Young Aspiring Boogaloo Bois Are Dancing With Guns on TikTok

The "Boogaloo" brand is blowing up on TikTok where the #boogaloo hashtag is full of teens dressing the part and making memes.
June 16, 2020, 3:31pm
boogaloo

The "boogaloo" has come to TikTok. That’s not the name of the latest synchronized dance routine.

It’s code for impending civil war, which is the foundation of a new ideology that’s drawn in hard-line libertarians and anti-government extremists. Adherents of the ideology, often clad in Hawaiian shirts and tactical gear, are sometimes known as “Boogaloo Bois,” and they’ve become menacing fixtures at anti-police protests around the country.

Now the “boogaloo” brand is blowing up on TikTok, where the #Boogaloo hashtag has over 2 million views and is full of teens and 20-somethings dancing with guns and cracking jokes about civil war. It’s a sign that the aesthetics of the Boogaloo movement, despite its violent underpinnings, are creeping into the mainstream.

The boogaloo meme presents a real challenge to social media content moderators, because of the loose ideology: On one end, you have white nationalists and violent “accelerationists” who are plotting large-scale violence with the hope of starting a civil war — even a “race war.” On the other end, you have Libertarian shitposters who think that the boogaloo aesthetic is cool and funny.

READ: Are the Boogaloo Bois a national security threat?

On social media, they’re speaking the same language, using the same hashtags, and sharing the same memes.

The boogaloo movement recently gained national notoriety when armed Boogaloo Bois began showing up to anti-police brutality protests across the country. They’d tried to position themselves as allies to Black Lives Matter due to their shared opposition to law enforcement. But Boogaloo Bois generally reject the fact that police brutality disproportionately impacts communities of color. Their issue with law enforcement is rooted in deadly standoffs between federal agents and armed anti-government extremists, like in Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Some of the Boogaloo Bois who showed up to protests said they were just there to defend black protesters from police. But others were thirsting for a violent encounter with law enforcement — one so big that it could spark a second civil war. For example, three Boogaloo Bois are facing federal charges after they allegedly brought explosives to a protest in Las Vegas and planned to throw them into the crowd of protesters to sow chaos and confusion.

Similarly, an Air Force sergeant who referenced the boogaloo movement on social media has been charged with killing a sheriff’s deputy plus other crimes. During his crime spree, he allegedly wrote “boogaloo” in blood on the hood of a white car. And a New York congressman has asked the Department of Homeland Security to produce a national security threat assessment on the boogaloo ideology.

“They are struggling with their brand,” said Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University who tracks the far-right. “They’ve got these cute shirts and fun slogans, which attracts people into it, including people who are unstable, which creates negative media attention.”

With a few exceptions, like the video above, the boogaloo on TikTok seems to be fairly innocuous, with heavy libertarian themes.

For example, some joke about having to explain to their mom that they’re joining the boogaloo, or why they’re purchasing so much tactical gear.

One young woman with the handle “LibertarianBarb” shows off an array of “boogaloo” outfits: what she’d wear while overthrowing the government, her outfit while “reestablishing the government,” and her “celebration outfit.”

Many of the TikTok videos reference Duncan Lemp, a 21-year-old student with anti-government views who was killed by cops in Maryland during a nighttime no-knock raid in March. Police said they were executing a high-risk search warrant following a tip that Lemp was in illegal possession of firearms. Lemp has since become a martyr among Boogaloo Bois — and his death catalyzed the movement.

The boogaloo community on TikTok also have a bit of a reputation for being showboaters who aren’t actually committed to the “cause,” according to “Legion,” a 22-year-old self-described Boogaloo Boi.

“A lot of the so-called ‘boogaloo’ enthusiasts are just doing it to get views.”

“A lot of the so-called ‘boogaloo’ enthusiasts are just doing it to get views,” said Legion, who recently attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Buffalo, New York, as a Boogaloo Boi. “Whereas pages on Facebook and Twitter tend to be a bit more organized and informative.”

He added that, while “support for the movement is good,” he feels like the TikTok boogalooers are overly focused on violence. “They seem to think aggression is the only option,” said Legion. “It isn’t about hate or about spreading terror; it’s about regaining the freedom guaranteed to us by the Constitution.”

READ: A right-wing militia showed up at a statue protest and a protester got shot

Another challenge that moderators face when it comes to cracking down on boogaloo-related content is that the movement has proved to be quite savvy when it comes to circumventing bans.

In early May, Facebook updated its “Violence and Incitement policy” to ban boogaloo and similar terms when used alongside images or statements glorifying armed violence. Earlier this month, they took a step further by adjusting algorithms so that they wouldn’t recommend boogaloo pages or groups to users. But by then, Boogaloo Bois had already developed an array of homophones and other terms that they use to substitute for the word “boogaloo”, such as #BigLuau, #BlueIgloo or #Boojahideen. Others might reference the “alphabet bois” which is slang for federal agencies like ATF, FBI, and CIA.

This is also the product of efforts to self-moderate.

“They’ve created a language and it’s constantly evolving,” said Squire. “They decided they don’t want to say the word ‘boogaloo’ anymore because they think the NSA or FBI is watching them, so they developed an obscure vocabulary, and are now substituting it with an even more obscure vocabulary.”

Squire said this is a pattern consistent with what she’s seen from other extremist movements in the past. The admins for one popular Boogaloo Discord server even set up a bot that scolds users for using certain words like “boogaloo” or “revolution.”

This evasion strategy has apparently been adopted by the boogaloo community on TikTok. The video-sharing app currently hides search results for the most obvious hashtags, like #Boogaloo or #BoogBois, so users have instead turned to alternative spellings or some of the substitutions mentioned earlier.

"The safety and well-being of our users is a top priority at TikTok,” a spokesperson for the company told VICE News in an email. “As we make clear in our Community Guidelines we do not allow content that promotes hateful ideologies, and we will remove reported content or accounts that violate our guidelines."

TikTok also bans users from publishing videos involving “firearms, firearm accessories, ammunition, or explosive weapons” with the exceptions of a “fictional setting,” a military parade or “used in a safe and controlled environment such as a shooting range.”

It’s clear that some of the people posting boogaloo content on TikTok have tried to adapt to this rule. For example, some include disclaimers in their videos that say they aren’t holding a real gun, or use the hashtag #airsoft to imply that they’re using the replica firearms used in a popular competitive sport.

Cover: A patch reads "Boogaloo" on the bag of an armed protester as people demonstrate at the Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on May 2, 2020. (Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)