Virus restrictions fuel anti-government 'boogaloo' movement

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FILE - In this May 2, 2020, file photo, people, including those with the boogaloo movement, demonstrate against business closures due to concern about COVID-19, at the State House in Concord, N.H. It's a fringe movement with roots in a online meme culture steeped in irony and dark humor. But experts warn that the anti-government boogaloo movement has attracted a dangerous element of far-right extremists. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

SILVER SPRING, Md. – They carry high-powered rifles and wear tactical gear, but their Hawaiian shirts and leis are what stand out in the crowds that have formed at state capital buildings to protest COVID-19 lockdown orders. The signature look for the “boogaloo” anti-government movement is designed to get attention.

The loose movement, which uses an ’80s movie sequel as a code word for a second civil war, is among the extremists using the armed protests against stay-at-home orders as a platform. Like other movements that once largely inhabited corners of the internet, it has seized on the social unrest and economic calamity caused by the pandemic to publicize its violent messages.

In April, armed demonstrators passed out “Liberty or Boogaloo” fliers at a statehouse protest in Concord, New Hampshire. A leader of the Three Percenters militia movement who organized a rally in Olympia, Washington, last month encouraged rally participants to wear Hawaiian shirts, according to the Anti-Defamation League. On Saturday, a demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, promoted by a Facebook group called “Blue Igloo” — a derivation of the term — led to a police investigation of a confrontation between an armed protester and a couple pushing a stroller.

Another anti-lockdown rally is planned for Thursday at the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, site of an angry protest last month that included armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has been the target of violent threats on Facebook forums, including a private one called “The Rhett E. Boogie Group.”

One user said Whitmer should be “guillotined” after another suggested the governor should be hanged from a noose, according to a screenshot captured by the Tech Transparency Project research initiative.

The coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for the “boogaloo” movement because the stay-at-home orders have "put a stressor on a lot of very unhappy people," said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. MacNab said their rhetoric goes beyond discussions about fighting virus restrictions — which many protesters brand as “tyranny” — to talking about killing FBI agents or police officers “to get the war going.”

“They are far more graphic and far more specific in their threats than I’ve seen in a long time,” she said.

The violent rhetoric is dramatic escalation for a online phenomenon with its roots in meme culture and steeped in dark humor. Its name comes from the panned 1984 movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” which has become slang for any bad sequel. Another derivation of “boogaloo” is “big luau” — hence the Hawaiian garb.