Men showing up to protests wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying military-style rifles. Facebook groups full of intense discussions about imminent civil war.
Over the past year, online conversations about the “boogaloo”, an ironic term for a second civil war, have begun to coalesce into the beginnings of an actual movement, according to experts who monitor American extremists. Facebook has designated a network of “boogaloo” groups as a dangerous organization similar to the Islamic State, and banned them from both Facebook and Instagram. At least 15 arrests and five deaths have been publicly linked to “boogaloo” rhetoric, including the murders of two law enforcement officers in California.
But there’s still plenty of confusion over how to accurately label this still-developing ideology. Here’s a guide to what we know, and what we don’t, about the politics of the “boogaloo”.
Why experts classify ‘boogaloo’ supporters as ‘rightwing’ or ‘far-right’
In response to a news story about the potential threat “boogaloo” attacks posed to people in Washington DC, Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent a tweet denying that the “boogaloo” is “a leftwing OR rightwing” movement, and claiming: “They are simply violent extremists from both ends of the ideological spectrum.”
One CNN article on “boogaloo” supporters at protests included an interview with a man who claimed to be a “left anarchist”.
But extremism experts agree that “boogaloo” ideology overall is, in fact, rightwing.
How do they know? For one, they look at images of the “boogaloo” flag, which is sometimes emblazoned with the names of rightwing anti-government martyrs, including Americans killed in infamous standoffs with the police at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and during the occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016.
“The way we know the ‘boogaloo’ movement is a far-right movement is because they draw a line directly from Waco and Ruby Ridge,” said Alex Newhouse, a digital researcher at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute for International Studies.
“They hold up things like the McVeigh bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the armed response to Ruby Ridge as heroic moments in American history,” where citizens stood up to government oppression, Newhouse said.
Like the rightwing anti-government militia and Patriot movements of the 1990s and 2000s, many “boogaloo” supporters see the current federal government as illegitimate, while remaining deeply patriotic. They revere the constitution and see themselves as the true descendants of America’s founding fathers. In their view, current US lawmakers are the equivalent of occupying British forces during the revolutionary war. Among the “boogaloo” merchandise for sale online are images of George Washington armed with a modern, AR-15-style rifle.
Another clear sign that “boogaloo” boys are rightwing is their decision to show up with guns to guard private businesses, first during demonstrations against public health shutdown restrictions, and later during the protests over George Floyd’s killing, Newhouse said.
While “boogaloo” supporters showed up to George Floyd protests saying they wanted to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters against police violence, some also described going to protests to “defend businesses – including big national corporations – against looters and destruction”.
Showing up with guns to protect big corporations from property damage is not something that most leftwing protesters would do, Newhouse said, since leftists would be more like to view corporate stores such as Hobby Lobby or Ross as “part and parcel of capitalist exploitation”.
This emphasis on the importance of private property is part of what makes the “boogaloo” “very much an extreme right libertarian ideology”, Newhouse said.
Support for unfettered gun rights, and fierce opposition to most or all gun control, is also central to “boogaloo” supporters, with some pro-gun advocates using the term “boogaloo” to refer specifically to the civil war that will break out if Democratic politicians ever try to confiscate Americans’ guns.
While some anarchists have embraced “boogaloo” rhetoric, these are primarily are “rightwing anarchists”, who believe in “unfettered capitalism”, not leftwing anarchists, said Mark Pitcavage, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
The Department of Homeland Security’s claim that “boogaloo” is not a rightwing movement is “playing politics”, said Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst who was forced out of the department after Republican backlash against a prescient briefing about the growing dangers of rightwing domestic terrorism.
“This is an ultra-nationalist primarily white movement of people who belong to the militias,” he said. “Could there be somebody that has different sympathies that’s part of it? Sure. It’s predominantly rightwing.”
Is the ‘boogaloo’ fundamentally a white supremacist movement?
There’s no question that some “boogaloo” supporters are explicit white nationalists and neo-Nazis who use the term “boogaloo” as a synonym for a coming race war.
But there’s real disagreement, even among experts who monitor extremist groups, about whether the “boogaloo” movement as a whole should be described as “white supremacist.”
Analysts from the Anti-Defamation League and Middlebury’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism have argued that a significant number of “boogaloo” supporters are genuinely not white supremacist, and that the movement in fact has two wings, one advocating for race war and one obsessed with societal breakdown and rebellion against the government.
Arguments over white supremacy have played out on public “boogaloo” Facebook groups for months, the analysts said, with some “boogaloo” supporters, particularly group administrators, denouncing white supremacists and saying they want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, even as other members of the groups made racist and antisemitic comments and mocked moderators for trying to be politically correct.
Tensions within the movement over supporting Black Lives Matter and pushing out overt white supremacists have been playing out for months, according to the first in-depth profile of the movement from journalists at Bellingcat. Some “boogaloo” memes and versions of the movement’s flag name black victims of police violence, including Oscar Grant and Breonna Taylor, among the movement’s martyrs. At the same time, some of the recent pro-Black Lives Matter statements on Boogaloo pages may have been motivated by group administrators’ desire to avoid a crackdown from Facebook moderators, Newhouse said.
Other experts say that lip service from some “boogaloo” supporters about wanting to be a multi-racial movement should not be taken seriously.
“We’re equivocating for the sake of an imagined audience,” said Joan Donovan, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
“The idea that you would dismantle the US government at this stage is to undo the protections that have been granted to black, people, queer people, disabled people, to stop foreign policy related to immigration,” Donovan said. “There are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in these groups. That’s what war is, at its base. It’s about who should live.”
“I don’t think you can get away from the ways in which the rhetoric supports a white supremacist ideology, once you start talking about the kinds of policies or strategies they think need to be implemented.”
One way to capture the complex dynamics of “boogaloo” ideology is to label it as a broad anti-government movement that is full of white power activists, said Kathleen Belew, a historian of the American white power movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
There are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in these groups. That’s what war is, at its base. It’s about who should live
Because there are many Americans who believe in white supremacist ideas, but have never make an explicit effort to advocate for the cause, it’s more accurate to label people involved in racist movements as “white power activists” rather than as “white supremacists”, Belew argues.
Like the militia movement of the 1990s, not everyone who participates in “boogaloo” events or groups is necessarily a white power activist, Belew said. But it’s important to understand that many explicit supporters of race war are operating under the cover of a slightly more mainstream anti-government movement, she said, and that this is a deliberate strategy.
“Not all the people in the militia movement would be categorized as white power activists, but most of the white power movement was located inside the militia movement,” she said. Money, guns and people routinely moved between more mainstream and more underground, explicitly violent groups, she said, and that same pattern is likely repeating today.
For the Americans who are encountering armed men with Hawaiian shirts at protests in their hometowns, nuanced distinctions may not be that helpful.
On the ground, experts said, there’s really no way to figure out in real time if an unknown man in a Hawaiian shirt is a neo-Nazi looking to start a race war, or an anti-police libertarian who sincerely believes that he is not a racist. Asking “boogaloo” boys about their beliefs directly is unlikely to clarify much, since neo-Nazis and white nationalists routinely lie and claim not to be racist.
“No matter what your beliefs are, if you show up at a Black Lives Matter protest as a white man armed with a bunch of guns, that’s a white supremacist act, even if you don’t mean it to be,” said Emily Gorcenski, the creator of First Vigil, a project that tracks far-right individuals and groups. “Fundamentally, it will instill fear.”