The Boogaloo Bois dress in Hawaiian shirts, stitch igloo patches on their clothes and bags, and spend their days slinging pro-gun memes back and forth on Reddit, Discord, and Facebook. They have also been linked to a plot to spark unrest at George Floyd protests in Las Vegas with firebombs, and to the deaths of two law enforcement officers in the Bay Area. Damon Gutzwiller was a Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputy, and Dave Patrick Underwood was a federal security officer in Oakland. Authorities allege the same man, an Air Force sergeant, killed both of them. The suspect had a patch featuring an igloo and Hawaiian print stitched to his ballistic vest, and, on the hood of a car he had stolen prior to his arrest, he wrote the word “boog” in his own blood.
The sudden burst of violent extremism this summer is the first most people have heard of the Boogaloo movement, a vague and amorphous far-right militia loosely bound together by anti-government and pro-gun sentiment and memes. But if you scan back through photos of America’s most contentious 2020 gatherings, you’ll start to spot them. Angry white men sporting Hawaiian shirts and assault rifles materialized at a massive gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, in January. Then, this spring, they appeared in greater numbers during anti-quarantine protests across the country, from Washington to Tennessee to New Hampshire.
As protests sprung up following the death of George Floyd, who died while in the custody of Minneapolis law enforcement, they began showing up at those gatherings as well. “Some folks who identify as Boogaloo Bois share anti-police sentiments. Some are acting as self-appointed security, vowing to protect businesses from protesters,” says Robert Futrell, who researches far-right extremism at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Some say they’re monitoring the protests. Some are white supremacists trying to antagonize protesters.” If you find that position confusingly self-contradictory, you’re not alone.
The movement’s use of the word “boogaloo” stems from some very old, obscure jokes about the 1984 breakdancing movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. In places like 4chan, the “joke” became referring to the second Civil War—which right-wing extremists have been prophesying, calling for, or trying to incite for decades—as Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo. Over the last few years, that meme morphed, and “boogaloo” became a sly codeword for civil war. Much like the real Civil War, Civil War 2 is either a chance to strike back against government tyranny or a race war, depending on who you’re talking to. “If the extreme right is a Venn diagram, one side is white supremacists, and the other is anti-government groups,” says Futrell. The term “boogaloo” sits in the middle, as do the Boogaloo Bois.
Megan Squire, a computer scientist studying online extremism at Elon University, started seeing white supremacists use the term to refer to a race war on the messaging app Telegram last summer, and watched it morph from Boogaloo to sound-alikes like Big Luau (hence the Hawaiian shirts) and Big Igloo (hence the patches) in an explicit effort to throw would-be censors off the scent. “Those white supremacist groups love the fantasy that the FBI are watching their chats. They are constantly talking about that,” Squire says. Then, in September 2019, she saw “Big Luau” and “Big Igloo” make their way back into gun forums motivated by anti-government anxiety. By the time the anti-quarantine protests hit during the Covid-19 lockdowns, people were making Boogaloo merch. “It's literally a meme at this point,” Squire says. “As long as you have a Hawaiian shirt, then you’re in it, you’re doing it.”
Which is why the Boogaloo Bois are so contradictory and inscrutable as a group—they aren’t a group at all. (There’s not even clarity on whether they’re Bois or Boys.) “If there is anything that typifies the Boogaloo Bois, it’s that they’re quirky and violent, and run the gamut from joining the anti-police protesters to wanting to kill them,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “They’re a microcosm of the extremist world: fragmenting, intertwined, with unusual allies.” They have no leaders, no local chapters, no manifesto or even unified ideology. That’s why their values are vague and flexible enough for them to glom onto and attempt to hijack any moment of tension that comes along—from Second Amendment anxiety to quarantine concerns to Black Lives Matter. Still, that doesn’t mean the Boogaloo movement isn’t cause for concern, especially now that their level of violence is escalating.
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In fact, being an amorphous blob might increase the Boogaloo movement’s chance of survival as they hit the public consciousness. The alt-right imploded largely due to infighting and having visible, organized memberships doxed after they tried to enter the mainstream. “The Boogaloo Bois have more in common with the post-Charlottesville soloist mass killers,” Levin says. Dispersing and relying on lone wolf actors to spark violence is an old rightwing extremist tactic meant to allow the group to endure scrutiny and censure, much like the Boogaloo movement’s shifting jargon.
Perhaps most concerning is how well Boogaloo recruitment seems to be going. According to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a researcher at American University who studies radicalization and the author of the book Hate in the Homeland, the meme iconography of the Boogaloo has more of an offline presence than Pepe the Frog ever did. While the movement may have begun with young people trading memes online, it has swollen to encompass baby boomer militia types who have probably never been on 4chan. Even as social media platforms like Facebook crack down on Boogaloo groups and take them out of search and suggestions, Squire has found the membership of groups on Facebook, Discord, and Reddit to have either remained stable or grown. “I was most surprised to see the growth on Reddit. Teenagers are on the forums saying, ‘Hey tell me about Boogaloo,’” Squire says. “A regular militia is never going to get random white suburban kids.” Like the alt-right and many other fringe groups, the Boogaloo’s memes create a playful atmosphere that makes them approachable despite their extremism.
No one knows how many people consider themselves Boogaloo Bois, but the number is certain to be small. What’s important now is, first, to not let the actions of a few distract from the overall aims of the people protesting very real and widespread police brutality and racism. Beyond that, it’s time to consider how to stop people from being radicalized by extremist groups in the first place. “We don’t know why every kid joined a gang, but we have a set of risk factors we can target,” says Shannon Reid, who researches street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte. “These groups need to be researched more so we can do the same for them.”
Beyond that, Miller-Idriss points out that the Boogaloo movement is just an extreme fringe reaction to a set of propaganda-fueled anxieties that have taken a real hold in much of the country. “The bigger issue that has to be addressed is stemming the spread of misinformation and reducing people’s susceptibility to those narratives,” she says. Whether they’re driven by concern that the government is going to forcibly take their guns from their homes or declare martial law to enforce quarantine or that George Floyd protesters have become a danger to society, people drawn to the Boogaloo movement are being sent there by spin. Cracking down on misinformation will never transform hardened white supremacists, but it might keep new people from entering their orbit.