POLITICS

The Violent Extremist Threat That's Growing During Nationwide Protests

As Donald Trump warns of antifa, far-right extremists linked to the Boogaloo movement have been repeatedly charged with attacks.
A member of the far-right movement Boogaloo walks next to protestors outside a police station in Charlotte, North Carolina, o
A member of the far-right movement Boogaloo walks next to protestors outside a police station in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 29.

President Donald Trump has warned repeatedly that antifa, a favorite bogeyman, is behind the violence during recent waves of protest. But while scant evidence supports Trump’s claims, another loosely organized movement has become a prominent sideshow at nationwide demonstrations and been linked with attacks and plots to create chaos.

Adherents of the far-right movement known as Boogaloo have shown up at various protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, attempting to use the demonstrations to further their own cause and in some cases carrying rifles. 

Boogaloo devotees have also carried out violent attacks against police. This week, a California district attorney said that Steven Carrillo, charged with the ambush shooting death of a sheriff’s deputy in California’s Santa Cruz County on June 6, had ties to the Boogaloo. Carrillo had written some of its slogans in blood on the hood of a nearby car before his arrest. Authorities are reportedly looking into whether Carrillo was connected to the May 29 shooting death of a security officer at the federal building in Oakland, California ― a shooting that occurred during a large protest in that city over Floyd’s killing.

The Boogaloo movement is a somewhat amorphous anti-government community that under its umbrella includes militias, gun rights activists, libertarians and white supremacists. What they share is a core set of symbols, terms and ideology centered on the belief a second civil war is coming to the U.S., as well as a fervent opposition to the state that extends to law enforcement. Some in the Boogaloo movement have expressed admiration for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and David Koresh, the religious cult leader whose standoff with authorities led to a violent confrontation in Waco, Texas.

Multiple movement supporters have been charged with plotting mass violence or linked to violent assaults. Federal prosecutors in Nevada charged three men associated with Boogaloo with terrorism offenses last week, after authorities broke up a plot to cause mass violence and hijack a Black Lives Matter demonstration using Molotov cocktails and explosives.

Police earlier in June seized a large cache of guns and gear from a Boogaloo proponent at a Denver demonstration. In previous months, an apparent Boogaloo supporter in Arkansas was charged with planning to kill an officer after describing his plot on a Facebook livestream, while police in Missouri shot and killed a neo-Nazi with ties to the movement who was planning on blowing up a hospital.

The Boogaloo movement grew out of internet culture and memes; its name is a joking reference to the 1984 dance movie “Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo.” The extent to which Boogaloo supporters have attempted to carry through the violence they discuss in online forums remains unclear, but researchers who have tracked the movement have watched its supporters continually try to capitalize on the unrest that has marked 2020 ― the coronavirus pandemic, protests of the lockdowns caused by the outbreak and the demonstrations triggered by Floyd’s death. 

Following extremist movements with roots in internet culture can be a maddening task, as they continuously mutate and obsessively create new references and permutations of themselves. Often, they suggest the entire thing is a big joke. Boogaloo members have, for instance, appeared at protests in Hawaiian shirts with references to the “big luau,” an alteration of “boogaloo” created as a means of getting around scrutiny from social media platforms. 

The ironic note and its absurdity are both a reflection of the movement’s roots in extreme online space and a veneer for its more extremist ideology ― it can be difficult to judge who among the movement is posturing and who is a true believer.

“When you’re looking at incels (the shorthand for involuntary celibates notable for their misogyny) or the Boogaloo movement or Qanon (the absurd “deep state”/pedophile conspiracy theory), trying to determine which of these individuals are just keyboard warriors versus actual threats is very difficult,” said Marc-Andre Argentino, a scholar at Montreal’s Concordia University who researches extremist groups on social media.  “A lot of it is shitposting or internet bravado.”

But the increasing arrests of Boogaloo supporters ― as well as murders and deadly extremist attacks linked to Qanon and incels ― make it clear that these movements have the potential to create real harm.

Social media companies have been slow to take action against Boogaloo groups, as the movement migrated from more fringe networks where extremism and bigotry are engrained in the culture to more mainstream platforms. Reddit has shut down several Boogaloo communities for inciting violence, but the movement has thrived on encrypted messaging applications such as Telegram and on the largest social platform, Facebook.

At least 125 Boogaloo groups with tens of thousands of followers could be found on Facebook as of April, according to a review by advocacy group Tech Transparency Project. Facebook restricted the use of Boogaloo when used alongside violent images or calls to action on May 1, but experts say the movement simply shifted terminology and the policy has had little effect. 

“When they really just have a libertarian, pro-2A (Second Amendment) narrative, it’s very hard for platforms to do anything,” Argentino said. “There’s nothing really wrong with that in itself, except it does create an environment that leads to violent extremism and we’re getting to that point.”

In the past week, Facebook announced additional steps to limit the growth of Boogaloo groups on the platform and that it would no longer recommend them to users with similar interests. But these groups are still largely out in plain view and available for public consumption, even if Facebook is no longer steering people directly to them.

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