Jailed woman rejects U.S. authority, cites Moorish Science Temple

“When you belong to another government, you’re not subject to someone else’s rules and laws.  . . .  I’m just a missionary. It’s all a misunderstanding.” Shanita Marie Burden,
in the Pasco County jail
“When you belong to another government, you’re not subject to someone else’s rules and laws. . . . I’m just a missionary. It’s all a misunderstanding.” Shanita Marie Burden, in the Pasco County jail
Published Dec. 15, 2012

LAND O'LAKES — The woman in orange and white striped scrubs started to cry.

"I've been kidnapped," she said from behind the glass in the interview room of the Pasco County jail. "I don't belong here."

The woman insists she is Zuri Akila Betiti Matawala Zurj-Bey, a "grand sheikess" in the Moorish Temple of Science of the World. She operates a branch of the temple in her Spring Hill home. She arrived from Columbia, S.C., over the summer to tell other black people that they are not really U.S. citizens or subject to its government. Instead, they are Moorish, with ancestral roots in Morocco.

"When you belong to another government, you're not subject to someone else's rules and laws," she said.

Her argument has a familiar ring to experts who track the "sovereign citizen" movement, in which adherents argue the government has no authority over them. They often refuse to pay taxes and say they don't need to obtain driver's licenses — or, like Bey, they have such documents issued by their own order.

Many such sovereign citizen-type groups are associated with white supremacist ideology, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks extremist groups. But the ADL has noticed a trend: a growing African-American offshoot called "the Moorish movement" embraced by people like Bey.

Bey said that once you realize your heritage, "you're free."

Unless you're sitting in the Land O'Lakes jail, booked under a name you've renounced, on charges of driving with a counterfeit car tag, driving without a Florida license and giving a false name to police.

"I'm just a missionary," she said. "It's all a misunderstanding."

• • •

If anyone misunderstands, authorities say, it's Shanita Marie Burden. That's the name on the jailed woman's South Carolina driver's license, which was suspended four times when she failed to pay traffic tickets.

That's also the name that her silver Dodge minivan was registered in when it was bought from a Brooksville dealer. Deputies found the paperwork Sept. 27 when they stopped the driver with the suspicious car tag heading north on U.S. 41.

"Moorish American Republic 070117-004," it said.

The driver handed Pasco sheriff's Deputy Charles Keppel what she said was her driver's license: a piece of paper with a fuzzy photo from the Moorish Divine National Movement of the World issued to a Zuri Akila Betiti Matawala Zurj-Bey. That was her name, she said.

The woman, who according to the sheriff's report spoke "perfect English," said she was not a U.S. citizen and had never had a driver's license or Social Security number. She refused to identify herself.

A search of the van turned up documents bearing the name Shanita Marie Burden. That's the name entered in the computer when she was booked in the county jail. That's the name on a mugshot of a 30-year-old woman who deputies said was a dead ringer for Bey.

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Deputies said it took two hours to verify her identity.

• • •

Bey told the Tampa Bay Times she was born of a religious conversion last year. She didn't just change her name. She declared Burden — her former self — is dead.

Then she made herself the personal representative for Burden's estate, and filed court papers declaring that fact.

During a Nov. 19 arraignment on the traffic charges, Bey, who identified herself only as "flesh and blood," told Circuit Judge Susan Gardner that Burden was dead and that she, Bey, was appearing as her personal representative. Gardner asked her to show proof she was an attorney. When she couldn't, the judge told her to leave.

Gardner then issued a warrant against Burden for failing to appear in court.

Eight days later, the woman came to the clerk's office to file papers. The document, signed with the name of Bey, bore a Moorish logo. It ordered Gardner not to issue any more "unlawful warrants" against Burden, who had been declared dead. It said Bey represented her estate.

Deputies who recognized the woman when she walked into the courthouse and arrested her. And Gardner issued an order striking the notice she filed.

Bey has been in jail ever since.

• • •

The sovereign citizen movement eschewing government authority began in the 1970s, but has experienced a resurgence since 2009. Followers refuse to pay taxes or obtain government-issued licenses. In some cases they commit violence against police or public officials. Recently, they began filing bogus lawsuits and liens against their adversaries, a tactic referred to as "paper terrorism."

Most adherents claim that there are two governments, an illegitimate one that everyone else believes is genuine and the true one that existed before the illegitimate one took over. They file paperwork in state government offices to appear legitimate, but the documents are meaningless, as most states don't police the filings.

"It's kind of like a big 'get out of jail free' card," said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League and who has testified in court cases that involve citizen sovereign adherents. He said people use it for various reasons: to run scams, to avoid paying debt, to flout the law.

"It allows anybody who feels forced to do something to do what they want to do."

Though once the domain of mostly white supremacist groups, the sovereign movement found black followers under the Moorish affiliation. The idea gained popularity in the 1990s when adherents of the Moorish Temple of Science of the World discovered the ideology of the sovereign citizen movement.

"It was a match made in heaven," Pitcavage said.

The temple, which was founded in 1913, was not a sovereign citizen group.

"We assertively declare that the Moorish Science Temple of America Inc. is in no form or fashion a Sovereign Citizen Movement or a Tax Protestor Movement, consequently our teachings are diametrically opposed to that ideology," the temple wrote last year on its website.

When asked about that statement, the woman in the Pasco County jail agreed.

"We're not sovereign," she said. "We're autonomous."

The woman said she discovered the movement while doing research for a college class on the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, the 1857 ruling that said slaves weren't citizens.

That's typical, said Pitcavage, who attributed the rise in the sovereign movement to the Internet.

"It's easily able to spread," he said. "And now it's quite multiethnic."

Lisa Buie can be reached at