What happens when a meme becomes a terrorist movement?
On May 29, two federal security officers guarding a courthouse in Oakland, California, were ambushed by machine-gun fire as elsewhere in the city demonstrators marched peacefully to protest the killing of George Floyd. One of the guards, David Patrick Underwood, died as a result of the attack, and the other was wounded. For days, conservative news broadcasters pinned the blame on “antifa,” the loosely affiliated group of anti-fascist anarchists known to attack property and far-right demonstrators at protests. But the alleged culprit, apprehended a week later, turned out to be a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant named Steven Carrillo, the head of a squadron called the Phoenix Ravens, which guards military installations from terrorist attacks.
According to prosecutors, Carrillo and an accomplice, 30-year-old Robert A. Justus Jr., were part of the “boogaloo” movement, a patchwork of right-leaning anti-government libertarians, Second Amendment advocates, and gun enthusiasts all preparing for another American civil war.
Authorities say that when they went to apprehend Carrillo at his residence, he attacked them with pipe bombs, killing a police sergeant named Damon Gutzwiller. Investigators found a boogaloo-themed patch in a vehicle used by Carrillo. And Carrillo had scrawled boog, along with various boogaloo slogans, in his own blood on the hood of a car.
The boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan over the past several years. By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In the past six months, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests in what became their signature uniform: aloha shirts and combat gear. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer, many boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize the group’s central fantasy—armed revolt against the U.S. government.
In Colorado earlier in May, then in Nevada in June, police arrested several other heavily armed self-identified boogaloo members, who the authorities claimed were on their way to demonstrations to incite violence. Disturbingly, the boogaloo movement is at least the third example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical political movement, the first being the leftist-libertarian hacktivist collective Anonymous, which emerged in 2008; the second was the far-right fascist group of angry young men called the alt-right, which formed in 2015. (The conspiracy theory QAnon might be considered a fourth, but it is more than a political movement.)
At first glance, armed right-wing militants dressed in floral shirts may seem like another baffling grotesquerie in the parade of calamities that is 2020. However, their arrival can be explained by tracing their online origins. Similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, they are the product of an unhappy generation of men who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes.
Since its founding in 2003, 4chan has attracted a unique population of deeply cynical men, once all young, but now aged from their 40s down to their teens, who generally use the board to express their angst through dark humor. People who are unhappy with the circumstances of their life tend to retreat there. The unhappier they are, the longer they stay and the more they post.
The site was originally conceived as a blank slate, where anyone could scrawl what they pleased. Gen Xers and Millennials started out wanting to talk about escapist fantasies such as anime and video games, but after two decades of economic crises and political deadlock, the discussion eventually evolved into cartoon-inflected talk of political mobilization.
The birthplace of the boogaloo movement, 4chan’s /k/ section, is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons. But in practice, it is a space where weapons discussions combine with 4chan’s politicized male anger. The name “boogaloo boys” is a reference to the critically maligned 1984 sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo—around 2012, users on /k/ began referring to the possibility of “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time and grew more elaborate. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status.
This meant that the oft-repeated phrase Electric Boogaloo became corrupted into the similar-sounding Big Igloo and Big Luau. Soon users were creating images in which revolutionaries appeared beside houses made of ice and at Hawaii-themed parties.
The co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos was inherently cynical and meaningless. There was no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word boogaloo to igloo and luau. But this co-option fit the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government, libertarian views by draping them in colorful jokes and nonsense that could be remixed and reinterpreted endlessly.
The message board /k/’s culture overlapped heavily with 4chan’s virulently racist politics discussion board /pol/. However, by 2017, the movement that had developed there—the alt-right—had largely imploded, after the disastrous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While overt fascism fell out of vogue for many, the core demographic of disenchanted men remained, their circumstances and unhappiness largely unchanged. Indeed, the unique mixture of right-wing male discontent appealed to many who never frequented 4chan. By 2018, as talk of fascism declined on /pol/, the more libertarian and less overtly racist culture of 4chan’s /k/ and the boogaloo movement began to fill the empty niche.
Read: It’s not easy being meme
The memes about a new civil war spread from /k/ to various groups on Facebook and Reddit, all with names that evoked the terms boogaloo, igloo, or luau. Enthusiasts also congregated in group chats using services such as Discord. The politics of the boogaloo boys are deeply contradictory and varied but can be roughly summed up by a few agreed-upon ideas. They are libertarian, in favor of gun rights, and opposed to government police forces. Many users say they are active-duty service members or military veterans.
The boogaloo groups disagree when it comes to racism. Some members are white supremacists. Others compare the movement to the left’s campaign against police brutality. Many boogaloo memes are focused on police overreach, equating the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and FBI sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the ’90s with the recent high-profile police killings of Black Americans.
As with the alt-right, many boogaloo posts are about men in crisis, humiliated or debased. Intermingled with memes about revolution are nostalgic images and video clips, glitched out to look like old VHS tapes, of what they imagine was the ideal existence: being the patriarch of a middle-class American nuclear family sometime between the 1950s and the 1990s.
As alt-right protests waned, boogaloo boys began to appear on the streets. Armed men in aloha shirts and boogaloo patches made their first widely noticed appearance at a heavily attended pro–Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Virginia, in January. And they came out again for the anti-lockdown protests in March. Later, many attended protests over the killing of George Floyd, some in solidarity, others to oppose the left.
The catalyst was similar to what mobilized so many young people on the left: the notion that the government enriched a privileged few at the expense of the people. In this, the boogaloo boys shared the anti-corporatist left’s belief that the government had betrayed public trust by maintaining a growing police force to perpetuate an unjust status quo. President Donald Trump’s inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic and his promise to march the military into American cities to quell unrest only strengthened these convictions.
The recent killings in the name of the boogaloo appear to blend two once-distinct domestic-terrorist movements, one new, one old.
Last summer, murderers who identified as fascist “incels” (involuntary celibates) attacked synagogues and mosques, and, in one case, a Walmart. Like the boogaloos, their stated goal was to spark a larger conflict. And in addition to posting hateful manifestos on the 4chan copycat site, 8chan, some coated their semiautomatic weapons and gear in images from memes from the chans.*
But Carrillo’s crimes in Oakland are also closely related to Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995. McVeigh was a military veteran whose experience in the Gulf War left him radicalized and resentful of the government as a source of injustice. His hatred killed more innocents than the ATF and FBI did at Ruby Ridge or Waco, his bloody-shirt causes that have since become the boogaloos’.
Having spent the past several years speaking with radicals on 4chan for a book I wrote on its political history, I’m not surprised by the odd mixture of ideologies that the boogaloo movement encompasses. One of my first sources was a chan-going Black man in his 30s, an accelerationist Communist who was friends with a variety of radicals, including many in the alt-right. What these men shared was years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society.
As decades of rising inequality produced successive generations who felt they were consigned to the fringes, 4chan became an outlet to express rolling waves of escapist memes and radical anger. Among the left, this uptick in radicals and the corresponding increase in funding for law-enforcement agencies have generated further support for protests aimed at defunding the police and diverting the funds to social programs. Among libertarians, they have produced phenomena such as the boogaloo boys.
Boogaloo boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of marginalized groups in the United States, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Also like the alt-right, they now face a wave of de-platforming. In the past few months, both Reddit and Facebook have purged major boogaloo groups, though not all of them, from their sites.
But 4chan occupies a unique place on the social web, distinct from more mainstream sites. If 4chan’s history is any indication, it’s extremely likely that some portion of these social-media users and posters on /k/ are federal agents. Having interviewed many young men who ran chan-style sites, I know that state security agencies knock on their doors early and often and ask for comprehensive records. On 8chan, many posts were automatically logged for federal agencies issuing subpoenas in a data-collection system nicknamed “Sunshine.” (8chan was taken offline last summer and replaced by a site called 8kun.) When chan radicals are caught and prosecuted, court documents often reveal police “honeypots,” meant to tempt extremists into unwittingly plotting crimes with undercover agents.
Indeed, before most people, including myself, got wind of the boogaloo movement, Rutgers University had generated a “contagion and ideology report” for law-enforcement agencies in February that detailed the group’s online network. Its conclusion: The boogaloo boys are terrorists. Its recommendations: more law enforcement, more surveillance.