August 8, 1999
By Matthew I. Pinzur
EATONTON - There is a 473-acre plot outside Eatonton that has brought unheard of conflict and dissent to the rural community, and no one can even agree on what to call it.
To visitors, it is called a curiosity, memorable for its colorful Egyptian monuments, stories-high pyramids and the medley of music that pours past the gates.
To some in local government and law enforcement, it is called a compound, stirring images of the cultish separatists in places like Waco and Ruby Ridge.
To the hundreds of people who live on or frequent it, this is Tama-Re, or simply, The Land. The Nuwaubian Nation of Moors came to Putnam County in 1993, believing the area is equal parts native birthright, religious shrine and natural homeland.
Whatever it is called, it has given rise to tension in Middle Georgia. A rural Southern community with shared deep roots, Southern traditions and a population that's about 63 percent white and 37 percent black, Putnam County now is forced to confront its own feelings about change and outsiders.
The Nuwaubians - a predominantly black cultural organization that blends elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and ancient Egyptian religion - are discovering the complexity of large-scale development in a new place, and are doing it behind walls patrolled by armed guards and surrounded by locals who wonder about the newcomers' intentions.
The legal battles between the Nuwaubians and the Putnam government have largely centered on the use of their land - zoning, building codes and inspections. But one thing both sides do agree on is that zoning disputes only paper over the real discord: Can these two groups of people - the newcomers and the long-time residents - accept each other enough to peacefully coexist?
Permits And Zoning
Nuwaubians lived in their village and the surrounding cities of Eatonton and Milledgeville for years before serious problems developed, and growth on the land was largely ignored.
That changed last January when occasional skirmishes over zoning and permits escalated into a lawsuit in which Putnam County officials charged Nuwaubian leaders with illegally operating a nightclub in a building zoned only for storage.
By the middle of March, a Putnam County judge halted all construction on the land in the face of charges that the group was building without permits and operating an unlicensed landfill.
On June 15, Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills acted on a court order and padlocked five buildings in the village, including two pyramids identified by the Nuwaubians as a church and a holy temple.
Today, the Nuwaubians still have permit applications pending with the county inspector, and little has changed. Nuwaubian spokespeople claim the county is deliberately hindering development in the village, while county officials said they are only enforcing well-established laws and ordinances.
"I have nothing against the Nuwaubians; all they have to do is abide by the law," said Putnam County Commissioner Robert Poole. "If they do what they say they're going to do, we won't have any problems."
But communication between the groups has ranged from strained to outright threatening, and it is difficult to know exactly what has been said in closed-door meetings this year.
Renee McDade and Marshall Chance, national spokespeople for the Nuwaubians, said county officials routinely reject permit applications on technicalities. When they address those concerns, McDade and Chance said, the county finds new reasons to reject them.
"We keep being put off," said Chance, Tama-Re's spiritual leader and an ordained Baptist minister who dresses in black with a traditional clergyman's collar. "They say it's lawful, we say it's obstruction."
The group's most recent applications were rejected earlier this month because the plat, a detailed map of the land, did not meet the county's standards. They have received permits for some of the monuments, including a tall obelisk and a statue, but the pyramids and other buildings are still padlocked.
"This is something that is asked of every citizen, including myself," said Sandra Adams, also a county commissioner.
Beyond the individual buildings on the Nuwaubian's property, commissioners said they are concerned about long-term development and the impact it will have on the rest of the county.
Chance said he envisions diverse facilities including a recording studio and theme park in Tama-Re's future as it grows into a significant cultural and residential center. Estimates from different sources placed between 100 and 300 people living full time in the village, and as it expands, Chance said, surrounding cities will reap the rewards.
"We want to help the town grow and help the economy to flourish," he said, explaining that members would continue to shop, work, bank and dine in Eatonton and Milledgeville.
But county officials questioned whether unchecked growth was desirable or possible, saying the impact on infrastructure and utilities may be more than the county can carry.
"A lot of planning has to be done before there's large growth there," Poole said. "And I don't see where the county's going to benefit too much from it."
Side issues have created fear and distrust.
Putnam officials have been distracted by a flood of newsletters and fliers that berate and sometimes threaten public figures, including offering a $500 reward for embarrassing information about people like Sills. The documents have been printed by groups with names like Concerned Citizens of Eatonton, but county officials believe they are run by Nuwaubian members.
"They took it upon themselves to exercise their freedom of speech," said McDade, who added that the publications did not come from the official Nuwaubian organization.
"We're not going to be intimidated in any way, shape or form," Poole said. "When they put a bounty on somebody's head, that's not very Christian of them."
McDade said prominent members of the Nuwaubians have also received death threats. A Putnam County minister, Robert Lee, publishes a vehemently anti-Nuwaubian newsletter condemning the group as satanic and has led marches protesting their development.
The Nuwaubians founder and retired leader, Malachai Z. York, has been a colorful and controversial distraction himself.
Before purchasing the Putnam County land in 1993 for $975,000, York lived in Sullivan County, New York, and was known as Dwight York. He founded the Nuwaubian nation there as early as 1970, after serving three years in prison in the 1960s for resisting arrest, assault and possession of a dangerous weapon.
"He moved here to retire," Chance said.
York has become something of a recluse, rarely appearing in public and, McDade said, moving around from place to place.
His absence became its own issue this year when he did not respond to judges' requests that he appear to answer to various charges. A formal court order was later drafted, ordering him to answer contempt charges in Putnam Superior Court.
He answered that order, but his hearing was scheduled during the Nuwaubians' annual summer festival, which draws thousands of supporters to the village. They announced that more than 30,000 protestors would descend on the courthouse before York's hearing, prompting Sills to have some 200 law enforcement officers - including a helicopter and armored personnel carrier - stationed within a few blocks. When only a few hundred York supporters arrived, they accused Sills of mustering an overwhelming and threatening police force, and both sides launched into another round of defensive rhetoric and name-calling.
Accusations Of Racism
Throughout the legal disputes, the Nuwaubians have lobbed accusations of racism and religious persecution, leaving county officials angry and defensive.
"It's a group of black separatists who believe white people are genetically inferior mutants," said Dorothy Adams, an attorney for Putnam County. "They try to make us look like a bunch of big-bellied rednecks."
McDade called those claims ridiculous, saying that although the group is predominantly black, it includes members who are white, Asian and of other descent.
"We don't see this as a black-white issue," McDade said. "It's a matter of religious persecution."
But despite what is said in interviews, commissioner Sandra Adams said the Nuwaubians have repeatedly made race an issue. Adams, who is black, said she has been called a "house nigger" by Nuwaubian protesters.
"They do not want to solve these problems; they want to call attention to themselves," said Sandra Adams, who is not related to the county's attorney. "When the racism card is played, everybody stops what they're doing and converges on little old Putnam County."
National publications from Time magazine to the New York Times have covered the Nuwaubian issue this summer.
And while she believes racism still exists throughout the United States, Sandra Adams said it is not an issue in the Putnam community.
The four voting members of the Putnam commission are evenly split - Poole and Steve Layson are white, Sandra Adams and Jimmy Davis are black. Chairman Ralph Perdomo is white, but votes only to break ties.
"It is not my concern who they pray to or what color they are, just that they are citizens of Putnam County," Perdomo said. "I will bend over backwards to assist any citizen, but I won't break the law."
But the commissioners are aware of just how different the Nuwaubians are from traditional Putnam residents.
"There are going to continue to be ripples all along the way because they are a cult," Poole said.
"I don't care what they say, that's not the norm in a society, and we're a small town."
Chance said it is difficult to continue to believe that county officials are supportive in the face of the legal stalemate they have reached. In the case of the alleged nightclub, which the Nuwaubians call the Ramses Social Club, Chance said the group spent months trying to have the building rezoned, but were never given clear directions from the county.
"They gave us a list of 19 violations of the club," Chance said, "then padlocked it before we could fix them."
Keeping The Peace
Sills sees himself as the man in the middle, charged with keeping things cool.
"I have been willfully obstructed and opposed by armed individuals, and I have simply turned around and left, even with court orders," Sills said. "It is my professional opinion that they are desperately seeking a confrontation."
Sills said he has overridden department policies, forgone arrests and not responded to threats and behavior that would land other citizens in jail, all in the interest of preventing a showdown. He said he has ordered his deputies not to stop Nuwaubian drivers for minor violations such as license plate problems, or for speeding at less than 75 mph.
"There are lots of things I could arrest them for that I have not," Sills said. "I accept responsibility for not doing that, but police discretion is something I have. I don't want an armed confrontation ever."
But Sills is losing patience with the group that, despite his pains, has called him a "demon" and, he said, threatened him. Sills takes the threats so seriously that he no longer lets his children stay in his home overnight. "I've done it under an onslaught, never seen in this state, of propaganda slandering me, and I've never raised my voice," Sills said.
Sills has however appeared in a New York television news report about the Nuwabians and has compared the group to other well-known cult organizations. Sills said the group - which he calls "the so-called Nuwaubians" - presents no real threat to members of the public, outside of law enforcement.
Government officials, however, do perceive a potential political threat from the Nuwaubians as their numbers continue to grow in the region. In a taped speech, York said the group would establish an independent nation with passports, taxes and laws on the Putnam County land. Members already carry those passports, which grant them access to the land.
"I have a problem with them wanting to take over," said commissioner Sandra Adams. "If they're not going to follow the established laws, do I have to follow the laws they put in place? Does that leave me at their mercy or do I have to pack up my little bongos and boogie out of town?" The Nuwaubians, whose published literature extols American government and demands loyalty to the country, deny any desire to establish a sovereign nation and said York's comments were taken out of context. Chance said York was speaking of creating a theme park similar to Disney parks in Florida or California.
"We did not come as a political threat," Chance said. "We have had the FBI and GBI here. If we were lawbreakers, we would not ask for help from the federal government."
One of their cornerstone publications, "Little Guide Book for Nuwaubians," reprints the entire U.S. Constitution. The same book, which includes rules for Nuwaubians, forbids disorderly conduct and demands total cooperation with police.
Perdomo dismissed concerns of a political threat. Tama-Re is in the same voting district as Lake Sinclair, which Perdomo said is the fastest-growing district in the county and therefore unlikely to feel much political impact from the Nuwaubians.
But they have already made their presence felt in local political groups. Some 125 of the 550 members of the Putman County NAACP are Nuwaubians, giving them a voice in the group.
"If they do take over," Poole said, "a lot of people will move out."
The heart of the problem, according to Poole and Perdomo, is that the Nuwaubians lack the technical expertise to build and win approval for their developments.
Progress has been smoother when the Nuwaubians have enlisted the help of expert contractors and engineers, but commissioners said those experts have not been used on a consistent enough basis to solve the disagreements. The Nuwaubians are still petitioning for permits that would legitimate the padlocked buildings and clear the way for future building. But McDade is concerned that there may not be an end in sight.
"What is the next reason for saying 'no' to the Nuwaubians?" she asked. Whenever it does come, Perdomo said there is only one possible outcome. "It's going to end with them obeying our laws," he said. "That's the only way it can end."