Extremists see the pandemic as the prelude to the apocalyptic “boogaloo”
May 17th 2020
IN MORE THAN 30 of America’s 50 state capitals angry crowds have been gathering to protest against stay-at-home orders. Buoyed by tweets from President Donald Trump encouraging them to “liberate” their states, some even compare their elected officials to the Nazis. A few among them toting assault weapons are dressed incongruously in Hawaiian shirts. They might seem almost comical were it not for the fact that, in the fetid corners of the internet, such beachwear is recognised as the uniform of the extreme right.
The extreme right is making good use of the pandemic. A fractious movement by nature, its followers have responded to covid-19 in many ways besides displays of brash shirts and guns. They have carried out Zoom-bombings (ie, interrupting video-conference meetings), encouraged others to infect police officers and Jews and sought to disrupt government activities, including New York City’s 311 line for non-emergency information and National Guard operations.
Some have even come perilously close to committing deadly acts of terrorism. In March a man with ties to neo-Nazi groups was killed in a shootout with FBI officers who were attempting to arrest him for planning to bomb a hospital in Missouri. Though he had been planning the attack for some time and had considered a variety of targets, the outbreak of covid-19 persuaded him to strike a hospital to gain extra publicity.
The spreading of conspiracy theories is central to the extreme right’s activities. Some claim the virus is a hoax. Others blame the Chinese, the Jews or even Bill Gates. Some claim that the federal government is using the virus as a pretext to confiscate weapons and enforce “medical martial law”. Extremists also spread more familiar conspiracy theories, decrying 5G networks and vaccinations, which help introduce the uninitiated to their ideology.
Lockdowns fit this recruitment agenda. Stuck at home with money running short, people might become “more receptive to these movements”, warns Joshua Fisher-Birch, of the Counter-Extremism Project, an NGO. The far right is making use of online platforms such as Facebook, Gab and Telegram to spread its message to this captive audience. They use an ever-changing litany of memes, ranging from George Washington dressed as one of their ranks to Ronald McDonald with a machine gun on his lap. They also have a significant presence in the online gaming world, which helps them attract young recruits.
A closer look at the far right’s beliefs helps explain why extremists have been energised by America’s new reality. Three related ideas—white supremacy, the “boogaloo” and “accelerationism”—are particularly suited to the coronavirus crisis.
The most familiar of these is white supremacy. Its adherents exploit the virus’s geographical origins to drum up racial antipathy towards Chinese people. Anti-semites have been accusing Jews of deliberately spreading plagues ever since the Black Death, and covid-19 gives them a chance to reuse the template. The supremacists thus use fears about “white genocide” to argue for closed borders and eventually a white ethno-state. “Open borders is the virus,” declares one protest sticker placed on road signs.
Some white supremacists are also among those who style themselves as “Boogaloo Boys” or “Boojahdeen”. This refers to a belief in an imminent “boogaloo”: an armed insurrection against the American government, a race war, or both. The term is ultimately (and tortuously) derived from “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”, a film about breakdancing, made in 1984, which was a near-copy of its precursor, “Breakin’”. Boogaloo boys style the forthcoming war as a repeat of the American civil war. The Hawaiian shirts that dot the crowds are a reference to “the big luau”, another name for the “boogaloo”, which celebrates pig (police) roasts. (A luau is a traditional Hawaiian feast.)