The far right wants to make its shared fantasy of violent civil war a reality
The Age of Conspiracy Theories in which we are now immured has produced a kind of bastard offspring: the Shared Violent Fantasy. Exhibit A is the “Boogaloo,” the far-right’s ironic name for the long-sought “second civil war” they believe is on the verge of erupting in the United States—and in which the ongoing novel-coronavirus pandemic has become a virtual petri dish for cultivating the fear of societal collapse essential to their worldview.
Like many conspiracy theories, and all such fantasies, the “Boogaloo” has a powerful tendency to produce real-life violence from people who absorb the underlying paranoid values and believe in them fervently. A recent incident in Texas in which a self-proclaimed “Boogaloo Boi” set out to murder a police officer in order to help spark the civil war underscores the extent to which the believers are likely eventually to attempt manifesting their fantasies—which can entail violence not just against authorities, but sometimes even their unsuspecting neighbors.
Aaron Swenson is a 36-year-old Texarkana man who frequented “Boogaloo”-related Facebook pages with some frequency, sharing their frequently violent memes and indulging the usual violent rhetoric in the comments. Eventually, he reached a point where he decided to act on it.
The world of “Boogaloo” on social media—particularly on Facebook, where over 125 such pages reside—is riddled with references, both direct and obscure, to their eagerness to begin a civil war by shooting law-enforcement who attempt to enforce gun-control measures, or for that matter any other measures that attract the ire of the far right. Recently, these have come to include COVID-19 lockdown and social-distancing measures.
The universe it occupies resides in a bubble of conspiracy theories and “constitutionalist” fantasies, but with a distinctly alt-right edge. Irony abounds everywhere: adherents wear Hawaiian shirts as a reference to “the boog,” or the “Big Igloo” (the “Boogaloo” flag features an igloo and a palm tree). Their memes reference “Pepe the frog,” white-nationalist OK signals, and the common shared belief that nefarious communists are plotting to confiscate their guns and enslave them in concentration camps. This fantasy is the justification for their announced intention to begin shooting their fellow citizens, especially those who work for the federal government or police.
On the night of April 11, Aaron Swenson began livestreaming from his pickup truck, telling his audience that he was out hunting a police officer—anyone would do, he wasn’t particular—to shoot and kill, all in order to start the “Boogaloo.” He told them he was seeking a lone cop to “ambush and execute.”
People began calling the Texarkana Police Department, which promptly found the page and figured out both where Swenson was located and what kind of vehicle he was driving. Upon locating him, he fled a squad of police cars at high speed, eventually grinding to a halt well after his tires were flattened by a spike strip. “He was wearing an armored plate carrier type vest when we arrested him, and officers found several loaded weapons inside his truck,” the police department’s Facebook post reported.
At his own Facebook account, Swenson liked more than a dozen pages that mention boogaloo in their names, as a report from the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) on the “Boogaloo” phenomenon described. It also noted that “some users leaving comments on the profile on the night of the attempted attack endorsed the targeting of police officers, while others suggested calling 911 in response to the live broadcast.” The two videos were active on the Facebook page at the time of the report, having amassed over 1,500 and 3,400 views, respectively; however, they have since been removed by Facebook.
Swenson has been charged with making terrorist threats against an officer, evading with a vehicle and illegal possession of a weapon.
He is not the first such “Boogaloo” enthusiast intent on making the shared fantasy into a violent reality. In January, three would-be terrorists from the neo-Nazi organization The Base were arrested by the FBI, charged with plotting to wreak havoc with their weapons at a planned anti-gun-control march in Richmond, Virginia, around which “Boogaloo” rhetoric was already rife.
A few days later, three more “Boogaloo”-loving members of The Base were arrested in Georgia for plotting to assassinate a local antifascist couple, as well as overthrow the local county government.
At the Richmond rally, the “Boogaloo” was a major theme—flags, signs, and social-media posts from the event all referenced and celebrated it—that continued even afterward during the debate in Virginia over its gun-control laws.
And just as the white-nationalist, conspiracist and “accelerationist” right has sought multiple means to exploit the novel-coronavirus pandemic, the “Boogaloo” theme has become a louder topic of discussion on far-right telegram channels. The lockdown measures instituted by governors around the nation in response to the virus have particularly provided ample evidence for the conspiracists—in their minds, at least—of their long-running contention that “globalists” are seeking ways to enslave the world.
Signs referencing the “Boogaloo” have popped up at a number of the far-right-led protests against the lockdown measures. One marcher at the “ReOpen” rally in Topeka, Kansas, on April 23 carried a large black “Big Igloo” flag.
There has also been a certain amount of somewhat predictable crossover between the “Boogaloo” element and the far-right conspiracists of the Trump-loving QAnon world, some of whom have also been acting out violently during the pandemic—notably the locomotive engineer who attempted to ram the USNS Mercy with a train engine.
According to QAnon expert Travis View, the “Boogaloo” has become the preferred fallback position for people swept up in “The Storm” theories, believing that one day soon there will be mass arrests of leading liberal and media figures for their roles in a global child-trafficking ring, and increasingly disappointed at its failure to materialize.
“If that change doesn’t come, some of the followers have made reference to what they call Plan Z,” View says. “If the whole Q operation fails, then Plan Z is sort of equivalent to what the far-right extremists call the ‘Boogaloo.’ Which is civil war, basically.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the interest in a civil war. The TTP report found that most of the 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo”—some 60%—were created in the very recent past (within three months), just as the states began declaring lockdowns and social-distancing measures. Perhaps more worryingly, “they have attracted tens of thousands of members in the last 30 days.”
In several private boogaloo Facebook groups that TTP was able to access, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers. Some members appeared to take inspiration from President Donald Trump’s recent tweets calling on people to “liberate” states where governors have imposed stay-at-home orders.
Despite these findings, TTP notes, Facebook has been slow to remove these pages. One of the most prominent—Thicc Boog Line, which specializes in selling branded “Boogaloo”-themed gear and clothing—attracts thousands of readers. It has recently been pitching messages to its readers emphasizing the opportunity to wreak “boojahideen” havoc during the time of a pandemic.
These findings resonate with a similar report issued in February by the Network Contagion Research Institute, warning that “domestic militants” are organizing around memes to “incite violent insurrection and terror against government and law enforcement.”
The boogaloo, a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a distributed, viral insurgency for others. The topic network for boogaloo describes a coherent, multi-component and detailed conspiracy to launch an inevitable, violent, sudden, and apocalyptic war across the homeland. The conspiracy, replete with suggestions to stockpile ammunition, may itself set the stage for massive real-world violence and sensitize enthusiasts to mobilize in mass for confrontations or charged political events.
Daniel E. Stevens, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, the umbrella organization under which TTP operates, told Christopher Mathias of HuffPost in a statement that “Facebook’s failure to stop their platform from being used as an organizing tool for extremists is completely unacceptable.”
“There is nothing subtle about how these extremist groups are using Facebook’s platform to advance their cause,” Stevens said. “Boogaloo proponents are not simply discussing ideas or political views; they are directly advocating for violent action and tactically planning how to defeat government entities.”
“Boogaloo” enthusiasts indeed have detailed plans for how to achieve their goals, both militarily and through propaganda, as the TTP report details. However, government and law enforcement are not the only targets that “Boogaloo” memes discuss. A subcurrent in a number of the violent fantasies that they express in their memes is the idea of committing home-invasion robberies targeting their relatively hapless and untrained neighbors as a means of thriving during the civil war—or a pandemic.
Another featured a photo of an angry Joaquin Phoenix in Joker with the script: “When you dispatch the normie with ease to raid their stash because they stocked up on TP and not ammunition”—with a subscript across the bottom reading: “You get what you fucking deserve.”One popular meme among Facebook “Boogaloo” followers was one that showed a SWAT-style armed raid team in military gear massing outside a door, with the script: “Me and my boys going for a grocery run at my asshole neighbor’s house.” Another features a grid of graphics demonstrating military hand signals during a raid, all of which are interpreted in the language of a home invasion: “Shoot that dog.” “Cover up the evidence.” “I found cocaine. It’s pretty good.” “Wrong house. Let’s boogie!”
These ideas are not particularly new among the more openly cynical participants in far-right conspiracism and survivalism. Indeed, they were openly elucidated back in 2014 by a “Patriot” movement survivalist named Tyler Smith, who was featured on an episode of National Geographic’s TV series Doomsday Preppers boasting about his plans to invade the homes of his neighbors—particularly those who might also be preppers, since they would make better targets.One of the more commonly shared of these memes actually makes fun of other “preppers,” particularly those who are suddenly new to the business amid the pandemic. It shows a “Virgin Prepper” who is “always scared, can’t sleep at night,” and “has no fun,” then contrasts him with an obviously fun-loving “Chad Raider” who “Takes your good shit and burns all the rest so no one else can have it,” and is seen holding up a bag marked “All Your Shit.” He’s also “not scared of death or coronavirus.”
“We’re not in it to stockpile,” he proclaimed in a segment that was used to promote the show. “We’re in it to take what you have, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us. We are your worst nightmare, and we are coming.”
He told the show’s producers that he only had a few months’ supplies for his family because he intended to aggressively assault his neighbors and steal their food and weapons caches.
“All your shiny ARs, your high-powered .308 rifles, your 50,000 rounds of ammo, are all going to be ours,” he said on the show.
Smith was arrested by the sheriff of Pierce County, Washington, where he resided at the time, shortly after his appearance on national TV, because he wielded multiple guns on camera in the segment, and he was already a felon (on a sexual-behavior-with-a-minor charge) forbidden from owning weapons. He spent a couple more years in prison for that, but was back on the streets by late 2016.
He was most recently spotted marching in Portland with Patriot Prayer—the far-right street-brawling group led by Joey Gibson of Vancouver, Washington—at one of its 2017 demonstrations. Gibson, as it happens, has been active in the anti-coronavirus-lockdown protests, traveling to Seattle and Olympia for protests.
Those protests, of course, featured plenty of “Patriots” wearing Hawaiian shirts underneath their body armor—a signal for what the “boojahideen” like to call “the Big Luau.” The chief organizer of the “Boogaloo” motif in Olympia was Matt Marshall, the leader of the III Percent of Washington, a “Patriot” militia group based in Eatonville, Washington, and a close ally of both Gibson and state Rep. Matt Shea, the far-right legislator whose plan for a post-breakdown society called for the execution of all non-believers.
These violent fantasies keep mounting in number and vehemence. The question increasingly is what spark will inspire them to attempt to make them manifest.