Updated at 8:47 a.m. ET on January 15, 2021.
In the menagerie of right-wing populist groups, the boogaloo bois stand out for their fashion, for their great love of memes, and, to put it plainly, for the incoherence of their ideology. Which is saying a lot, considering that the riot at the Capitol last Wednesday featured partisans of the long-gone country of South Vietnam, Falun Gong adherents, end-times Christians, neo-Nazis, QAnon believers, a handful of Orthodox Jews, and Daniel Boone impersonators.
The boogaloos weren’t a huge presence in that mob. But according to federal officials, the attack on the Capitol has galvanized them and could inspire boogaloo violence in D.C. and around the country between now and Inauguration Day. The FBI warned earlier that boogaloos could launch attacks in state capitols this Sunday, January 17.
The boogaloos don’t appear interested in fighting for Donald Trump—they tend to despise him, mostly because they think he panders to the police. But for the past year, boogaloo bois all over the United States have been cheering on the country’s breakdown, waiting for the moment when their nihilistic memes would come to life and the country would devolve into bloody chaos.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take the boogaloo threat. Some are likely just joking when they “shit-post” about shooting cops or “yeeting alphabet boys”—killing government law-enforcement agents. But others seem serious. They’ve already shown up heavily armed (and in their signature Hawaiian shirts) at protests and at state capitols. They’ve allegedly killed law-enforcement officers, talked about throwing Molotov cocktails at cops during the racial-justice protests this summer, and plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. They say they want a total reset of society, even if they haven’t thought very hard about what, exactly, should come next.
Who are the boogaloo bois? And why do they want to start a civil war? I’ve spent the past few months trying to figure that out.
Let’s start with what boogaloo isn’t. It isn’t, mainly, a white-supremacist organization, though there are some white-supremacist boogaloo bois. It isn’t a collection of Trump supporters ready to fight for the president, like, say, the Proud Boys. And despite the various attacks—planned or carried out—against police officers and government officials, boogaloo also isn’t a militia in any traditional sense of the word. It isn’t even really a movement.
It’s more like an absurdist internet culture propagated by libertarian-leaning gun enthusiasts on 4chan—the anonymous, Wild West version of Reddit—that has somehow moved into the real world. It’s jargon and memes and jokes and a sometimes-serious desire to bring about a violent revolution to overthrow the U.S. government.
Like nearly everything about boogaloo, the ideas and terminology are simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying.
The term boogaloo, for example, can refer to the purveyors of this culture or to an event: a violent revolution some of them hope to hasten, dubbed Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo. The name itself is a takeoff on a pervasive internet joke, an allusion to a 1980s dance movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. (Take a moment to pity historians, centuries from now, as they try to understand how the name of a dance-movie sequel turned into the name of a proposed nationwide insurrection.)
JJ MacNab has studied anti-government extremist groups for more than 20 years. As a fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, she’s tracked the boogaloo bois online since last fall, when she saw an uptick in memes calling—in a jokey way—for a civil war.
Some of the boogaloo bois, she told me, are “accelerationists,” meaning they’re looking for any provocation—be it proposed gun-control measures, Black Lives Matter protests, or the presidential inauguration—to spark a violent conflict. Other boogalooers believe that the “boogaloo” will be brought to them by the opposing side, by measures like gun confiscation, or some other perceived overstepping of authority.
Over the past two years, the terminology moved from 4chan to Facebook, where a few groups quickly grew to thousands of members. MacNab says she tries to identify what she calls the “social butterflies” of the online groups: young men who seem to intuitively understand what’s cool and funny to their peers, and what isn’t. Once she finds a few, she follows them from group to group, across the internet, as a way of accessing their world.
The word boogaloo morphed into big igloo, which brought about a deluge of igloo imagery, and also into big luau, which is what prompted some boogaloo bois to wear Hawaiian shirts under their body armor. One boogaloo meme shows the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden snake set against a turquoise-and-pink floral pattern above the words ALOHA FUCKFACE.
If none of this makes much sense, that’s the point. “They really want to create their own in-world so the rest of us won’t get their jokes,” MacNab told me.
“It’s tribal,” she added. “These are tribal markings: the shirts they wear, the jargon they speak, even the types of guns they like.”
Boogaloo culture stepped out of social media and into the real world in January 2020, at a giant pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia. The gathering, a response to proposed gun-control laws in Virginia’s state legislature, drew a reported 22,000 Second Amendment supporters. Several came wearing floral-print shirts—which stuck out in the crowd and got people wondering who they were.
MacNab says that as the boogaloo bois drew attention, white-supremacist groups, mostly on the messaging app Telegram, co-opted the luau aesthetic. But in the Facebook groups—where the number of boogaloo was huge compared with the number on Telegram—racism wasn’t tolerated. Instead, the men who gathered there were united by a love of guns and a hatred of cops and the government.
In March, a man in Potomac, Maryland, named Duncan Lemp who was being investigated for firearms violations was killed by police during a no-knock raid of his parents’ house. Lemp was shot one day before Breonna Taylor, and he became a martyr to boogaloo bois. His name was turned into a hashtag and a rallying cry, much like Taylor’s.
Aaron Swenson, a 36-year-old from Texas, appears to have been especially moved by Lemp’s death. He reportedly posted about the killing the next day, and changed his profile picture to a photo of a torso wearing a Hawaiian shirt and armored vest, with a hashtag: #HisNameWasDuncan.
In April, Swenson posted on Facebook—reportedly using the name “Arnold Derpingston”—that he felt “like hunting the hunters.” Translation: looking for police officers to kill. According to authorities, he then live-streamed himself driving around for about an hour with two pistols, a shotgun, and a bulletproof vest. After a 25-minute standoff on the side of a highway, he surrendered to police. (Swenson’s defense attorney has said that he was actually trying to “commit suicide by cop.”)
In a recording of the live-stream that later surfaced on YouTube, some of Swenson’s boogaloo brethren warned that he’d be disavowed by the group because he’d gotten the timing wrong. The insurrection hadn’t arrived yet.
Others seem to have thought that the time for an uprising had come this summer, when marches and protests broke out across the country following the murder of George Floyd. Because boogaloos generally hate cops, they debated whether to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Some joined the marches, but plenty of others dismissed the idea: They equate Black Lives Matter with Marxism, or don’t see police overreach as a racial issue.
Still others appear to have believed they could use the protests to ignite violence. In May, a 32-year-old Air Force staff sergeant named Steven Carrillo allegedly fired on a federal courthouse in Oakland, California, killing one security officer and wounding another.
A week later, Carrillo allegedly shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy. Wounded and on the run, he hijacked a car and, before his arrest, wrote “boog” in blood on the hood. (Carrillo has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including carjacking, murder, and attempted murder.)
According to an FBI affidavit, on the night of the first shooting, Carrillo was in communication with Ivan Hunter, a 26-year-old from Texas who had driven to Minneapolis apparently to incite violence during the protests there. Wearing a skull mask and tactical gear, Hunter allegedly fired an AK-47-style rifle 13 times at the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct while the building was set ablaze.
Hunter messaged Carrillo: “Go for police buildings.”
Carrillo replied: “I did better lol.”
Whether they’re employed or not and live at home or not, many boogaloo bois own thousands of dollars’ worth of guns and gear. They like to post photos with their weapons. Sometimes the men who show up to rallies or protests or statehouses wearing military-grade night-vision goggles or floral shirts with Gucci belts are actually dressing like memes. They are literally internet jokes come to life.
How many simply enjoy the gun memes and the juvenile jokes and maybe vaguely agree with some of the political concepts—and how many seriously want to start a war with the cops? It’s impossible to say. Even experts like MacNab, who study this sort of thing full-time, haven’t figured out how to tell who’s just joking and who might be more inclined to real-world violence.
In early October, as I was talking to MacNab for this story, a man in Madison Heights, Michigan, was killed in a shoot-out with FBI agents. She got a tip that the man was associated with the boogaloo bois. “His online persona was Colonel Shithead 7.0,” she said.
Looking through his Facebook page, MacNab said, she found nothing that made him seem especially likely to act out in the real world. But according to the Detroit Free Press, he was also a convicted felon who had previously shot at police officers, had a childhood connection to Ruby Ridge, and was being tracked by the FBI.
Even if an overwhelming majority of boogaloo bois are just shitposting, at least a few are clearly ready to follow through. I asked MacNab why she thought these men would want to bring about a violent revolution in this country.
“They want Rome to fall,” she said. “They want chaos to bring it down.”
And what do they want to replace it, after the anarchy?
“If you ask them,” she told me, “they can’t really give you an answer.”
Watching hordes of armed people storming the doors of Congress, facing off with any cop who offered resistance, killing a Capitol Police officer, and chasing another through the halls of a government building, I couldn’t help thinking: These are the fantasies that boogaloo bois have been posting about for months. The riot may have captured their imagination.
The FBI warning, which was dated December 29, describes nationwide rallies planned for January 17. The bulletin refers to boogaloo bois who have shown a “willingness to commit violence in support of their ideology,” and says that boogaloo bois in Minnesota went to the statehouse “to perform reconnaissance.” They reportedly discussed blowing up a building that police might be able to use as a sniper location “in the event of a gun battle.”
Just before the FBI bulletin became public, I’d come across a boogaloo website that was promoting the January 17 rallies, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. A tweet from a boogaloo-linked account mentioning the rallies includes a hashtag of the name of the woman shot at the U.S. Capitol.
“Remember what happened today,” the tweet reads. “Learn from it, bring the same energy.” It claims that people will be at “every American capital” as part of “the largest armed protest to ever take place on American soil.” In the background, behind the text, is the faint image of the kind of flower you’d see on a Hawaiian-print shirt.
Maybe it’s a joke. But nobody should be surprised if it’s not.