Posted on April 12, 2021

A Black Army Rises to Fight the Racist Right

Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, April 4, 2021

When Grandmaster Jay walked into Million’s Crab, a seafood joint in suburban Cincinnati, the waitstaff looked alarmed. Million’s Crab is a family restaurant, and on that placid November evening, Jay—the supreme commander of the Not Fucking Around Coalition—was wearing body armor rated to take a pistol round directly to the chest. Dressed from mask to shoes in black, he was four hours late to our meeting, and remorseless. “My time is scarce,” he said, making aggressive eye contact. Indeed, of the two of us, I was the one who felt sheepish, not because I was wasting his time but because it occurred to me that while I waited, I could have warned the servers that my dining companion was often armed and that he might look as if he had just stepped out of The Matrix. {snip}

Grandmaster Jay’s group, the NFAC, is a Black militia whose goals, other than to abjure Fucking Around, are obscure. It has a militarylike structure, fields an army of hundreds of heavily armed men and women, subscribes to esoteric racist doctrines, opposes Black Lives Matter, and follows a leader who thinks we live in a period of apocalyptic tribulation signaled by the movements of celestial bodies. Its modus operandi is to deploy a more fearsome Black militia wherever white militias dare to appear. Eventually, it intends to establish a racially pure country called the United Black Kemetic Nation. (“Kemet,” Jay explained, “is the original name of Egypt, which means ‘land of the Blacks.’”) A patch on Grandmaster Jay’s body armor bore the new nation’s initials, UBKN.

The NFAC leader’s real name is John Fitzgerald Johnson. He is a former soldier, a failed political candidate, a hip-hop DJ, a rambling egotist, and a prolific self-promoter. His life sometimes seems like a long disinformation campaign about itself. The alternate versions of Jay do not seem to cohere into a single person. “I’ve lived five different lives,” he told me, enigmatically. “Like a Rubik’s Cube.”


Jay claims that the NFAC first appeared publicly when nine white supremacists came to Dayton, Ohio, in May 2019. No one seems to have noticed the coalition then, amid some 600 other counterprotesters. In 2020, however, it showed up in larger numbers (Jay claims thousands, but hundreds seems more realistic) at protests over Confederate monuments and over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; at protests over the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and at protests over the police shooting of Trayford Pellerin in Lafayette, Louisiana.

In Louisville, just two hours from where Jay and I sat, the NFAC first revealed the extent of its capabilities. On his YouTube channel, Jay posted a video of his troops in formation, and local news stations ran aerial shots. The men and women are ragtag and amateur, and their uniforms are not, well, uniform. One man has a Texas-flag patch Velcroed to his body armor; a woman taps the trigger guard of her AR-15 with a three-inch yellow fingernail. But my goodness, the weaponry—AR-15s galore, sniper rifles with scopes and bipods, high-capacity magazines, and enough “tactical” clothing to resupply an Army-surplus store. They look like World War II partisans meeting their clandestine commander for the first time. They stand in neat, spaced columns. I counted 28 rows of seven before I stopped counting. (By contrast, aerial photos suggest that the white militiamen present that day could have fit in a small school bus.) When Jay orders his people into motion, they go.

So far, that is all they do. They do not bicker with other protesters, carry signs, or explain themselves. “We don’t come to sing,” Jay told a reporter from Newsweek. “We don’t come to chant.” Instead they stand, like a praetorian guard for some unseen emperor. In this laconic way, they distinguish themselves from two groups they loathe or deride: white militias (the camo-bedecked guys who show up at the same demonstrations and, sometimes, at the behest of the president, try to topple American democracy) and Black Lives Matter, whose activists tend toward nonviolence. “That movement accomplished nothing,” Jay told me, just “a lot of singing, a lot of hand-holding, a lot of sentiments and praise.”

Compare the NFAC’s military-style discipline, Jay said, with white militias. On January 6, at the U.S. Capitol, the insurrectionists included militia members from the groups the NFAC has arrayed itself against. Unlike the NFAC, they were flagrantly breaking the law and, for a time at least, getting away with it. “If the NFAC had done what these folks did,” Jay said, “they’d still be bringing the body bags” out of the Capitol. (If he is wrong, it’s only because a Black militia that attempted to storm Congress would have been fired upon by law enforcement long before it penetrated the Capitol.) “White people decided to act up and show us their true colors,” Jay said. In his view, January 6 demonstrated that the NFAC is an appropriate response to a country shameless in its hypocrisy: If a disorderly white militia can sack the Capitol and get away with it, on what basis could one object to an orderly Black militia that obeys the law?

One objection to such a militia is that it is avowedly racist. Jay described its recruiting strategy: “You must be Black,” he said. “If you’re biracial, your father must be Black.” The other criteria relate to recruits’ ability to arm themselves without attracting the attention of law enforcement. “Military experience is preferred,” Jay said, and would-be coalition members must have their own AR-style rifle. “We’re not a shotgun organization.” Anyone without a concealed-carry permit must have the clean record necessary to get one. In one of Jay’s videos, he tells his followers that he intends to meet “each and every last one of you face-to-face,” to conduct an interrogation to “screen out fakes, wannabes, snakes, and spiders.” Jay says he will swear people in after they have “put your life on the line” by standing armed in an NFAC formation, in a situation where other armed groups might start trouble.

This is the worry of those who monitor domestic extremist threats: If you recruit an army, equip it to fight, and range it as infantry across from other armed groups, one shot could ignite a skirmish and perhaps turn downtown Louisville into Baghdad for an afternoon. Public order is the hostage of the most radical gunman present. Jay posted a video from Louisville showing white militia members expressing concern that the NFAC would annihilate them. “There’s no cover there,” one laments to a police officer. “NFAC shows up and decide they want to wipe us all out—we’re gone in seconds.”

“These are volatile situations,” Amy Iandiorio, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told me when I asked her about the NFAC. The coalition is “larger than the older [white] militias. They are a lightning rod that attracts opposing groups, and that’s a recipe for conflict.”

{snip} Jay’s own record is blemished with accusations of violence (he denies them), and amid his long sermons about “racial maturity” and spiritual self-awareness, he sometimes makes alarming threats. In one video, as alleged in a criminal complaint against him, he tells his followers to burn government officials’ homes and murder their children. He also advises them to destroy police body cameras if they assault cops, to remove evidence.

Jay is contesting these allegations in court. Even if true, such threats hardly compare with the actual storming of the Capitol. Yet it is rarely good news when you learn that a sectarian racist is raising an army, stockpiling weapons, demanding total loyalty, and suggesting that he is a “messiah.” {snip}

In early December, the FBI raided his apartment and arrested him on charges that, during a September demonstration in Louisville, he pointed a rifle at federal agents, blinding them with its mounted light. Jay told me that all the allegations against him are “bullshit.” By bringing them up, federal prosecutors are trying to “character assassinate” him. “I’m a student of history,” he said. “Anytime someone starts to galvanize people, it’s the same process”: character assassination, then financial assassination through mounting legal bills, then imprisonment, exile, or outright murder. Jay is now out on bail. His social-media accounts are frozen, and he faces a possible 20-year sentence—which may or may not be a deterrent, if he thinks his end is near anyway.

The filtered water must have lowered his inhibitions, because over the next two hours Jay became more garrulous. His story, and the purpose of Not Fucking Around, became a little more clear, and a little less.

He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and New York City. According to Pentagon records, he joined the military in 1989. At some point he got married, though he refused to say more about his domestic life. He told me that he spent four years in the Army in Germany, where he revised his racial self-understanding. {snip}

He visited Auschwitz, he said, and was indelibly influenced by what he saw. In our conversation, though, he made no direct reference to the mass murder of Jews and others, or to the lessons of totalitarian fascism. Instead, he mentioned that he was impressed by postwar Germany’s decision to outlaw Holocaust denial and the glorification of Nazism. {snip}

Like so much else about Jay, this passion for European Jewry presents a contradiction: Elsewhere, he has quoted Hitler approvingly and suggested that the Jews of Europe—“those people running around calling themselves the Jews”—are imposters. He has also seemed to flirt with Holocaust denial. (A sample lyric from one of his hip-hop songs: “They call you racist if you proud of your folks / But they be muting you now if you forget about the Holocaust!”)Jay’s videos repeat several themes popular among anti-Semitic segments of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious movement known for noisy proselytizing and elaborate conspiracy theories. One way to understand the NFAC is to imagine what a paramilitary wing of the Black Hebrew Israelites would be like. {snip}


Tommie Shelby, a professor of African American studies and philosophy at Harvard, noted that these ideas have precursors in Black political thought. Armed self-defense has been around at least since Cyril Briggs, who founded the African Blood Brotherhood in 1919. During the period after the First World War, when white mobs were shooting Black people and burning their businesses, many Black people considered peaceful protests (such as those organized by the NAACP) inadequate. Four decades later, the activist Robert F. Williams wrote the classic text of Black armed resistance, Negroes With Guns, which argues that violence against Black people calls for violence by Black people. {snip}

Jay said he does not admire or imitate any Black activists from previous generations—he protested when I suggested a comparison to the Black Panthers, whose aesthetic the NFAC has obviously ripped off—but was quick to defend the Jamaican political thinker and activist Marcus Garvey, who called for Black self-sufficiency and attempted to found a homeland for Black people. When I mentioned W. E. B. Du Bois, Jay cut me off to condemn Du Bois as a “bourgeois” and “an enemy to the movement Marcus Garvey started …  If [Du Bois] was alive today, he would eat his words.”

Like Garvey’s, Jay’s rhetoric calls for Black self-reliance and segregation from white people. His goal, he said, is “for the Black race to come into its own—which it has not”—and to “mature as a race,” first by building “racial esteem.” He said Black people have been like “the guy who sleeps on your couch that doesn’t go home until you have to throw the couch out with him.” If they get armed, and get serious, they will no longer “have to blame the non-melanated” for their failure. Ultimately, Jay calls for “descendants of the Portuguese and Atlantic slave trade” to separate themselves from others and create a Black ethnostate.

The United Black Kemetic Nation, he said, would have the full recognition of international law. “What we’re talking [about] here is a legal action that takes us from being freed slaves and descendants of slaves in a country that classifies us by color and denigrates us by race to a place where we are citizens of our own country,” he said. The location of this new country is negotiable, and as a model he considered Wyoming, because of its cheap land. But Jay told me that when he floated Wyoming to his followers, their response was: “Hell no—nobody wants to go to Wyoming.” {snip}


To demonstrate its power, Jay said, the NFAC aims to assemble, in one place, “a million legal [Black] gun owners,” to show that the United Black Kemetic Nation can defend itself. Part of the process of creating a new country (under a treaty known as the Montevideo Convention) is demonstrating that enough people are eager to live there permanently and can administer the new state. That includes defending it. Jay said, “If I assemble 1 million legal guns, I have the fifth-largest ground army on the planet. I think that’s a pretty significant indication … There are 57 million of us here. All I want is 1 [million].” {snip}


But Jay has loyal followers, maybe in spite of these eccentricities, and maybe because of them. Most people do not think it sensible to channel their justified rage by buying an AR-15 and joining a cultlike paramilitary organization. Nor do most Americans—let alone most Black Americans—want to establish a racially pure state, even somewhere other than Wyoming. But the desire for action of some kind, acknowledging that Black people are uniquely menaced, is to be expected. Watching a mob storm the Capitol with a Confederate battle flag should freak out any American who hates racism, and inspire such a person to seek a radical cure for a deep political sickness. Jay offers a remedy prepackaged and ready to deliver. Unfortunately, Jay’s answer—create a parallel, quasi-fascist race army with its own flag and homeland—strikes me as a particularly bad case of becoming that which you hate.