First Red House, now a new Portland occupation simmers

Civic Affairs

Piedmont resident cites 'sovereign citizen' separation from America

An eviction at this house in North Portland has been indefinitely delayed (Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Another contested eviction situation similar to the so-called “Red House on Mississippi” simmers less than two miles away in North Portland.

Only this time, citing a “high risk of confrontation and violence,” sheriff’s deputies have put off the eviction indefinitely.

Brenulla White-Bey, a 66-year-old retired Multnomah County nutrition counselor who stopped paying her mortgage five years ago but declines to leave her former house, told the Portland Tribune the authorities have got it wrong.

“We are about love, truth, peace, freedom and justice for all,” she said, calling her situation “totally different” from that of the Kinney family, whose refusal to leave their North Mississippi home — and the subsequent clash between activists and police — made headlines around the country in December.

But there are similarities. White-Bey, like the Kinneys, has been filing legal documents arguing that she is a “Moorish” and an indigenous sovereign citizen, not a subject of the United States. The Black woman also argued that her mortgage was illegal — contrary to how three judges ruled in Multnomah Circuit Court.

The situation represents the latest potential flash point as local officials tasked with enforcing Oregon laws grapple with situations involving people in need and extremist views —all during a time of heightened focus on racial and economic inequities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers.

Much as with the Red House, organizations dedicated to tracking extremism express concern that the latest sovereign citizen episode could lead to copycats.

“This situation is really unfortunate because Brenulla White, who is likely desperate to retain her home, will not be successful in her claims, since they go against the laws that all citizens are expected to follow,” said Freddy Cruz, an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It may also influence other people to take similar actions and to affiliate themselves with groups that are anti-government in nature and don’t believe in following the law.”

Unlike the Kinney family and the Red House, White-Bey is not broadcasting her situation. After an initial interview, she declined to answer further questions.

Even her neighbors don’t know what is going on.

The residents at the Piedmont neighborhhood property seem like “very nice people” and don’t bother anyone, said one nearby resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A trail of debts

Brenulla White-Bey bought her house in 2011 for $180,000, borrowing that amount at a rate of 5.125% interest. Court records show she soon ran into financial problems, sued by creditors in 2014 and 2015.

A lawsuit she filed the following year cites a Feb. 12, 2016, note that addresses missed student loan payments. Noting she supported a family of five, she listed “numerous difficult situations” requiring high “out-of-pocket costs” including “a son suffering from PTSD after 2 tours to Iraq, and my medication cost to treat my illness. There are electrical, plumbing, and roofing repair(s).”

In August 2016, her lender, Keybank National Association, filed a foreclosure suit, noting she’d failed to make any payments since November 2015.

The following month she sued Keybank, demanding $170,000. In it, she asked that KeyBank provide “documentary evidence” proving that United States dollars represent “currency of value or substance with which to pay a debt.”

The bank replied that White-Bey’s suit was “a series of incoherent assertions” without legal basis.

Circuit Judge Adrienne Nelson agreed, dismissing her suit.

In December, Presiding Judge Nan Waller dismissed Keybank’s original foreclosure suit after a process-server was unable to serve White-Bey with notice.

Moorish land?

In court, White-Bey has used documents that “are common to the sovereign citizen movement, including Moorish Sovereigns,” said Cruz, the Southern Poverty Law Center analyst. “Individuals who use the documents are often desperate to retain properties they are losing or have lost as a result of non-payment.”

While sovereign citizens tend to identify with right-wing causes, their Moorish branch aligns more closely with the Moorish Science Temple of America, a religion that spawned a breakaway sect that later became the Nation of Islam.

An article in The Portland Observer in 2013 described temple members’ local branch, weekly show on cable access TV, and gang outreach. It said the group helped provide a ‘sense of belonging’ for Black people descended from slaves ripped from their homeland and sold as property in the United States.

“Everybody’s got a nationality except us,” a local temple leader told the Observer

Extremism trackers say some Moorish sovereign adherents have engaged in violence, fraud and become embroiled in cases of squatting in other cities — such as Huntsville, Alabama, where one armed Moorish sovereign was removed by federal agents and a local police SWAT team 18 months after he lost his house to foreclosure.

“The sovereign movement markets to desperate people,” JJ MacNab, a senior researcher who tracks the anti-government movement for the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told the Portland Tribune last month. it “feeds into the ego. It tells you, you’re a victim, and it tells you that with this secret knowledge, you’re powerful.”

In Portland, a member of the family that was foreclosed upon at the Red House who practices soversign ideology, William Nietzche, was taken into custody at an eviction hearing last September for allegedly threatening a judge with violence, and detailed by sheriff’s deputies after he appeared to threaten them with “the Second Amendment” — an apparent reference to firearms.

White-Bey, in contrast, appears to have no history of criminal or violent behavior.

According to a website purporting to be that of the Moorish-American Consulate of the so-called Moorish National Federal Republic, White-Bey is listed as the “Supreme Judiciary” of the “Oregon Republic Territory.”

“I’m aboriginal declared indigenous to the land,” White-Bey told the Tribune. “We have a government.”

White-Bey might seem an unlikely person to claim individual sovereignty or separation from the U.S. governmental apparatus.

A registered Democrat, she attended a presidential campaign rally for Barack Obama in 2008 and for a time, voted frequently in elections, according to public records.

She worked 27 years at Multnomah County and was mentioned in a newsletter issued by Multnomah Chair Deborah Kafoury. She spent time on the executive board of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees, and also worked as an AFSCME shop steward.

However, she last voted in November 2016. She retired from the county, where she made $24.37 per hour, in February 2019. At some point she adopted the suffix Bey, as many Moorish sovereignty adherents do.

Her Moorish beliefs were unknown to one former coworker, who expressed surprise when contacted by the Tribune.

“She always was a very sweet and very kind person. She never made it about herself,” said the coworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. “She really fought for justice and other workers.”

Foreclosure goes through

In 2017, Keybank again sued for foreclosure.

In 2018 and 2019, the bank combined to pay $7,647 in Multnomah County taxes on the property, according to county records.

In November 2019, Judge Leslie Roberts agreed with Keybank and ordered the property sold. Under Oregon law, any funds leftover after paying off unpaid debt and costs revert to the former homeowner.

In August 2020, Vantage Homes and Rain City Capitol of Oregon purchased White-Bey’s home at a foreclosure auction for $280,000.

According to the Multnomah County Assessor’s Office, the property’s estimated market value at the time stood at $446,560.

That October, Circuit Judge Mark A. Peterson ordered White-Bey and any other residents evicted.

On Nov. 12, Multnomah Sheriff’s deputies showed up at the house and evicted White-Bey and her three sons, boarding up the windows. Her sons subjected the deputies to profanities, but White-Bey was “surprisingly cooperative,” according to the report.

Six days later, according to the report, people had ripped the boards off the house and were holding a protest, bearing “Black Lives Matter” signs.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

Vantage Homes, which had just submitted a tax payment on the property of $4,028, joined with Rain City Capital to resell the house at cost to another investor. The new owner’s name is concealed behind a limited liability corporation.

According to Sean Robbins, a member of Vantage Homes, the group had not realized the home was occupied when they purchased it at an auction. Thee company had hoped to use it as an affordable rental for some of their employees. But it quickly changed course when it heard from White-Bey, not wanting to evict a family.

On Dec. 17, Sheriff’s Capt. Travis Gullberg wrote in an affidavit filed in the eviction case that the sheriff’s office had been informed that there were now 10 to 15 individuals “squatting” at the house, some of them armed. He noted the violent clash at the Red House, saying he had reason to believe the Red House occupiers were in contact with their counterparts at White-Bey’s former house, and were ready to respond.

The sheriff’s office asked the judge for more time for the eviction, citing a “significant possibility of a high level of hostility.”

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