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Who’s afraid of the boogaloo?

Incitements to civil war, no matter how ironic, can be troubling. But state overreactions to perceived extremists tend to be worse

Joseph Miner, a 29-year-old resident of Queens, New York, fits into what you might imagine the ‘alt-right’ to be. A young man who posted photos of himself performing the Hitler salute alongside jokes about being an ‘incel’, he lived with his parents and posted racial abuse online under the handle ‘souljagoy’. (Get it? It’s like Soulja Boy. But he’s not Jewish. Get it?)

According to reports, Miner has been arrested for buying illegal weapons from an undercover agent with the aim of taking part in the ‘boogaloo’.

Boogaloo? What the hell is that? Boogaloo, it turns out, is a euphemism for civil war, used ironically and unironically online. While the term has been in use at least since 2018, it has taken off among Americans who are outraged by government shutdowns — and those who see the shutdowns as an opportunity.

Why boogaloo? Back in 1984 there was a sequel to a breakdancing film Breakin’ called Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The film is largely forgotten but the title spawned a meme. ‘Electric boogaloo’ denotes a lazy sequel, or history repeating itself. So, you can find images of the fat face of Kim Jong-un, bearing the caption ‘Glorious Leader 2: Electric Boogaloo. Civil strife is the ‘boogaloo’ because it is, in some hot minds, the American Revolution or Civil War repeating itself.

At first boogaloo memes were largely posted in response to real or alleged plans to confiscate firearms. As the Anti-Defamation League reported in November 2019, though, the meme caught on among survivalists and accelerationists who predicted the collapse of civil society, and white supremacists fantasizing about racial violence. An effective meme is never exclusive to one group. Appropriation is too tempting.

It was when coronavirus prompted shutdowns across the United States that the meme burst vividly into the public consciousness. Armed demonstrations against shutdowns in North Carolina were reported to have been organized on the ‘Blue Igloo’ Facebook page. (Blue Igloo? Boogaloo? Still don’t get it?) Dozens of similar Facebook groups have sprung up, even a clothing line, named the ‘Thicc Boog Line’ — get it? — which sells shirts, hats and hoodies to the ‘Boojahideen’ — (oh, I give up.)

Internet users who revel in memes love corny wordplay, as you can probably tell. They love to wear Hawaiian shirts. Even the armed demonstrators appeared to be showing off for the cameras as much as anything. They swaggered around with their guns, striking poses as photographers slavered and then trundled home. Believers in the ‘boogaloo’ are also as fractious and incoherent as you would expect. For example, the antigovernment organization the Oath Keepers has a history of conflict with white supremacists. ‘Ethnonationalists are the worst kind of statists,’ says the owner of the ‘Thicc Boog Line’ page in one Facebook post, ‘Get rekt losers.’ ‘All I can hear is don’t take my Facebook money,’ griped a critic in the replies.

Still, bizarre ‘shitposting’ can be fused with real-life violence, such as when Brenton Tarrant went on his anti-Muslim rampage in New Zealand while barking about the YouTuber PewDiePie and livestreaming the event to his morbid peers. While most of the people posting ‘boogaloo’ memes doubtless have no more intention of committing actual violence than the average person, Tarrant, Anders Breivik, Dylann Roof and others have shown how much devastation even one man can cause.

There has been a curious trend, in recent months, of Americans making ostentatious displays of force. Beyond the ‘boogaloo’ phenomenon, the New Black Panthers patrolled the streets of Brunswick, bearing rifles, after the recent killing of the young African American Ahmaud Arbery. You suspect there would have been more attention if armed white supremacists had patrolled the streets of Delaware after the recent shootings of an elderly couple at a veteran’s cemetery. The Panthers have long been barking without much bite, yet their protest this week outside a Chinese restaurant in DC, however, apparently on the grounds that its owners must share responsibility with the Chinese government for the treatment of migrant workers in China, shows a firm commitment to aggravating ethnic tensions.

But any fear or political violence should be tempered by concerns about state overreaction to perceived threats. Duncan Socrates Lemp, an alleged member of the anti-government militia the Three Percenters, was shot by armed police officers early on a Thursday morning in March. Police claim that Lemp confronted the officers. His family claim that he was killed while sleeping. It is still too early for the facts to be clear but the case has disturbing echoes of the 1990s.

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Under President Clinton, excessive state reactions to perceived extremist activity led to tragic loss of life. At Waco, the siege of the Branch Davidian sect led to tear gas being released, fires breaking out and dozens of people, including 25 children, dying. At Ruby Ridge, a failed attempt to turn Randy Weaver into a state informer led to his attempted arrest by the Marshals Service and the FBI and the killings of his wife, his son and the family dog. The authorities had been trying to stamp down on dissident movements such as militias, cults and white nationalists, but as well as ending innocent lives, they ended up inspiring paranoia among the devotees of Alex Jones, Milton William Cooper and others.

Threats of violence, and especially acts of violence, are disturbing and demand attention from the public and the state. The memes might have the air of absurdist comedy now but would seem far less funny if a man in a Hawaiian shirt was marching towards you raising a firearm. Still, it is fair to insist on caution being applied to the arms of the state as well, especially as they are called into action to enforce unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties.

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