legal right to openly carry firearms, even though the Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling in this case. He again mentioned the constitutional right to maintain a militia. “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” he said into the camera.

Bey became interested in the law after he left the Marines. He had joined at 17—so young he needed permission from his mother—trained as a marksman, and fully expected to be a lifer. But he missed the deadline to re-up and was honorably discharged after his four-year stint. Then in his early twenties, he soon returned to the Providence area. When he wasn’t working as an organic farmer, Bey often strolled over to the Rhode Island Superior Court and studied Corpus Juris and American jurisprudence, and read law dictionaries.

He also watched videos on the Internet and, at some point, encountered Moorish Science, a religious ideology that celebrates African Americans as the descendants of kings and queens, specifically from the Moroccan Empire. He felt as though he’d stumbled upon the belief system that Black people desperately needed. Bey started calling himself Moorish instead of Black and he says he “corrected” his last name, from Latimer to Bey. In 2016, he formed his militia, calling it the Rise of the Moors. They held study groups, conducted defense training exercises, and, in 2019, started holding monthly charity events during the winter, including a food giveway. Before their run-in with the Massachusetts State Police, they had as many as 40 members. Along the way, the group had small-scale confrontations with police, but nothing like the one they now faced, marooned on the side of the road, surrounded by cops and unsure how it all might end.

It was around 3 a.m. when Mason breezed through a deserted Boston and continued toward I-95. Along the way, his mind kept coming back to one thing: It was the Fourth of July weekend. Mason had previously run the Commonwealth Fusion Center, an institution dedicated to gathering and analyzing intelligence on foreign and domestic terrorism. He knew all too well that for terrorists and extremist groups, holidays were significant—even aspirational. Whatever was going on in Wakefield could turn deadly.

At that very moment, Bey was standing in the middle of the eerily empty northbound side of I-95, both hands raised in the air, his gun still slung over his shoulder, with McDevitt about 100 yards away from him. “You are under arrest,” McDevitt shouted to him. “Lay down your firearms.”

“What am I under arrest for?” Bey replied.

“I told you,” McDevitt said. “Brandishing firearms and disorderly conduct. You are standing in the highway, making an incident. This is disorderly conduct.”

“You have not stated your probable cause,” Bey said. “Since you are not stating your probable cause, we are not being detained. Since we are not being detained, we will continue peacefully to our final destination.”

For a moment, Bey and his fellow militia members seemed to consider simply driving away. They didn’t want any problems with the cops. “Want to load up and get out?” the person taking the video of Bey asked. “I don’t think they’ll chase us.” A few minutes later, his camera panned to the north, to their possible exit route. Then a new police vehicle appeared and parked about a hundred yards away, its lights flashing and blocking the route. Now, there was no escape.

Cops shut down both sides of the highway and surrounded the group in an hours-long standoff. / Photo by John Tlumaki/Boston Globe/Getty Images

The militiamen might have been cornered, but that didn’t mean the police felt they had a handle on the situation—quite the contrary. “This isn’t going to end well,” Casey muttered to one of the Wakefield officers. The police were feeling outnumbered and trapped. They suspected that the militiamen were heading deeper into the woods and starting to outflank the area where the officers were gathered. They still had no idea how many members of the group they were even dealing with. “Bro, there’s a million of them,” a Wakefield officer said.

Just a hundred yards north, the Moors were also feeling increasingly threatened by the police. They counted a dozen police vehicles now surrounding them. More were on their way, from surrounding towns. A SWAT team, too. Multiple militiamen were livestreaming at the same time. “Help! Please help!” they screamed to motorists traveling in the still open southbound lanes, convinced they were being unfairly treated.

“What you are doing is not peaceful,” Bey shouted toward the line of cruisers facing him and shining their floodlights on him in the dark, rendering everything beyond them invisible. “We are not sovereign citizens. We are not Black identity extremists. And we do not hate the police.”

Bey insists the Rise of the Moors is not anti-government—as some extremism experts maintain. Speaking to me later, he said that classification is just part of an attempt to criminalize his organization’s lawful behavior. He places himself and his militia among groups such as the Black Panthers, who were targeted by the FBI.

In Bey’s view, the militia that he started in 2016 was in keeping with a time-honored, constitutionally protected American tradition. It was not in opposition to his military service, but rather in sync with it. The group wasn’t randomly driving to Maine to train over the July Fourth weekend—it was intentional. It was how they wanted to celebrate. “The Fourth of July is literally the celebration of state militias,” Bey told me. “What better way to honor those who fought for our freedom and independence than to continue that spirit of saying, ‘If this ever happens again, if tyranny ever happens again, then there’s people that are willing to sacrifice their lives for the betterment of everyone else’?”

He said that the group is not merely a militia, but also a nonprofit civic organization that provides legal advice to its community, helping low-income and non-native families deal with institutions such as the foster care system. The Rise of the Moors is not technically a 501(c)(3)—Bey hasn’t filed any paperwork with the government—and in the small hours of the night along the side of I-95, it didn’t look much like one, either. Not with all of those guns, anyway.

The cops were growing concerned about not just the volatile situation on the road, but also the danger the group posed to neighboring communities. It was time to take precautions. At 4:36 a.m., the phone simultaneously buzzed in 2,280 Wakefield homes located near the standoff with a prerecorded code red alert advising residents that heavily armed men were on the highway and that some had escaped into the woods and were on the loose. “We are asking residents to lock their doors and remain inside their homes,” the message said. An hour later, when vendors started arriving to set up the Wakefield farmers’ market, they were met by police officers telling them to go back home. It wasn’t safe to be outside.

Meanwhile, on the highway, Bey was still shouting into the wind. Two of his men had unfurled a Moroccan flag and were standing in the middle of the road holding it while facing the police. “You have lights pointed at us, you have guns pointed at us; we have nothing pointed at you except a flag,” Bey said. When a police drone appeared overhead, they turned the flag to face the sky.

Mason was now on the scene, watching it all unfold—via the drone footage and the Instagram live feeds—from a makeshift command center half a mile down the highway. At the same time, members of a tactical team, dressed a lot like Bey’s crew in camouflage and bulletproof vests, huddled around maps splayed out in the back of an SUV, working to determine which stretches of the highway were already blocked and where the vehicles that continued to arrive should park. Over the next several hours, nearly 200 police officers collectively established a two-and-a-half-mile perimeter around the Moors using strategically placed armored vehicles and dump trucks provided by Wakefield’s Department of Public Works. The militiamen were completely surrounded.

By 7 a.m., the sun had risen, but it was still gray and misty on the deserted highway. Inside the Moors’ van, a dog whined, desperate to get out. Bey paced the road, talking to the police negotiators on his phone. Facebook had shut down their social media accounts and the local news was reporting that his group’s members considered themselves to be sovereign citizens. Bey wanted the police to call the television station to correct the record. “That you’re allowing the media to portray us as anti-government after I expressed multiple times that we are not anti-government is violating my trust with you guys,” he said. “We are going to continue to not point our arms at you. We’re not going to threaten you, to coerce you, make you feel threatened in any way. At most what’s going to happen is we’re going to get so fatigued, to the point where it’s easier for you to violate us because we’re going to be so weak from not eating and not drinking. You’re probably going to have to bring me out on a stretcher, so please have paramedics ready.”

In the midst of this, Mason and his officers watched their drone feeds, gaining insight, they felt, into Bey’s state of mind and searching for signs that he was wearing down. Mason knew that time was on his side, as was the unseasonably cold and wet weather. The Wakefield cops had managed to spot and arrest two of the militia members who had slipped into the woods and made their way onto North Avenue, about half a mile from the standoff. The men initially told police that they’d been out for a jog, but both were in body armor and one carried a semiautomatic pistol.

Meanwhile, Bey was frustrated because it felt as though he and the officer were having two very different conversations. He thought the officer was talking to him as if it were a hostage negotiation, when not only were the Moors not holding anyone hostage, but they felt they were being held hostage. As he tried to reason with the officer, Bey began to feel faint. He’d been up all night, wearing heavy gear and pacing, racing with adrenaline. He found a bucket, turned it upside down, propped his gun against the van, and took a seat for the first time in hours. He was starting to wear thin.

Still, police were worried the standoff could last for hours more. When one of the Moors offered a clementine to a police officer from a big bag, Mason didn’t see a friendly gesture; he saw evidence they were well supplied and in it for the long haul. The highway closure, on its own, was a danger to public safety: As any officer learns quickly from having to clear roadside scenes, one crash and closure can easily create a domino effect of more crashes and closures. Mason felt an increasing urgency to bring this whole episode to an end. Yet he was equally determined to do it without any loss of life. There is going to be a press conference at the end of the day, he thought to himself. I want it to be a positive one.

Mason gathered with his team to discuss an option that he thought would accomplish just that: pinching the Moors in with armored vehicles called BearCats and then deploying a long-range acoustic device known as an LRAD. The so-called sound cannon was originally developed for military use, specifically for long-range attacks between naval ships, but they’re increasingly—and controversially—used by police departments in situations calling for crowd control. The high-frequency sound the device emits causes nausea and can temporarily incapacitate its targets. Mason himself had experienced it once during a training exercise but had never before deployed one. There is a first time for everything, though, and he decided that that time was now.

Sitting on the bucket, Bey looked up and saw something that looked like a large satellite dish being driven toward him on an armored vehicle. Half a mile down the road at the command center, Mason was watching. He heard the LRAD go off. It sounded like a persistent, annoying, high-pitched car alarm, but that was all he heard. The rest he watched on the silent video feed from a drone in the sky.

A member of the state police’s Special Tactical Operations Team (STOP), which was closest to the Moors, instructed the group’s members to put their guns down and lie face-down on the highway. Mason knew it could go one of two ways: Either they would comply, or they wouldn’t. And if they didn’t, it could get ugly. He watched the video screen intently, holding his breath. The seconds felt like minutes, the minutes like hours. Then he saw the first militiaman put down his weapon and lie prone on the road. His fellow members did the same.

Once all of the Moors were down on the blacktop, officers instructed them to stand up, one at a time, and slowly walk toward the STOP team. Multiple troopers pointed long guns at the group members as they approached, ready to shoot if any of the Moors made a last desperate reach for a weapon. When the militia members got close enough, a pair of troopers approached each individual and searched and cuffed him, in a slow and methodical process that took nearly half an hour to complete. When the last of what turned out to be a nine-member group along the side of I-95 had been searched and cuffed, Mason exhaled. Nine long, tense hours after Casey had pulled his cruiser over on the side of the road to check on a van with its hazard lights on, the standoff was over. Not a single militiaman or officer was killed or injured, and by early afternoon, the northbound side of I-95 was humming again as Bostonians drove out of town for the July Fourth weekend.

The standoff might have been over, but in many ways, it was just beginning. New groups like the Moors seem to emerge all the time, including throughout New England. Just before the new year, Pitcavage, of the Anti-Defamation League, discovered a group similar to Bey’s, also based in Rhode Island, that had created its own fake Indian tribe and a fake law enforcement agency, replete with fake badges.

Mason says we live in a time in which conspiracy theories run wild on the Internet, and impressionable young people can find themselves radicalized online without even being aware of it. Groups like these, he says, “are just part of the reality of the modern world.” This mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, says George Washington University’s MacNab, makes groups more desperate for attention in an increasingly competitive landscape—which can end up being dangerous.

A few days after the standoff finally ended, the nine members of the Moors apprehended on the highway and the two arrested roaming through Wakefield were arraigned in Malden District Court. Each was charged with eight counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, use of body armor in commission of a crime, possession of a high-capacity magazine, improper storage of firearms in a vehicle, and conspiracy to commit a crime. Three of the adult militia members, plus the one minor, were also charged with furnishing a false name to police. All of the men, including Bey, pleaded not guilty and petitioned to represent themselves, claiming that lawyers would only infringe on their rights. The judge overruled Bey and appointed representation. At press time, Bey remains in jail awaiting trial at the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction.

Not long after their arrest, members of the militia group, which now maintains its name is the Moorish Militia, filed a civil lawsuit against several officers, the judge overseeing their case, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a host of media organizations for $70 million in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. The judge swiftly dismissed the case because of an absence of clear defamation allegations, and because of long-standing policy preventing federal courts from interfering with state court proceedings.

Bey has not spoken to his codefendants in months—he says he is intentionally being kept apart from them, which hinders their ability to mount an effective defense. The group has also fractured outside of the jail. “It’s just really messy,” Bey’s partner, Julisa El, told me. She says the group’s members are scared and distancing themselves from one another because they don’t want to be publicly connected to an organization that media outlets have linked to anti-government extremism and so-called paper terrorism, a term for filing frivolous lawsuits.

Bey, for his part, told me his life in the Middlesex Jail & House of Correction in Billerica reminds him of boot camp and of being in the military in general. “They’re similar institutions,” he said. “The food sucks. The environment sucks. A bunch of sitting around, doing nothing.” He doesn’t think it had to end this way. From jail he spoke of a recent case in Texas in which a militia was stopped by police, determined to be a constitutional militia, and everything was fine. They didn’t end up in jail. The only other difference? They were white, he said.

Bey remains convinced that his constitutional rights are being violated. “I’m innocent till proven guilty,” he said from jail, “but I can’t even hug my daughter. I can’t touch my loved ones. I’m locked in a cell 20 hours a day. But I’m innocent. I’m innocent.”