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What Is a Boogaloo?

How the government and its media allies overhyped a threat they helped create

Jacob Siegel
January 14, 2021
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images
A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally as they carry firearms at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on Oct. 17, 2020JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images
A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally as they carry firearms at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on Oct. 17, 2020JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 17, the FBI warned that right-wing militias were planning to hold nationwide demonstrations that could lead to further violence like the riots on Capitol Hill.

The reports came as law enforcement faced criticism for failing to react to chatter online indicating a plot to storm the Capitol in the weeks leading up to the melee. Then two FBI documents leaked a few days later—including one drafted before the events on Capitol Hill—warning of nationwide armed rallies, demonstrations at state capitols, and possible further violence ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration. The Boogaloo Bois, a “militant anti-government movement,” according to the FBI, was the only group named by the agency. In a Dec. 29 information report produced by the FBI’s Minnesota field office a source observes Boogaloo members scouting out security around the state capital buildings to identify potential defensive positions in the event of armed clashes with law enforcement.

Trying to unwind all the strands of message-board lore woven into the origins of the Boogaloo movement is a waste of time. The gist of it all is that “Boogaloo” is a reference to the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo—the message being that sequels suck. The event whose sequel the group is allegedly preparing for is the American Civil War. A game of word associations led from Boogaloo to “big igloo” and “big luau,” the latter of which inspired the group’s distinctive Hawaiian-shirt attire.

Anti-government, anti-police, and focused with the intensity of subcultural obsessives on an imminent civil war, the Boogaloo movement, in its short history, has shown an advanced capacity for deploying internet memes, inflicting random politically impotent violence, and attracting headlines—but no previous ability to coordinate large disruptive operations on a national scale.

The loosely connected network of young men who make up the Boogaloo movement have been fixtures at the protests and riots of the past year in their uniform of bespoke tactical gear and semi-automatic rifles slung across colorful island shirts. Unappointed sentries patrolling together in small groups the size of an infantry fire team, Boogaloo members have marched in support of Black Lives Matter in some cities and elsewhere rallied against the movement. In contrast to their clearly branded uniforms, the Boogaloo ideology is an airy admixture. It contains a frontier-style, gun-rights absolutism, militant opposition to police as agents of a tyrannical government, conspiratorial concerns with supposed elite-sanctioned pedophilia, and an undercurrent of accelerationist energy, which is the latest update on the millenarian impulse to see the world redeemed by its destruction.

Incoherent and amorphous by nature, the Boogaloo movement is whatever the adherents who don the uniform in a particular time and place make it. It’s not a local activist organization or national political party, but a Facebook group come to life and bearing arms. At a pro-gun rally in Richmond, a group of Boogbois led a chant of “White Supremacy Sucks.” Other members of the group can be found fantasizing about race war and flashing neo-Nazi insignia. Neither “right” nor “left” Boogaloo tendencies can be said to have the more exclusive claim to representing the movement.

What we have seen from the Boogaloos in action so far is a mixed bag of visibility tactics aimed at large events and social media with occasional outbursts of stark violence and bumbling attempts at terrorist plots. Over the summer, an active-duty member of the Air Force murdered two law enforcement officers. Before his arrest, the alleged killer, who was found to possess Boogaloo insignia, had used his own blood to scrawl a slogan associated with the group on the hood of a car: “I have become unreasonable.”

In October, the FBI infiltrated a militant cell in Michigan and stopped a reported plot to kidnap the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, allegedly in retaliation for her COVID-19 lockdown policy. Some of the suspects arrested for the plot had links to the Boogaloos. As a sign of the group’s ideological openness, two men affiliated with the Boogaloos joined the protests in Minnesota after George Floyd’s killing. They were there, they said, to protect marchers from police and looters, when they were recruited by an FBI informant into a plot that eventually found them trying to sell weapons to agents who they believed were members of Hamas.

A small group was visible at the Trump Capitol Hill riots wearing insignia identified with the movement.

Incoherent, fantasy-driven political movements can be destructive, as we have seen. But the Boogaloo track record to date, and the fact that the group appears to be thoroughly penetrated by the FBI, caution against exaggerating the danger it poses. Rather than being a threat to national security or American democracy, the Boogaloo movement is more consequential for what it represents: the outgrowth of a uniquely digital political culture that is just beginning to reshape our world.

What is significant isn’t the in-jokes, which have no definite meaning outside their contingent subcultural context, but the social ecology that produced the Boogaloos in the first place. Like so many other modern objects of horror and fascination, the Boogaloo movement grew out of the imageboards of 4chan, a digital environment structured around anonymous, unmoderated conversations where older comments continuously disappear and newness, speed, and signal strength rule.

Most of the major digital movements of the past decade have emerged from this same fertile seed bed: the early hacker collective Anonymous, the Kek-worshipping alt-right, incel uprising devotees, and now the Boogaloos. Despite their apparent ideological differences, these groups have something fundamental in common: They operate through rituals of communal belief more closely resembling ancient mystery cults than modern political organizations. Individuals drawn into these identity-dissolving digital cults are immersed in the experience of a collective fantasy. The refinement of fantasies through cybernetic feedback processes is the basis of the new memetic ideologies that challenge and disorient traditional modes of politics.

In practice, it is therefore impossible to understand the Boogaloo movement and other memetic ideologies using the same frame of reference that applied to 19th- and 20th-century politics. In industrial society, political formations evolved in relation to instruments of economic capital and state power. In liberalism, for instance, ideals about human liberty and the nature of truth were inseparable from principles of private property and the proper limits of government. But there is no stable center online, no fixed map of society and political economy, toward which today’s emerging digital tribes are oriented.

The 20th-century ideologies have survived the end of history as unstable isotopes in a state of advanced decay. Fallout from the radioactivity shed into the ecosystem online, has led to the flourishing of mutant belief systems as cartoonish and deformed as the three-eyed fish from the Simpsons. Given the levels of weirdness that are out there amid the Nazi furries, pro-North Korean Juche loyalist Instagram influencers, sex-negative Nazbol Posadists, eco-accelerationist integralists, and the like, the Boogaloo boys with their whiff of old-fashioned American paranoia and apocalypticism seem almost normal.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.