The real terror threat comes not from anti-fascists in black masks, but from actual fascists in Hawaiian shirts.
Donald Trump is right. The anti-racism protests that have convulsed cities across the United States are also being used as cover, to quote the president, for “acts of domestic terror.”
In late May, for example, three Nevada men were “arrested on terrorism-related charges in what authorities say was a conspiracy to spark violence during recent protests in Las Vegas,” reported the Associated Press. Federal prosecutors say the men had molotov cocktails in glass bottles and were headed downtown, according to a copy of the criminal complaint obtained by AP.
“People have a right to peacefully protest,” said Nicholas Trutanich, the U.S. attorney in Nevada. “These men are agitators and instigators. Their point was to hijack the protests into violence.”
But here’s the thing: None of these three men were members of antifa, the left-wing, anti-fascist protest movement that has been blamed both by the president and his attorney-general Bill Barr for recent violence. They were all self-identified members of the so-called boogaloo movement, aka “boogaloo bois” aka “boojahideen” — perhaps the most dangerous group that, until the past week or so, most Americans had never heard of.
The complaint filed in Nevada last month described “boogaloo” as “a term used by extremists to signify coming civil war and/or fall of civilization.” According to Cynthia Miller-Idris, an expert on domestic extremist groups at American University, members of the boogaloo movement “are all united by the idea that they are fighting against government ‘tyranny’ and want to launch a violent insurrection against the government and bring about a second civil war.”
Their weird name comes from — I kid you not! — the much-mocked 1984 movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a sequel to, and near-copy of, the original “Breakin’,” starring Ice T. “Boogaloo boys style the forthcoming war as a repeat of the American civil war,” explained the Economist in May. “The Hawaiian shirts that dot the crowds are a reference to ‘the big luau’, another name for the ‘boogaloo’, which celebrates pig (police) roasts.”
Name and dress sense aside, though, there’s nothing silly or funny about them. The Anti-Defamation League, while documenting how white supremacists have “adopted the boogaloo concept,” also referred to the boogaloo movement’s “casual acceptance of future mass violence” as “disturbing.”
These are heavily armed men, many of them with military training, looking for new and greater opportunities for violent protest.
Remember: These are heavily armed men, many of them with military training, looking for new and greater opportunities for violent protest. Miller-Idris told me that the boogaloo bois have mobilized “over the past six months in three separate waves of protests” — against attempts by state legislatures to reform gun laws; against the coronavirus lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders; and now as part of the demonstrations and marches against police brutality and racism, in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
Worryingly, their movement is growing online at breakneck speed. As Reuters reported last week, citing a study from the Tech Transparency Project, “tens of thousands of people joined boogaloo-related Facebook groups over a 30-day period in March and April as stay-at-home orders took effect across the United States. … Project researchers found discussions about tactical strategies, weapons and creating explosives in some boogaloo Facebook groups.”
In March, Timothy Wilson, a 36-year-old Missouri man with neo-Nazi ties, was shot and killed by the FBI after plotting to bomb a hospital in the Kansas City area on the first day of the lockdown. Wilson had told an undercover FBI agent that he had wanted “to create enough chaos to kick start a revolution” and referred to his planned attack as “operation boogaloo.”
In April, Aaron Swenson, a 36-year-old Arkansas man, was arrested after he threatened to kill a police officer on a Facebook Live video. “I feel like hunting the hunters,” he wrote on Facebook, where he also made “boogaloo” references, according to the police.
The boogaloo bois don’t operate in a vacuum. Their goals, methods, and personnel overlap with a number of far-right, anti-government groups that also pose a significant threat to law, order, and race relations, from the Proud Boys, to the Oath Keepers, to the Three Percenters, to the Sovereign Citizens. Don’t forget the Ku Klux Klan either: The Virginia man arrested for driving his truck into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters over the weekend is head of a local KKK chapter.
Some of us have been trying to sound the alarm for several years now. In 2015, a survey of law enforcement agencies found the vast majority of respondents ranked “the threat of violence from anti-government extremists higher than the threat from radicalized Muslims.” In February, prior to both the coronavirus lockdowns and the George Floyd protests, Trump’s handpicked FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress that the bureau had raised its assessment of the threat posed by racially motivated violent extremists in the U.S. to a “national threat priority,” and revealed how extremists motivated by racial or religious hatred made up a “huge chunk” of the FBI’s domestic terrorism investigations. (Of course as my Intercept colleague Alice Speri has previously reported, a considerable amount of the FBI’s domestic terror investigations focused on individuals and groups it labeled “black separatist extremists,” a phenomenon that does not actually exist.)
Yet Trump, of course, isn’t interested in terrorists of the far-right variety — no matter how many Americans they kill or maim. He refused to apply the label of “domestic terrorism” to the white supremacists who murdered Jews at synagogues in Pennsylvania and California. He refused to apply it to a supporter of his who sent pipe bombs to a number of high-profile Democratic politicians and donors. After a Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested on suspicion of plotting to commit an act of white nationalist terrorism, Trump simply said it was a “shame” and a “very sad thing.” After the massacre of 51 Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand, Trump denied white nationalist terrorists were a growing problem and dismissed them as “a small group of people.”
Trump, of course, isn’t interested in terrorists of the far-right variety — no matter how many Americans they kill or maim.
But antifa, on the other hand? “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” declaimed the president on Twitter on May 31 — despite the glaring lack of evidence connecting antifa elements to any of the recent violence or looting.
You know who has been linked to it? The armed guys in the Hawaiian shirts. And not just the trio with molotov cocktails in Nevada. In South Carolina, a 22-year-old man, who the local sheriff’s department accused of being a supporter of boogaloo, was charged “with inciting a riot and aggravated breach of peace.” In Denver, police seized assault rifles and gas masks from a 20-year-old protester who “identifies with the ‘boogaloo’ movement.” In Georgia, “self-identified” boogaloo supporters “armed with rifles and handguns” were spotted among protesters in downtown Athens. In a memo, the Athens police chief called the boogaloo movement an “extremist organization” that aims in part “to instigate race wars across America.”
Let’s be clear: Far-right extremists are hijacking nationwide protests against racism to push for … a race war! While the boogaloo “might have elements that are closer to libertarians … 90 percent of the boogaloo material is racist,” Mia Bloom, an expert on online extremism at Georgia State University, told me. According to Bloom, therefore, “we can expect a lot more violence in the lead up to the 2020 election.” Miller-Idris of American University agrees. “I think we should be very concerned about the violent potential of these groups,” she told me. “There have always been fringe seditionist and anti-government militia groups but this phenomenon represents a more rapid growth in both online and offline space than we have seen before.”
The president and his attorney general, then, have stumbled on an undeniable truth: There is a domestic terror threat in the United States. We need to recognize it in order to protect against it. But here’s what Trump and Barr won’t say: That terror threat comes not from anti-fascists in black masks, but from actual fascists in Hawaiian shirts.
Update: June 10, 2020
This story has been updated to note that the FBI devoted considerable resources to investigating “black separatist extremists,” a phenomenon that does not actually exist.