The 'Boogaloo' Started as a Racist Meme
At the protests that have broken out across the country after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, so-called boogaloo bois have been a conspicuous presence. Members of the overwhelmingly white online subculture have shown up to protests heavily armed and clad in Hawaiian shirts – a reference to the “big luau,” an adaptation of the word “boogaloo.”
Among the loose online network of adherents, the boogaloo is often presented as a race-blind call for armed insurrection against government tyranny. “The boogaloo movement is (for the most part) a libertarian group,” a member posted in a boogaloo-themed Facebook group after a week of protests. “The boog is not the people vs the people, the boog is the people vs the government. It’s a revolution, not a civil war,” he wrote. Many members of the movement see the recent outbreak of protests as the potential kickoff for widespread revolutionary upheaval, where citizens will unite against the perceived tyrannical state.
But a look at the movement’s origins and its online communities make it clear that its politics are much more complicated than straightforward libertarianism, and that few of its adherents are interested in aligning with Black Lives Matter or antifascist protesters against police brutality.
Over roughly the last month, at least seven men associated with the boogaloo movement have been arrested for possession of weapons and plotting violent attacks. Three were arrested Saturday in Las Vegas after plotting to terrorize protesters and attack other targets, including a power substation. According to a criminal complaint, they wanted to “create a chaotic and confusing scene for the upcoming protest” in order to force “the government to show its hand.” Others men who associate with the boogaloo movement have been arrested in Texas, Colorado and Ohio.
The boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in antigovernment and white power online spaces in the early 2010s. In both of these communities, “boogaloo” was frequently associated with racist violence and, in many cases, was an explicit call for race war. Today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can come to power and build a new fascist state.
Even as the boogaloo bois attempt to dissociate themselves from the meme’s origins in the extreme right, they have adopted some of the most prominent martyrs of the antigovernment extremist movement – itself an outgrowth of the antisemitic and racist Posse Comitatus movement of the early 1970s – as their own. Those include LaVoy Finicum, who was killed by state troopers in 2016 after reaching for a firearm while participating in the standoff of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and Vicki Weaver, who was killed by an FBI sniper in 1992 during a protracted armed standoff at Ruby Ridge in Idaho. Both Finicum’s and Weaver’s names appear on a variation of the boogaloo flag that lists the movement’s martyrs.
Also included on the flag is Duncan Lemp, whose death helped solidify the nascent boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture. Police carrying out a search warrant shot and killed 21-year-old Lemp during a SWAT raid in March. Lemp’s family said he was killed while he was asleep in his bedroom. Groups honoring Lemp popped up in far-right internet spaces, including the Facebook group “His Name was Duncan.” Posts in the group include a picture of masked men making Molotov cocktails, a graphic for how to make the explosive used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and a meme about “dead-checking ATF agents after they tried executing a no-knock raid.”
It is telling that the vast majority of the “martyrs” the boogaloo bois choose to honor are white. In recent years there has been a horrifying string of black people killed at the hands of white police officers whose deaths have been recorded for the world to see. But none of those acts of police brutality seemed to warrant collective mourning from the men who now call themselves “boogaloo bois.” Other factors had to converge for them to develop a sense of political consciousness. The militarization and mass expansion of law enforcement has clearly played a role in their perceptions of the police and in the circumstances of Lemp’s death. But it was the rampant spread of antigovernment conspiracy theories about approaching gun confiscation and government tyranny – in an atmosphere of intense political polarization and distrust – that shaped how men in far-right online spaces understood his death. And it was only white men, it seems, who they viewed as deserving of liberty and autonomy – their deaths at the hands of the state were evidence of tyranny and injustice, while the deaths of black people largely were not.
Viewed from this perspective, the boogaloo bois’ effort to join the ongoing protests sparked by George Floyd’s death read as nothing more than political opportunism. It’s also unsurprising, then, that the meme they draw on to define themselves has its origins in racist online culture.
Online boogaloo communities
Boogaloo content on Facebook and elsewhere reveals that people who align with the movement are bound together predominantly by their desire to mount an armed insurrection against the government, with especially intense animus reserved for members of law enforcement.
There are well over 100 boogaloo Facebook groups, most replete with memes fantasizing about or encouraging violence against police. One meme, posted in April, showed a person in a helicopter shooting down at feral pigs on the ground with the caption “pig hunting: now.” The next image, captioned “pig hunting: boogaloo,” showed the same person shooting at cops. Another meme showed two men in camo knocking down a door with accompanying text: “Day 12 of Boogaloo: Me and the bois kicking in ATF agents doors and shooting their dogs after hacking into the ATF database and finding out where they live.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the law enforcement agency that enforces federal firearms laws. It has historically been the target of heated criticism from paramilitary groups.
Other online posts contain threats aimed at politicians, especially those who have passed gun reform. One Twitter user posted a list of the names and addresses of members of the Virginia General Assembly, which recently passed legislation restricting access to firearms. “If you live in VA, then you should know what this is. I’m not going to give an explanation..you boog bois already know what to do. #Boogaloo2020,” he wrote.
At times, members of online boogaloo communities have presented their political project as race-blind and, in some instances, actively express solidarity with the black freedom movement. Memes praising John Brown, who raided a federal armory in 1859 in an attempt to spark a slave rebellion, are present in a number of Facebook groups, for example. Many within the movement actively disavow white supremacists.
Most often members simply try to sidestep discussion of race or political labels. When one new member of a group called Boogaloo Vibe Check asked if the group was made up of “Nazis, Libertarians or confused communists,” another replied, “I just want freedom and will kill for it like most of these men.”
But divisions over the issues of race and political ideology have become more prominent within the boogaloo subculture as protests around the country have grown and become more chaotic. Many online spaces have seen a noticeable turn against the protesters, bringing the right-wing and racist undercurrents of the movement to the fore. Some have referred to protesters as “joggers,” a stand-in for a racist slur that developed in the far right after a black man named Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by two white men in Georgia while jogging.
“Don’t pander to or protest for people who would never do the same for you,” one member of “Boogaloo: the Big Igloo” posted in the group. “When the day comes, we will be divided, and they won’t check your Twitter to see if you were an ‘ally’ before he kills you and rapes your wife.”
“If this is the boog f--- the boog,” someone posted in another group.
In these online spaces, few express solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters; instead, the white men in boogaloo forums seem intent on building their own distinct political movement. In other words, the boogaloo remains a right-wing fantasy.
As researchers at both Bellingcat and the Middlebury Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism have recently shown, the boogaloo subculture can in part be traced back to the 4chan’s weapons board, /k/, with the term appearing as early as 2012. As Robert Evans and Jason Wilson pointed out at Bellingcat, the board focuses on discussions of firearms and tactical gear. While racist content is present, they wrote, “Militant white nationalism is not the default ideological position.”
Nevertheless, the /k/ board overlaps with the racist 4chan board /pol/, where posters use terms such as “the day of the rope world revolution boogaloo,” a reference to a day when “race traitors” are lynched in the racist novel “The Turner Diaries.” The weapons board has provided a networking space for white supremacists, including the men responsible for an attack on Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis in 2015.
Eight days after Minneapolis police shot and killed unarmed 24-year-old Jamar Clark, four men – three of them masked – showed up to a protest. Demonstrators tried to chase them away before one – a man named Lawrence Scarsella – opened fire on the crowd, injuring five black men. A video later emerged of Scarsella and another man, Julio Suarez, driving to the protests and brandishing guns days before the shooting.Suarez said in the video that he and Scarsella were going to see what the protesters were "up to," using a racial slur to refer to them. “We just want to give everyone a heads up on /pol/,” Suarez said, signing off with, “stay white!”
Suarez was not on the ground the day of the shooting and did not face any charges, but he later testified that he first met Scarsella on /k/. Scarsella and the three other men charged in the shooting had all met one another at a /k/ meetup Suarez organized in the summer of 2015 in Pine City, Minnesota.
Around the same time /k/ was being implicated in racist attacks, the “boogaloo” was already a well-established meme in some of the most violently racist spaces on the internet. It appeared as early as 2013 on Iron March, an influential gathering space for fascists and neo-Nazis who openly advocated for race war. The Iron March forum helped birth some of the deadliest white power groups in the last decade, including the Atomwaffen Division. Phrases like “Breivik 2: Islamist Boogaloo” – aimed at encouraging more attacks like the one Anders Breivik carried out in 2011 that left 77 dead in Norway – appeared in posts on Iron March.
Within accelerationist communities, where members openly encourage each other to commit acts of violence to bring on the collapse of society, the boogaloo remains a term used to describe a race war. Paul Nehlen, a former Republican congressional candidate who now regularly encourages racial violence, wrote: “Head shots are humane. Boogaloo on,” after the 2019 white supremacist attack at an El Paso Walmart that left 23 people dead. His post was typical of the rhetoric found in accelerationist channels on Telegram.
Many neo-Nazis and accelerationists are hoping the current protests will kick off the boogaloo. “The ‘spark’ is just one white man with an AR to go boogaloo…doesn’t matter if he’s a scared normiecon, derp state fed, or nutcase,” tweeted an anonymous account that appears to be run by the individual behind the prominent white nationalist Twitter personality “Ricky Vaughn.”
Within the far right, racist concepts and conspiracy theories are often laundered and adopted by groups with a more mainstream aesthetic and less overtly racist aims than their original creators. For instance, the term “white genocide” has now given way to “the great replacement” to describe the idea that white people are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries. This makes extreme ideas more palatable for a mainstream audience. The boogaloo seems to have undergone a similar sanitation process. As it expanded across the far right, it took on a multiplicity of meanings. But, at its core, the boogaloo has always remained a reference to mass civil conflict or civil war – it’s just that who is on either side of the battle lines can be murky.
In recent years, the boogaloo meme has become more firmly entrenched within the antigovernment Patriot movement, as well as in adjacent hate groups such as the Proud Boys. In those spaces, the term references an impending civil war drawn along political lines. Since they were founded in 2016, the Proud Boys led a series of violent protests aimed at antagonizing leftists activists – clashes they believe could spark a larger civil conflict.
But even in this imagining, it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove race from the equation. In America, political and ideological divisions fall cleanly along racial lines. As Vann R. Newkirk put it last year in The Atlantic, “The racial divide is the political divide.”
As the country heads into a second week of protests, it’s unclear what role the boogaloo bois will play. While they have been on the ground in small groups in cities around the country, they remain largely unorganized. Members of boogaloo Facebook groups have been posting messages looking for other men in their areas to team up with, and some regional boogaloo groups have formed on the site. Many of those trying to organize people on the platform, however, have met accusations that they are federal agents.
The boogaloo bois’ increasing hostility toward protesters, and antifascists in particular, also complicates the picture on the ground. Black Lives Matter protesters have expressed wariness about armed boogaloo bois attending protests. For now, they are warning protesters to steer clear of men in Hawaiian shirts.