Shooting 'devils': What beliefs drove the Baton Rouge police killer?

While the Trumpification of the GOP held the attention of many mainstream media, some were probing the warped mind of Gavin Long, who shot three police officers in Baton Rouge before being shot dead himself. Their chilling discoveries are reported in well-crafted articles, especially in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Here are some of the spiritual currents they found coursing through the killer's mind:

* He returned from a visit to Africa saying that fasting and abstaining from sex, activated his pineal gland and "opened a third eye of wisdom."

* He began calling himself Ausar Setepenra, a reference to two Egyptian gods.

* He claimed membership in a group of African Americans who say they're a "sovereign Native American tribe."

* The world is "run by devils," in his view.

Of the articles, the Post's -- with six reporters writing 1,400 words -- is the most ambitious. It tries to track his movements over his last few weeks:

He stopped in Houston, telling strangers on a sidewalk how he had fasted for two years while abroad — as well as abstained from sex — and how it helped him shed 100 pounds and opened a third eye of wisdom.
Then he stopped in Baton Rouge, meandering through the city and recording a rambling video of himself — until the moment Sunday morning when he calmly and deliberately took aim at local police, killing three officers and wounded three others.

WaPo scores a coup in an interview with rapper Felix Omoruyi of Dallas, a close friend of Long's. Omoruyi  says that after Long's trip to Africa, he began "talking passionately about his African roots, Egyptian religious principles and the different stages of spiritual enlightenment":

Long introduced himself as Cosmo Setepenra — a name he had adopted in recent years, according to court records. "He said, ‘I’m on a mission to get my book into the urban community. I’m not charging anything, just giving it away," Douglas said. "People need to know how to eat right, how to see from their third eye."
Long again waxed on about Africa, describing his two-year spiritual and physical fast there. "If you detox your body the right way, you get in touch with your third eye and your pineal gland," Douglas remembers him saying. "Being in the motherland gave me life . . . and that’s why I’m going around the U.S. to give that knowledge to other people."

But why was this fine article filed under "Health & Science"? Crime, I could see. Religion, certainly. Maybe "Race and Justice," as a new beat at the Los Angeles Times is called. "Health & Science" is a puzzling choice.

The main science-y link I can imagine is a press conference by a chapter of the Moorish Science Temple. As the Philadelphia Inquirer says, the Temple denies that Long was a member and disavows his beliefs.

"In fact, his ideologies and his actions are diametrically opposed to [our] teachings," Azeem Hopkins-Bey, grand sheik of temple in North Philadelphia, said at a news conference Monday outside City Hall. He says the religion holds all life sacred, including those of the recent shooting victims -- police and black civilians alike. 

Good disclaimer. But then the Inquirer tosses this in: "Moorish Americans are descendants of Moroccans who are born in America, he said. The group is part of the Islamic faith." 'Twould have been good to run that last claim by an imam in Philadelphia. 

Hopkins-Bey was reacting to a spurt of articles that had Long claiming a Moorish-native American heritage. The group is actually called the Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Mu'ur.

One of the better explanations is in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The Washitaw, sometimes spelled Washitah, believe their ancestors were original inhabitants of the New World, who they say were black Africans.
They trace their lineage back to the ancient Mississippian culture that lived along the river and Gulf Coast. The Washitaw Nation says their claims to the Louisiana Purchase were not recognized when Napoleon sold the large swath of North America to the United States in 1803. The federal government does not recognize their existence, and court rulings have followed suit.

The newspaper adds alertly that the Washitaw are different from the Ouachita tribe of native Americans.

But the most startling findings are in the New York Times article. NYT mentions not only the Washitaw Nation but Long's composite notion of Egyptian heritage:

Mr. Long filed a form last year in Jackson County, Mo., to change his name to Cosmo Ausar Setepenra, a name freighted with ancient Egyptian references.
Ausar, often rendered as Osiris, was the Egyptian god of the underworld. A group called the Ausar Auset Society, founded in the 1970s, describes itself on its website as being dedicated to reviving the ancient Egyptian religion among Africans and people of African descent.
Setepenra, sometimes rendered as Setepenre, or Setep-en-Re, among other variations, meant "chosen by Ra," the Egyptian sun god. The name has been used in modern times by some people affiliated with occult groups that use Egyptian symbols.

The Times says Long got on Twitter in October, starting with "self-help" advice like vegan food and entrepreneurship. He also got militant over racism, especially after being pulled over on April 5 in Los Angeles.

Despite all this excellent journalism -- I count at least 15 reporters among these four stories -- I see several loose ends.

One in the NYT piece is Gavin Long's belief that the world is "run by devils." That partial quote in the lede is the only such reference, not substantiated later in the story, although it's clearly in Long's Dallas video: "You're in a world that's ran by devils. Get this through your hair, right now. Devils run this."

It's also worth asking if he had a religious background. Most African Americans were raised in one of several Baptist or Pentecostal denominations. Did Long rebel against that, or perhaps just discard it? Interviews with blood relatives might have shed light on that.

Finally, I don’t see a coherent picture of the tormented mind of Gavin Long. He had a combative, conspiratorial view of government and race relations. He built a DIY version of Egyptian religion. But did those two beliefs somehow come together? Or did he simply compartmentalize them?

Long's Dallas video has him talking about fighting bullies, "One hundred percent [of oppressed people] have been successful through fighting back, through bloodshed," he says. "Zero have been successful just over simply protesting."

But none of the above stories explain how Long thought it do any good to shoot cops at random. The Baton Rouge shooting, in fact, did the opposite, as an activist tells the Post:

"We had our momentum on," said Arthur Reed, an organizer of the group Stop the Killings who filmed the viral video of Sterling’s death. "[The protests] were our cry to the world, and the world was listening."

Thus, an ironic footnote to the bedeviled life of Gavin Long: While claiming to help black people, he may have harmed them.

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