Members of Congress just got a stark warning about the potential national security threats posed by the Boogaloo Bois and other insurgent extremist movements.
The consensus among the experts who testified before the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism on Thursday was that more violence from these groups was inevitable, and that Congress needs to act now by providing more oversight.
The Boogaloo movement, in particular, was a hot topic of discussion, and Thursday’s hearing was the first time it’s been discussed publicly by Congress. The loosely organized movement, which has pulled in libertarian anarchists, anti-government extremists, online shitposters, and a few white supremacists, started as a meme on weapons boards on 4chan and Reddit. In recent months, it’s made its way into the real world, and has been linked to several acts or plots of violence. Adherents of the movement, often called Boogaloo Bois, have shown up at protests against lockdowns and police brutality, typically armed to the teeth. Boogaloo is code for civil war.
“Supporters started wearing Hawaiian shirts under their body armor and weapons, and the look went viral,” JJ MacNab, a fellow from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and an expert on militia movements, told the committee Thursday. “Other militants started copying the shirt, patches, and jargon. For most, it was just an in-joke, a tribal aesthetic that separated those who were in the know from those who weren’t.”
Supporters of the Boogaloo movement are generally very anti-law enforcement and have tried to position themselves as allies to Black Lives Matter. But critics have warned that they’re looking to exploit the racial justice protest movement to advance their own agenda, which is civil war.
The hearing, which was convened by New York Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat, shows that Congress isn't entirely asleep at the wheel when it comes to staying on top of new security threats. Rose has previously written to the Department of Homeland Security asking them to produce a threat assessment on the Boogaloo movement.
During the hearing, however, some Republicans continued to beat the drum about the alleged threat posed by antifa. Despite FBI data not supporting the notion that “antifa” poses a significant threat to public safety and that the U.S. does not have a domestic terror law, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to designate antifa as a domestic terror group.
“We also must review others … groups like antifa — and I know these days that seems to be a conservative talking point,” said Rep. Mark Walker, of North Carolina, a ranking Republican on the committee. “Over the past three months, there has been a consistent effort by antifa supporters to infiltrate protests to lay siege to government buildings and target law enforcement.”
One witness, John Donohue, a fellow at Rutgers University Miller Center for Community Protection and Resiliency and a former NYPD chief of strategic initiatives, also underscored what he described as incendiary, violent rhetoric directed at law enforcement from the left.
Donohue said an upcoming research paper from Rutgers looked at the “exponential growth” in “online anti-police messaging” from the far-left. “The anti-government, anti-police messaging has broken into mainstream media and on Facebook and Twitter,” said Donohue. “Memes advocating the murder of law enforcement, and slogans found on the internet used by the far left were found scrawled on buildings and statues across America.”
But MacNab said that the obsession around antifa and the left was leaving law enforcement vulnerable to violence from the right.
“I think police have a bit of a blind spot for right-wing that they don’t have for the left,” she said. “If you look at any video of a street protest, for example in Portland or Seattle, you have a line of police officers separating left-wing protesters and right-wing protesters. If you watch, the police have their back to heavily-armed people standing behind them. They’re facing left-wing with the assumption that left-wing is what’s going to harm them. Whereas the people standing behind them have some pretty rabid anti-police ideas as well.”
Three Boogaloo Bois, for example, were arrested in late May for allegedly plotting an attack on infrastructure and bringing explosives to a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas, which they wanted to throw at police to cause chaos and confusion. All three members had met on a large Facebook group, where members were sharing bomb-making recipes, and then peeled off into a smaller, more local online group, before organizing real-world meetups.
MacNab believes that the Boogaloo movement is too sprawling and incoherent for them to be able to form a “private army.” Her biggest concern is small cells, where supporters operate in groups of about three to five to plot acts of violence. Their size, and the fact that they aren’t necessarily coordinating with a centralized leadership, make them harder for law enforcement to intercept.
It’s clear from recent arrests that some supporters of the Boogaloo movement have already organized themselves in that way.
MacNab also cited a laundry list of factors driving the resurgence of violent anti-government militia movements, including renewed conversations about gun control, the COVID-19 pandemic, mainstreaming of “deep state” and anti-vaccine conspiracies, high unemployment rates, civil unrest, and divisiveness plaguing the upcoming 2020 election.
“I am concerned that there will be a shootout at one or more of the Black Lives Matter protests,” MacNab said. “There are too many guns at these events held by too many groups with conflicting goals.”
Cover: Boogaloo patches on a protester's gear in Richmond, Va., July 2020. Photo by Tess Owen for VICE News