How dangerous is the boogaloo?
24 Jun 2020|

On 29 May, against the backdrop of a Black Lives Matter protest, a gunman opened fire on Federal Protective Service officers outside a courthouse in Oakland, California, killing one and badly wounding another. He fired from a van with no licence plates and escaped in the vehicle.

On 6 June, officers confronted 32-year-old Steven Carrillo at his home after receiving a tip-off about a van filled with guns and bomb-making materials. Carrillo, a sergeant at Travis Air Force Base, allegedly ambushed the officers with a homemade semi-automatic rifle and explosives. One officer was killed, and another was shot in the chest, though the bullet was stopped by his protective vest.

Carrillo escaped the scene, wounded, and stole a car, which he soon abandoned. He then attempted to steal another vehicle at gunpoint. The car owner tackled him and held him until police arrived.

Before abandoning the first vehicle, Carrillo had scrawled ‘I became unreasonable’ and other phrases related to the evolving phenomenon known as the ‘boogaloo’ across the car in his own blood.

Carrillo’s two alleged murders are not the only instances of boogaloo-linked violence in recent weeks. Three men, two of them US Navy veterans, have been arrested and charged in Las Vegas with terrorism offences for their alleged plans to exploit a Black Lives Matter protest to stoke violence with a firebomb attack.

These attacks, combined with the conspicuous presence of heavily armed, predominantly white men in Hawaiian shirts at ReOpen and gun rights rallies earlier this year, and most recently at Black Lives Matter protests, have sparked a wave of media attention as people around the world rush to find out what the boogaloo actually is.

Among them, paradoxically, are boogaloo followers themselves. The sudden glare of the public spotlight is forcing this inchoate bundle of memes, Facebook groups and half-serious jokes tinged with violence to wrestle with its own identity in real time. Meanwhile, the publicity appears to be driving an influx of intrigued, enthusiastic new social media users to engage with the boogaloo.

What is the boogaloo?

The boogaloo is not a single, organised group. Nor is it a coherent ideology. It’s perhaps best understood as a meme, or idea, transitioning into a movement.

The word ‘boogaloo’ comes from a meme which uses ‘Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo’ as a reference for an impending, desired second civil war in the United States. Its adherents have been referred to as ‘boogaloo boys’ or ‘boogaloo bois’.

The meme may have originated on the imageboard 4chan, but boogaloo groups and content have since spread across the major social media platforms and many fringe platforms as well. By far the most activity takes place on Facebook, where the largest boogaloo groups have thousands of members. Carrillo was an active member of several of these groups.

This memetic origin makes it difficult to define what the boogaloo is. The advantage of a movement based on a meme is its useful ambiguity—that it can be, if not all things to all people, then at least many things to many people. An image may be worth a thousand words, but it can be a different thousand words for each person who sees it.

This ambiguity has allowed the boogaloo meme to appeal to individuals with different motives. So long as the boogaloo remained more a meme than a movement, these differences had little impact.

Under the current pressure to define themselves, however, it is becoming apparent that, while boogaloo bois all to some extent support the call for a violent uprising, their reasons for doing so and what they hope to achieve by it are not necessarily the same.

This dynamic has become strikingly clear in the debate over whether the boogaloo is a white supremacist movement. Administrators of some of the most prominent boogaloo groups took offence at media coverage describing the boogaloo as racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist, and have repeatedly asserted their groups’ anti-racism stance. The boogaloo, in their view, is about armed insurrection against state oppression, not about supporting white supremacist calls for ‘race war’.

For some, the claim that the boogaloo is not an inherently white supremacist or at least white nationalist movement came as a surprise. The imageboards where the boogaloo meme was incubated have also nurtured white supremacist terrorists, including Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant. Many of the communities and movements which spin off from these boards carry that legacy of ingrained racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. Despite the efforts of some boogaloo groups to define themselves in opposition to police oppression, including oppression of people of colour, there’s an undeniable white supremacist fringe.

Over the coming weeks and months, this split between the pro- and anti-racism wings may widen.

How serious is the threat?

The threat of mass mobilisation or armed insurrection emerging from the boogaloo movement appears to be low. While it has tens of thousands of supporters on social media, posting memes on Facebook is a far cry from taking up arms against the government. Only a small minority have shown an inclination to take the boogaloo any further than their computer screens.

However, as the recent attacks demonstrated, there’s clearly a risk from radicalised individuals or small groups. One of the difficulties in gauging the significance of the threat from the boogaloo is its jokey nature. The fondness for Hawaiian shirts, for example, is based on the way boogaloo groups and pages sometimes use the phrase ‘the big luau’ as code for the boogaloo to avoid Facebook’s content moderation.

The ironic, jokey nature of the boogaloo community makes it difficult to tell how seriously any individual takes it. For some, it’s genuinely just a joke. For others, it’s the kind of thing you write in your own blood on a stolen car after shooting two police officers.

What is being done about it?

Although the boogaloo’s presence is growing on other platforms, Facebook is still undeniably the locus of the movement. In the weeks since Carrillo and the Las Vegas suspects were arrested, the number of boogaloo groups on the platform appears to have increased and there’s been an influx of new users into existing groups, presumably driven by heightened public awareness.

Facebook has claimed that it is taking steps to reduce the groups’ activity and has banned the use of the term ‘boogaloo’ and about 50 related code words ‘when they are accompanied by images or statements depicting armed violence’. Facebook also said it had removed groups in which Carrillo was active, but at least some of them remained active as of 23 June.

To date, Facebook’s actions appear to have had little, if any, impact on the boogaloo groups, most of which have simply changed their names to new coded references—often very thinly coded at that. Talk of armed violence continues unabated, including discussions of Carrillo’s attacks, with some supporting his actions or suggesting that the attack might have been faked to smear the boogaloo movement.

The bottom line

The boogaloo began as a meme, but is rapidly evolving into a movement that glorifies violence, in some cases with white supremacist undertones. The pressures brought by heightened media scrutiny in the aftermath of planned and actual attacks linked to the boogaloo are accelerating that evolutionary process, forcing influential members (such as the administrators of large Facebook groups) to start articulating an ideological basis for what was previously a fuzzy and indistinct call to arms.

However, at least for the foreseeable future, the greatest risks from this movement are likely to come from radicalised individuals and small groups.