For months, in private and public Facebook groups, young American men have discussed killing federal agents and how to prepare for a coming civil war.
They have shared carefully posed photographs of their guns and body armor and posted tributes to people they see as martyrs to government oppression.
This anti-government “boogaloo” rhetoric has already been publicly linked to at least least 15 arrests and five deaths, including the murder of a federal security guard and a sheriff’s deputy in California, according to media reports and analysts who track extremists.
Facebook, the primary social media platform for boogaloo discussions, announced on Tuesday that it was banning a network of violent “boogaloo” groups, and designating them as a dangerous organization similar to the Islamic State group and white supremacists. Researchers who have followed the growth of Boogaloo on the platform say the move was “too little, too late”.
The Trump administration has done even less to address the growth of this new violent rightwing movement, one with strong overlaps with neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizing.
When Donald Trump tweeted angrily about “Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!” in late June, he was not denouncing the young men who are openly calling for civil war, but the nonviolent Black Lives Matter movement. Many black activist organizations are currently focused on defunding police departments and reinvesting the money in community services.
The Department of Homeland Security has publicly denied that the “boogaloo” movement is rightwing, and tweeted an attack on a news outlet that correctly labeled it.
The justice department announced last week that it was creating a taskforce on domestic extremism, but said the task force would focus not only on the rightwing “boogaloo” movement, but also on leftwing anti-fascist activists, who are being demonized as a dangerous threat in Trump’s re-election campaign.
The president is “focusing on the economic damage rather than people’s lives”, said Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security analyst who helped author a prescient 2009 report on the rising threat of rightwing domestic terrorism.
“Boogaloo” memes are not subtle. The uniform for supporters – a Hawaiian shirt paired with body armor and a military-style rifle – is in part a joke about killing pigs, slang for cops, for a Hawaiian-style pig roast, according to Alex Newhouse, a digital researcher at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at Middlebury Institute for International Studies.
Images of the “boogaloo” flag, with its punning references to a “big igloo” and a “big luau”, are sometimes emblazoned with the names of police killing victims and 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.
Boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen”, a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of their country.
No one has yet emerged as a “boogaloo” leader, or a boogaloo spokesperson, according to researchers who monitor extremists, and it’s far from clear how many people consider themselves affiliated with “boogaloo” ideology. As of April, more than 100 “boogaloo” groups on Facebook had a total of more 72,000 members, according to a report from the Tech Transparency Project, butsome of those users might be double-counted as members of multiple groups.
The word “boogaloo”, used as a semi-ironic term for a second civil war, has popped up in online forums, including explicitly white supremacist and neo-Nazi ones, for nearly a decade. It has been used as a term for a coming race war, a reference to the civil war that might break out if politicians ever tried to actually confiscate Americans’ guns, and a more generic term for an insurrection against the American government.
Researchers at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism say that “boogaloo” discussions began to coalesce into something more like an actual movement over the past year, as a few people sporting “boogaloo” badges or uniforms showed up at a massive protest against gun control in Virginia, then at protests against government lockdown measures, then at the massive against police brutality after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
It’s not clear how many of the “boogaloo” boys who have shown up at protests are men who have participated in anti-government militias or other extremist organizations in the past.
In March, a Missouri man with neo-Nazi ties was planning to bomb a local hospital on the first day of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, and referred to his plan as “operation boogaloo”, the Associated Press reported. The man was killed when police tried to arrest him, officials said.
At least eight of the men arrested in incidents with “boogaloo” links have been identified as US military veterans or current service members, according to media reports.
Three men with military experience were arrested in Las Vegas and charged with plotting to violently disrupt a George Floyd protest with explosives, the justice department announced on 3 June.
In California, Sgt Steven Carrillo of the air force has been charged with the murders of two law enforcement officers, a federal security officer Carrillo allegedly murdered while thousands of protesters marched for Floyd in downtown Oakland, and a member of the Santa Cruz county sheriff’s department.
Researchers say that even after Facebook’s removal of 100 “boogaloo” Facebook groups and more than 300 Facebook and Instagram accounts, many similar groups, including some violent groups, remain active.
One expert also identified a new danger. As deadly violence prompts heightened media and law enforcement scrutiny, a wave of news coverage “explaining” what the Boogaloo is also risks attracting new supporters to what experts describe as an online discussion that is only beginning to coalesce into a movement.
The nationwide protests after Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May were the culmination of more than six years of dedicated organizing and public awareness campaigns by black activists across the US.
But a tiny number of self-described “boogaloo” boys have already successfully diverted some attention from this much larger, nonviolent movement against police killings of black Americans, and towards their own militant anti-government ideology.
The tactics they used to gain media attention have been honed for decades, by extremist groups from the Ku Klux Klan to the “alt-right”: wear distinctive, lurid outfits; give your ideology a weird name; and use bizarre terms that journalists could reveal and decode for their readers.
Some men who participated in “boogaloo” discussions went a step further: they staged brutal acts of public violence as a way of advancing, and getting attention, for their cause.
The media attention the “boogaloo” is receiving now could be particularly dangerous, said Joan Donovan, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, particularly if media outlets decide to give a major platform to their views, or turn a random participant into a new spokesperson for the movement.
“We are dangerously close to validating this small group when we use language calling them a ‘movement’,” said Donovan.