Talking to the boogaloo: An exclusive series of conversations with a would-be revolutionary

A member of the semi-ironic militia movement speaks out: "We hate Trump. We hate Biden. We hate the entire system"

By Roger Sollenberger
February 27, 2021 5:00PM (UTC)
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The Boogaloo Boys hold a rally at the Capitol Building on October 17, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. The Boogaloo boys called it a Unity Rally in an attempt to distance themselves from the Wolverine Watchmen who plotted to kidnap Michigans Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Two of the men arrested in the plot were affiliated with the Boogaloo Boys. (Seth Herald/Getty Images)

This is the first in a two-part series.

The history-shaping year that recently ended was a year of spectacular violence. It was the year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the year when a pandemic took hundreds of thousands of lives, many of them needlessly. It was a year that forced us to recalibrate fundamental social and cultural systems, a year that spawned both a summer of protest and dozens of anti-government demonstrations featuring armed militia members around and inside state capitols. It was the year a Blackhawk helicopter performed show-of-force maneuvers over protesters in the streets of Washington. It was the year that QAnon went to Congress. It was and the year that bred — one week into the following year — a deadly insurrection at the seat of democracy, fomented by the president of the United States.

It was also the year when the "boogaloo" — a nonpartisan, anti-government militia movement marketed to millennials and zoomers, which professes the goal of launching, or perhaps just instigating, a bloody revolutionary war — saw its membership and media presence swell, capturing fears and headlines. The movement also saw a corresponding spike in attention from activists, academics and journalists who monitor extremist groups, and who urge caution when trying to analyze the boogaloo and its many feints and contradictions.

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In recent weeks, one member of that movement approached Salon with an offer to tell his story as a dissident within the boogaloo. He asked not to be identified, for personal security reasons. He said he would go by Sam.

"It is not hyperbole when I say that the people I associate with would happily kill me," Sam said in his introduction. He explained that his primary motive for approaching Salon was to expose what he considers the boogaloo's bad-faith exploitation of marginalized communities and "to clarify what is being planned and the motivations behind those plans."

"I believe the public, that is those not associated with a radical or extremist movement, have a right to know who is standing on their street and what they want," Sam said.

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Sam proved well-educated, thoughtful and articulate, with near impeccable grammar. He was also a nuanced, contradictory and at times evasive subject, whose intelligence and extensive knowledge of history do not appear to have led him to a coherent vision of the future. Those characteristics embody the boogaloo movement so well that Salon has chosen to publish excerpts from those conversations at length.

No professed boogaloo member has previously discussed the tactics, goals and internal dynamics of the movement with the media in anything close to this depth. These conversations, conducted over the course of several weeks, may offer some insight into what motivates this deliberately confusing, potentially violent and increasingly radical militia movement, which has repeatedly surfaced at armed demonstrations in many different contexts across the country. But while Sam appears genuine when discussing his own perspective, he made clear that he does not purport to speak for the movement. Even if his dissents are genuine, he is also still a member of a group known for its deceptive rhetoric, so his remarks in every case be approached with skepticism.

News organizations must report carefully on extremist movements, especially those like the boogaloo which seek to exploit and shape media coverage and burnish their public image. Many in the media have been too eager to provide the boogaloo the visibility they seek, or taken their admittedly puzzling words and signals at face value. So here's a guiding truth: The boogaloo's threats of violence must be taken seriously, even if the movement's ideological wrapping is purposefully confusing and the package within it ultimately empty.

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Stripped of its rhetoric, guns and Hawaiian shirts, the movement is at its core a fraternity with an appetite for destruction, but with few if any shared principles for creating anything at all. Boogaloo members will almost certainly never lead or spark a violent revolution or cause the destruction of the state. But Sam insisted that mass violence was "inevitable," and any militia group that appeals to volatile, disaffected young men has the capacity to generate terror and death.

Notably, the boogaloo pride themselves on their unique brand of hardline but slippery militant ideology, which offers the cover of ephemerality and is a prime source of their appeal. It's also their fatal flaw. Most adherents of "the boog" — the term Sam generally used — almost certainly would not want to occupy or police the scorched-earth future they claim to envision, for which they appear to have no agreed-upon plans anyway.

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Still: The boogaloo is here. It's violent, it's seductive and it's spreading through a segment of the population that is increasingly alienated from the major institutions of social, political and cultural life. It only takes one unstable, angry and highly motivated person to do something unspeakable. And they don't have to believe in anything.

Belief

So who is "standing in your street," to use Sam's phrase? The boogaloo is difficult to define — and that's a feature, not a bug, which they regularly exploit. The movement is a decentralized and politically diverse ecosystem — albeit overwhelmingly white and largely male — whose shared agenda aspires to foment violent revolution against what they perceive as a tyrannical federal government, a war in which they say they will happily kill anyone in their way. Once someone else starts it, that is.

"Those beliefs, paired with frequent encouragements to purchase firearms, body armor and tactical gear, create a highly volatile space with the potential for violence," Jared Holt, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Salon.

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Some members manipulate the resulting confusion as a tool for recruitment and media attention. But if there are bonding agents beyond violence, it is that virtually all boogaloo members are anti-government, pro-gun and, as with many far-right extremist groups, vehemently anti-cop. (We'll return to that later.) They just can't say what comes next.

The boogaloo emerged from the white supremacist underground, but has since sought to distance itself from those origins in favor of a more palatable and media-savvy gray zone between the hard right (anti-government and pro-gun) and the hard left (populist and anarchist, with nods to antifa and Black Lives Matter). Last June, the Department of Homeland Security tweeted that a Politico article casting the movement as fundamentally right-wing was a "work of fiction," saying that the agency "does NOT identify the Boogaloo movement as left-wing OR right-wing," but as violent extremists who draw from both sides. Some extremism experts concur with that analysis; some don't.

"I used to stand with the right, but the boog is not right," Sam said. "We hate Trump. We hate Biden. We hate the entire system. It's not right vs. left for us, it's bottom vs. top."

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He continued: "There [are] and always will be contradictions. Radicals, extremists and so on are highly opinionated, and as such have viewpoints that oppose one another. This is nothing new. Since before Lenin groups have argued. It's the ones that can put those arguments on hold that succeed." He made clear, however, that he doesn't claim to speak for the movement as a whole: "I'm just a guy trying to show a facet of it to the public."

Sam, a midwestern white male in his thirties in the middle of a years-long search for belonging and achievement, described an earlier career spent bouncing around radical extremist groups. Early on, he found himself drawn to right-wing militia organizations like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, but says he found their racism and homophobia "unpalatable" and "abhorrent." After that, he said, he drifted towards the left, hanging with groups such as the John Brown Gun Club and antifa factions.

"I spent years training the left how to fight. They were more interested in fighting each other, however," he said. When those groups began to splinter, Sam turned to libertarian and anarchist ideologies, and eventually found the boogaloo.

Like many libertarians, Sam often quotes Thomas Jefferson's maxim: "The best government is that which governs least." But Jefferson's success wasn't the Revolutionary War. He didn't command an army. He helped create a system that has lasted centuries — one that spawned the Constitution that right-wingers and the boogaloo purport to revere, and one that has already survived a civil war.

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Amy Cooter, a professor who researches extremist groups at Vanderbilt University, explained the appeal of those scattered politics. "Boogaloo is more of an ideology than a movement, in my view, meaning that people with a variety of motives and broader perspectives may be drawn to it," she told Salon. "Members are often both well-intentioned and honest in their accounting of what they believe to be true, especially about so-called distractions from the perceived central threat of the federal government."

These contradictions, Cooter said, also make the boogaloo vulnerable to exploitation: "They sometimes dismiss other people with more overtly racist motives as not 'really' being boogaloo affiliates, in a way that can miss the potential negative influence of those people, both in terms of public perceptions of the ideology and in terms of shifting the behavior and mindset of other adherents."

Like antifa, the boogaloo has no top-down structure — according to Sam, it's more like "a set of principles to organize around" — and its membership is in flux, although he claims it continues to grow. The boog has largely recruited online, first on message boards, then on Facebook and then, after Facebook was finally convinced to ban boogaloo-flavored pages, in chat rooms and on the Russian social media platform VK, where talk of anti-government violence isn't policed. (Sam says he isn't aware of any viable overseas connections.) Sam says his "cell" often just waits for recruits to come to them.

Part of what draws those recruits is the boogaloo's shrewd branding, which targets a younger and largely but not exclusively male demographic. For instance, the movement's name stems from the 2010s smorgasbord of terminally ironic and racist right-wing memes: It's a play on the objectively and infamously terrible 1980s breakdancing sequel, "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," with the idea that in this case the "sequel" is a second civil war.

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The group's most iconic images manifest in the perplexing Hawaiian shirts they wear at demonstrations under their tactical gear, which have been described as "stupid," but intentionally slam together symbols of war and peace: The "boogaloo" — meaning the coming war — became the semi-homonymic "Big Luau," a jokey juxtaposition meant to be chilling. The name has also been spun off into the "Big Igloo," a term some members use online to evade social media police. (Sam never used either term in his conversations with Salon.) Affiliates frequently juxtapose images, with igloos and floral prints appearing on flags, patches, guns and, yes, T-shirts.

(The Big Luau, Sam said, is also a pig roast, "pig" being a pejorative term for law enforcement.)

Journalist Talia Lavin, the author of "Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy," who has followed both the far right and far left for years, told Salon that no one should be seduced by the boog's calculated ambiguity.

"You should always take a movement whose stated goal is violence seriously," Lavin said. The boogaloo's use of irony has dual purposes, she said, both of them evasive: "Their over-the-top aesthetic and goofy name is a common tactic on the far right, as with the Proud Boys and other groups. It serves as both a blinder to the public that prevents them from being taken seriously as a threat, and a means for members to protest that all their actions are ironic or a joke."

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Another way to think about irony and jokes: At heart, they're lies. But Sam was never ironic or funny in his conversations with Salon. Even when he contradicted himself, which was not uncommon, he was earnest. "The satire and irony are just that, until someone acts," he said at one point. He called the shirts a type of "camouflage," and said the same thing about the movement's professed vow of non-aggression. If violence ever does break out, Sam said, the boogaloo will not fight a guerrilla war in Hawaiian shirts.

"We don't buy rifles and body armor to hang on the wall," he said. "We don't train multiple times a month for fun, and it is not for self-defense."

The boogaloo hope that the branding and their break with "conservative" signaling — they often make a show of standing with LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter and antifa in protest situations — will intrigue outsiders and appeal both to the naive mass media and to a broader, younger pool of recruits.

Members frequently call themselves "Boogaloo Bois" in public, a gesture toward (or hijacking of) LGBTQ culture. Again, Sam — who identifies as bisexual — never used that term in his conversations with Salon. In fact, one of his most salient criticisms of the movement was its eagerness to cynically co-opt the language and symbology of marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ and minority communities. He says that the boogaloo boasts a sizable LGBTQ contingent, and that he is unhappy with this disingenuous trend, which he says is creating an unproductive, corrosive effect. (Sam shared a screenshot of one chat in which another member emphasized that demonstration attire should include prominent displays of support for LGBTQ causes — entirely for tactical reasons. Photos of boogaloo members make clear this is common.)

In Sam's view, the movement should align itself with oppressed groups in genuine solidarity, as he says it did when he first joined, He said he has collaborated with other members to "shift the media toward something positive."

Holt, along with other researchers, disputes the movement's claims to inclusiveness, saying that "radical elements with die-hard hatred of minorities and pro-terrorism philosophies exist in the movement" and are seldom condemned.

Sam, who said in early interviews that several of his family members hold high-status occupations, acknowledges that he shares the streak of rage pervasive among so many white American males. But other than that, and perhaps the intellectual appeal of a mutable, contrarian not-quite-movement, it's not easy to tease out why he picked the extremist path.

"I am an angry white dude," he said, "because other white dudes deny they have it better." He added: "The boog has plenty of white dudes. We also have a huge contingent of females, a [sizable] amount of LGBTQIA+ individuals and some POC members. Yes, there are racist comments made. But actual racists are shown the door."

Researchers and journalists who have explored the boogaloo are highly skeptical that the movement does much to purge racists and other bigots, pointing to the movement's origins and its use of "woke" slang or symbology as a marketing ploy. Sam, as usual, says the overall picture is complicated. "There is very little racism and very little homophobia in its current iteration, but this is not due to it being morally or ethically correct," he said. Boogaloo members "do not wish to alienate potential allies or pawns and they want the media to view them as less of a threat when it comes to progressive advancement."

"That's a lie," Lavin said. "The movement happily includes racist and homophobic elements."

Sam says that whenever fellow members target him in homophobic remarks, he jokes back and moves on. It's that part about "pawns" that bothers him. Explaining why he decided to come forward and "expose" the boogaloo (his term), he told Salon, "Because they are exploiting legitimate struggles and problems to advance their agenda. I agree with using subterfuge, but not if it discredits work that is being done in those communities."

He added: "I still believe in that work, but my colleagues in the movement have gone too far. What is being presented is only a part of the truth. A sugar-coated version of the boogaloo movement."

War

Sam often uses the term "civil war," but what the boogaloo appear to want is more like a revolution that would destabilize and overthrow the full apparatus of the U.S. government. That includes the police, and, presumably, the armed forces, though the movement recruits both veterans and active-duty service members — some of whom Sam says are "tier three or tier two" special forces, such as Navy SEALS or Army Rangers.

(In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI released a report that specifically listed "disgruntled military veterans" as recruiting targets of violent groups on the radical right: "Right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat.")

Sam was consistent about the desire for such a war. "The boog has always been about accelerating the country toward civil war and removing anyone who stands in the way of that," he said. Members also often say they will resort to force only if all other options are exhausted, a pledge Sam characterized as "camouflage." Indeed, in Sam's own words, the parameters of justifiable violence appear shaky and at times outright contradictory.

Sam first told Salon that there are two primary camps within the boog: "One that promotes and engages in actions to encourage violence, and one that believes violence is inevitable as systems continue to crumble [and] who prefer to remain reactive." He added that "Each camp believes the other is wrong," but that both work toward the shared goal of destroying the government.

Sam then said there were actually three camps, adding a third faction that "wants peaceful reform and uses firearms and the threat of violence as theater." (The movement has described its demonstrations outside various state capitol buildings as "unity rallies.") While Sam would appear to fall into the peaceful camp, none of this is straightforward.

"I prefer peaceful resolutions," he said, because "terrorism and murder alienate the public." But even after extensive conversations, it isn't clear how Sam squares that personal preference with the violent purism of the movement, in which he still counts himself a member. In fact, he said the boogaloo's claim to be nonviolent is "mostly mendacious" and calculated to shape media coverage. At another point he claimed that the boogaloo will use force "only as a last resort in self-defense," but then added, "We are already at a last resort." 

In separate conversations, Sam both dismissed the boogaloo's professed non-aggression agreement (that they will not open fire unless provoked) as "camouflage," and claimed flat-out that the boogaloo can't initiate lethal violence. "If it comes to a confrontation I can see unequivocally the vast majority [of the boog] are willing to kill and die because they do believe that liberty is at stake," he said. "They also know they will become heroes and legends in the movement. But circumstances have to be right. They can't initiate."

Despite his desire to "expose" the failings of the boogaloo, at no time in these conversations did Sam renounce the aspiration to revolutionary violence. "We view the government as an existential threat to liberty and, as free people, we feel we have the right to resist that any way we can, even if it ends in our death," he said. "Their end goal is to burn it all down, kill their enemies and ensure that systems are in place to prevent it from ever rising again."

Peace

Sam admitted that he cannot describe what new systems might replace the "existential threat to liberty" of the current U.S. government.

"We have no idea, but we have noticed that movements that bicker and argue over what comes after tend to fail, while those who focus on an easy-to-understand goal and go after it, no matter the cost, get to argue about what comes after when they've won," he said. "Our immediate problems are survival and dismantling the system. Ideology on what things look like after are a distraction at best. Probably anarchy, in the political sense — or anarcho-capitalism, if you're a jerk."

He added: "Or it could just be rampant warlordism. That's probably the most realistic answer."

Sam pointed to the Revolutionary War as an example, but it's a poor analogy. The American colonists did not revolt with emptiness in mind: There was significant ideological and philosophical combat involved in forging a new nation, but — thanks largely to Thomas Jefferson — they had embraced the principles of a new system before launching that war.

Violence may be inevitable, in Sam's telling, but the war his movement imagines is a distant and almost comically grandiose mirage. The movement, which Sam admits is still small, needs to ignite a sympathetic segment of the population and hope to created enough ideological kindling for that fire to spread. But that project, as Sam explains it, is exceptionally vague, predicated on macroeconomics and unenumerated "loopholes" in the capitalist system.

"Currently the aim is to further damage the economy by using loopholes and the nature of the market to cause as much harm as possible," he explained. "The goal is to create further hardship and mistrust of the wealthy and elected officials. In addition, plans remain in place to work with both the far right and far left in an effort to turn their anger, and hopefully violence, towards law enforcement and politicians and then each other."

In that timeline, the boogaloo are not actors but manipulators. It is not clear when they get to use their own guns — or are forced to use them.

Economic destabilization is "one more thing to exploit and propagate," Sam said, pointing to cracks caused by the pandemic, the excesses of capitalism and the recent blackouts in Texas. "The boogaloo did not start it, but are taking advantage of it and looking at ways to expand it and collapse or damage more firms. If they can do actual economic damage, great, but the real goal is to force companies to limit the free market, adding further hardship and putting pressure on politicians to go after possible campaign donors. It's about making the American people feel like no one is steering the ship and that they should just take matters into their own hands. A troubling notion in a country with 350 million firearms, or more, floating around."

It stretches credulity that a small and ideologically wobbly movement could wield enough economic power to bring down multinational corporations, let alone the larger architecture of capitalism. Perhaps this captures another aspect of the movement: Fear of itself.

This philosophy — in which the boogaloo are accelerants, not actual revolutionaries with a plan — may afford members a subconscious comfort: Once they shed the onus of firing the first shot, barring the off chance that someone else takes up that quixotic cause, the boogaloo don't have to risk following through on their vows, and risk the bloodshed that would follow.

In the second half of this interview, Sam explains why the boogaloo sees right-wing militia groups as "mostly useless" and prefers to ally with antifa and Black Lives Matter activists — and why they particularly hate police.


Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger is a staff writer at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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