Talking to the boogaloo, part 2: Exclusive conversations with a would-be revolutionary

Salon's boogaloo informant talks up BLM alliance, disavows Gretchen Whitmer plot. But he still wants destruction

By Roger Sollenberger
February 28, 2021 5:16PM (UTC)
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A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on October 17, 2020. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the second of two parts. Read the first part here.

Salon's informant within the boogaloo movement, whom we're calling Sam for this article, frequently wanted to talk tactics, and often flexed military lingo in conversations. He felt his tactical revelations would be of particular value to the public, presumably to prevent or combat cells he believed were pursuing illegitimate methods. But we implore readers not to take Sam's statements at face value. They serve here as a frame for a larger critique of the movement.

As for the tactical discussion, for a broader and more critical audience these observations and Sam's prioritization of them illustrate the fixation on tactical details so prevalent among militia groups, where they serve as filler — papery ideology, window dressing, substitutes for the substance which so many white identity groups lack. (While the boogaloo profess an inclusive and agnostic stance on race, it is telling that the adherents are, almost to a person, white.)

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"If the boog is intent on violence they aren't stupid enough to wear Hawaiian shirts or even body armor," Sam said. "A rifle and a van are sufficient, as demonstrated by Carrillo. [That would be Steven Carrillo, who is accused of killing a federal officer and a sheriff's deputy in California last year. More on him later.] When engaged in illegal activity the movement wants to stay grey. Concealed pistols. Short barreled rifles. Blend into the population."

The guns strapped across boogaloo chests at demonstrations, or "actions," in Sam's parlance, are a mix of threat and theater, he said: "They will claim they are carrying those rifles for media attention, and they are, but every one of those rifles and handguns are loaded and those boys are carrying extra magazines."

This is not entirely true, as evidenced in the first moments of this video of a boogaloo rally in Atlanta, where one adherent expresses apparent surprise that another was carrying a weapon loaded with a single bullet.

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Sam scoffed at the amateurism of many boogaloo cells, and boasted about the discipline of his small group of 12 — and himself.

"Smaller numbers mean less infighting and higher quality," he said. "Some take whoever with minimal vetting. We vet people very carefully using commercial databases and current member vouching. If one member objects they are rejected. We look for people with specific skills. Communications, cybersecurity, weapons handling and medical are usually the top priorities."

He described his cell's principal recruitment targets, through an exploitative and manipulative lens: "Disaffected zoomers through memes. Veterans and [active-duty military] through rhetoric about liberty and tyranny. Videos and pictures of previous operations that were nonviolent."

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"Violent radicalization takes time," he said.

In 2009, DHS and the FBI released a study that showed that right-wing extremism had surged after the election of Barack Obama, an event that radicalized white supremacists and offered an opportunity for groups to reach out with new propaganda campaigns. The report specifically listed "disgruntled military veterans" as key targets: "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."

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The boog's distant dream of starting an actual war appears to rely almost in its entirety on the possibility of triggering violence among other groups, not taking matters into its own hands, and can also be seen as a sort of theater. Sam said he thinks leftist radical groups are more easily exploited in this way: "In terms of willingness to act, antifa and BLM are tied. Any excuse to hit the streets. Right-wing militia is mostly useless unless directly threatened."

His cell has a hard limit of 12 members, he said: "We've concluded that eight is golden and there's always a few that can't make it. Eight gives us a squad broken into two fire teams. Adaptable and easily dispersed." They communicate mostly via encrypted messaging apps, but conduct their most sensitive conversations in person.

"Everyone here understands marksmanship, small unit tactics, trauma care, police responses to crowds and crowd violence and COIN [counterintelligence] tactics," Sam said, again using holding himself up as a standout example. "We're a bit more selective in who we recruit. Other movement factions and groups have differing levels of training. For instance the people [at a recent anti-ICE rally] in Atlanta were an absolute joke. A cursory glance at gear, age and fitness was enough to determine that. Beyond speeches and sign waving they had no discernible objective."

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He added: "If waving signs and talking solved problems, [Breonna] Taylor and [George] Floyd would have gotten justice."

Police

Like many far-right extremist groups, the boogaloo harbor a virulent antipathy toward law enforcement.

Sam points out that the government already grants the right of force to that armed group: "Breonna Taylor. Floyd. Duncan Lemp. Garrett [Foster]," he said, referencing two unarmed Black people whose police shooting deaths sparked nationwide unrest last year, equating them falsely with two white members of his own movement. "Dozens and hundreds more murdered by an institution that can claim 'they were scared' and execute someone. How are they different from a death squad?"

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It may come as a surprise given the widespread support police enjoy from white conservatives, but fringe-right militia groups generally despise police as part of an intrusive government, and have frequently been willing to kill them. 

From 2001 to 2016, white supremacists killed 34 police officers, compared to 10 killed by left-wing extremists — half of those 10 killed within minutes of each other by a Black military veteran in Dallas in 2016. But before Dallas (and the Baton Rouge shooting after that) white non-Hispanic men, who are slightly more than 30% of the U.S. population, were responsible for 70% of police killings that year. 

The police, Sam noted, are less restrained in use of force than the military in most active war zones, where the terms of combat are at least officially regulated by the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement, though those are sometimes broken. "And yet some 22-year-old with three or six months training is entrusted with the power of life and death domestically," he said.

(Sam never answered questions about whether the boogaloo counted active law enforcement in its ranks.)

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One of Sam's more critical comments about the boogaloo referred to the movement's "martyrdom complex." Last year they found two martyrs, mentioned above: Garrett Foster and Duncan Lemp.

"Everyone wants to be the next Duncan Lemp," Sam said.

Lemp, a white 21-year-old right-wing activist who affiliated himself with the Three Percenters and boogaloo, was shot dead in his suburban Maryland home during a "no-knock raid" on March 12, 2020, during which, according to police, he had "confronted" an officer. One day later, police in Louisville shot and killed unarmed 26-year-old medical technician Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, who had been asleep in her apartment and died in the hallway.

While the boogaloo professes its support for Black Lives Matter, their celebrated martyrs are generally white. Though Lemp and Taylor were killed one day apart under comparable circumstances, the white man inspired them, not the Black woman. Indeed, if the boogaloo were to achieve their improbable goal of destroying the government, they would also destroy institutional support systems that sustain many people in the marginalized communities they profess to support.

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This reveals a stark ideological break between the boogaloo and leftists of almost any orientation, and it's a big reason why many experts categorize the boogaloo as a far-right movement, whatever their ideological nuances: The boogaloo believe that the entire government apparatus is coercive and oppressive by nature; it cannot be redeemed or reformed, or trusted to deliver justice or help the vulnerable. But they have no plan for what comes next, suggesting the entire ideology is fugazi — fake.

Jared Holt of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab told Salon that the vast share of the boogaloo's left-positive messaging rings hollow. "In some recent public appearances, some organizers and followers of the boogaloo movement have sought to soften their image or build bridges with social justice groups. I believe that very few of those efforts are genuine," he said. "Even though we need to take the boogaloo movement seriously, we shouldn't take them literally."

A number of boogaloo adherents tried to exploit the unrest surrounding the George Floyd protests as accelerating events. One member was arrested for firing a gun amid the first protests in Minneapolis, and three more were arrested on terrorism charges for planning attacks on Las Vegas police. Boogaloo member Steven Carrillo (mentioned by Sam above) allegedly murdered a federal security guard during the protests in Oakland, California, last May, and a few weeks later ambushed two sheriff's deputies, killing one of them, in Santa Cruz County on the central California coast. He now faces first-degree murder charges.

Sam called Carrillo "a monster" who had shot "innocent people just doing their job," but his specific critique was tactical, not ethical.

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"Carrillo is hated because he was proactive," Sam said, in typically indirect style. "If he had refused to disarm or disperse at a protest and a weapon was pointed at him and he subsequently was killed, he'd be a role model."

Duncan Lemp, Sam said, is the genuine example of a boogaloo martyr, allegedly killed by cops over "a low-level weapons charge. ... Now he is a rallying cry because he 'refused to comply.'"

Asked whether the boogaloo had ever reached out to the Not Fucking Around Coalition, a heavily-armed paramilitary Black nationalist organization, Sam said they had: "They told us to go away, but with more expletives."

History

An unrestrained police force also offers the boogaloo an opportunity to accelerate its longed-for revolutionary conflict, Sam said: "Right now it's about provoking BLM, antifa and militias or Three Percenters into engaging in violence that will provoke disproportionate police response, which can be used to fuel further unrest."

"Accelerationism," as this strategic approach is often described, has its roots in Marxist revolutionary theory, but has in recent decades been adopted by white supremacist and other far-right groups in the United States as a tactic to raise the temperature and foment unrest and violence.

Many members of these groups reference the notorious novel "The Turner Diaries," by William Pierce — a key inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, the 1994 Oklahoma City bomber — which seeks to illustrate the idea with an archetypal "responsible conservative." Such a person, Pierce writes, doesn't grasp that one of political terrorism's key purposes is "to force the authorities to take reprisals and to become more repressive, thus alienating a portion of the population and generating sympathy for the terrorists. And the other purpose is to create unrest by destroying the population's sense of security and their belief in the invincibility of the government." 

Accelerationists, like the boogaloo, believe that American society is beyond repair, and the only way forward requires a full-on collapse. They therefore embrace any crisis — Sam pointed to the COVID pandemic, but examples abound — and cheer all forms of political violence as steps along that path. For traditional Marxist revolutionaries, there is at least a clear goal in mind: First a socialist state or "dictatorship of the proletariat," and ultimately a utopian, stateless communist society. White supremacists want an apartheid state or an all-white civilization. 

What do the boogaloo want? No one really knows, including themselves. They appear to absolve themselves of both the responsibility for starting the coming war and the more difficult project of creating a better world.

"The longer version is that we believe violence is inevitable, that government will continue to expand and that current enforcement of existing laws is an existential threat," Sam explained. "We believe that Dennis v. United States is null due to foreign election influencing. Most do not believe any election was stolen, but we do believe the state can no longer guarantee that an election was free and fair, thus nullifying that SCOTUS decision." (At least one boogaloo adherent has been arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.)

Let's unpack that a little. Dennis v. United States, the 1951 Supreme Court ruling that Sam feels was nullified by foreign interference in the 2016 election, made it illegal to conspire to teach and encourage the overthrow of the federal government. Eugene Dennis, the named plaintiff, was general secretary of the Communist Party USA. He had been found guilty, along with 10 other party leaders, of advocating violent rebellion against the government. They appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Smith Act, which made anti-government organizing illegal, violated First Amendment rights. The appeal failed.

Sam's understanding of the legal history here is incomplete at best. The Dennis decision is already "null," by any reasonable standard. The Supreme Court partly reversed itself in a 1957 decision that rendered the conspiracy provisions of the Smith Act unenforceable, and de facto overruled Dennis with the Brandenburg v. Ohio decision of 1969, which held that "mere advocacy" of violent revolution was protected speech.

Stories

When it comes to reporting on the boogaloo movement, as Vanderbilt professor Amy Cooter put it, "caution is the best approach." (Salon has been careful to remind readers of this rule in this series, and will take this opportunity to do so again.)

"Normalizing everyone who describes themselves under the boog umbrella risks missing the variety of motives that can be involved and thus risks missing potential violence and other extremism, even if those people truly are outliers in a given area or organization," she said.

Author and journalist Talia Lavin offered similar advice. "As with any fascist group, any statement coming directly from them should be treated with extreme caution; their goal is to sow fear and they lie shamelessly," she said. "Journalists should take this into account and never assume good faith from violent far-right movements."

Sam concurs, at least to a point. "The Boogaloo is tiny compared to, say, [Black Lives Matter], but they are skilled manipulators and understand that since no one really knows what they are about they can pick whatever side they want. The left likes them because white men with rifles deter overreactions by police. The right tolerates them because they are white men with rifles talking about liberty."

Ford Fischer, founder of News2Share and a regular media presence at right-wing rallies, told Salon he has observed those contradictions on the scene, describing boogaloo physically switching from far-right to far-left sides during protests, and even physically challenging Proud Boys in order to ostensibly protect members of the radical left.

"Covering the boogaloos for the past year and a half has been fascinating because of the contrast between their politics and the rest of street politics in the past year," Fischer told Salon, though "fascinating" appears to gloss over the normalcy of guns at rallies, as well as fails to capture the seriousness with which the boogaloo's professed commitment to imminent and brutal violence should be taken. "While 2020 was defined by domestic unrest spanning from social justice to COVID restrictions to the end of Trump's presidency, the boogaloos have been a feature at many of those situations that don't fit squarely into a side.

"Their alliances with left and right are pretty situational," he continued, echoing experts and Sam himself, who share the observation that these affiliations are often disingenuous. "It's been really interesting to film them in various settings and states and see the way it can vary. In general, they tend to be consistent in their anti-government and pro-gun beliefs, but it's been challenging explaining their role to audiences used to assigning 'left' or 'right' labels. 

"Ironically, I most commonly see people from the left accuse them of being fascists, and people from the right accuse them of being armed leftists. The groups who do ally with them tend to take their concept of being outside of the left-right spectrum much more at face value," he said.

Most reporting on the boogaloo seems focused on their attire and their semi-apocalyptic vision. Journalists rarely, if ever. address the ideology's conspicuous, yawning void: There is no plan for what comes next. That vacuum can be read as nihilistic, but in a certain sense it can be read as more reassuring than that. For a group so obsessed with the minutiae of its tilt toward war, the boogaloo appears to have given little thought to what it wants after that war is over. As things stand, that imagined future seems to be groups of guys standing around jawing about their guns. An endless demonstration, with nothing to protest.

The near term

Over the last year, law enforcement began to crack down on the boogaloo.

In early May, the FBI arrested a Colorado member who had planned to attend an anti-lockdown event in Denver, charging him with possessing four pipe bombs. Two other adherents were booked in Texas, one after he live-streamed his intent to murder a police officer. Another was picked up in Ohio for plotting a law enforcement ambush in a national park. Two self-professed members were arrested last month, one for planning a Jan. 6 riot in Louisville, Kentucky, parallel to the insurrection at the Capitol. Last fall, after two boogaloo members were charged in the plot to kidnap (and perhaps murder) Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the police locked up another 16 boogaloo followers in seven days.

"I think that kidnapping a sitting elected official is moronic," Sam said of the Whitmer plot, though again offered only a tactical, not moral critique. "It was bad optics and painted our movement as a bunch of lunatics. It detracts from the message of liberty."

About a dozen members showed up on Jan. 17 for an armed protest outside the Michigan state capitol.

Now in his 30s, Sam speaks of the future with anticipation.

"Time is sort of the essence. As soon as it thaws things will begin to happen," he said. "The next POC to be murdered by police. Unrest over any and all gun control. The destruction of working-class lives due to COVID-19, etc., etc. Spring, summer and fall, as in ancient history, are the seasons for war."

While he derides lone-wolf boogaloo attackers like Steven Carrillo for overstepping the rules of engagement, he understands the movement's vulnerability to exploitation by violent right-wing radicals or outright lunatics. While his own cell may set a high bar for recruits, as he tells it, the boogaloo ideology itself demands no nationwide standards, and groups can more or less recruit anyone they please.

Jared Holt observed that given the obsession with near-apocalyptic violence, open recruitment has obvious dangers. "My impression is that the potential for an organized act of violence is less likely to come from the boogaloo movement than the potential for an individual or small cell of individuals conducting violence," he said. "That's also what the arrest records associated with the movement so far have pointed toward.

"A lot of people who get tied up with the boogaloo movement probably think they're just having fun posting edgy memes online. But because the severity of the threat present in the broader movement is so extreme, we must take it seriously."

Asked about the likelihood of another Steven Carrillo-type incident, or many such, Sam said, "The short answer is: No one knows. Any member who has bought a [boogaloo] patch online could engage in massive amounts of violence and we wouldn't know about it until we read about it."

In a world where Sam led or represented the boogaloo, perhaps the movement's ideology would not obsess singularly on violence. But that itself should not be taken at face value, either. "Biden has thankfully had a cooling effect, and as COVID recedes things will calm," Sam said. "But the boog is reorganizing and looking at alternate means," he continued, adding vaguely: "Infrastructure."

Sam is not the only boogaloo, nor its leader. Thousands of people are subject to the movement's strange internal gravity, including him. In one of his final conversations with Salon, Sam said cryptically that if these articles do well, he would have a major "Pulitzer" story to share in "14 months." Salon asked repeatedly about that timeframe — presumably around April 2022 — but he never answered. He also would not say why he believed such a story would be so highly honored.

Asked one last time about the likelihood that the boogaloo can succeed at effectively destroying all of existing American society, Sam pointed once more to the Revolutionary War.

"I am sure [King] George [III] saw the upstart colonists as a bunch of terrorists and yet they gained a nation," he said. "It's not a one-to-one, but you're only a 'terrorist' until you win."

They haven't won.


Roger Sollenberger

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

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