Is America headed for a civil war?
According to the followers of one fast-growing online subculture, increasing political polarization and instability will inevitably lead to a domestic armed conflict, which they refer to as Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.
That's a play on the title of a 1984 breakdancing film, from which the movement—known as "the Boogaloo," "Big Igloo" or, sometimes, "Big Luau"—also derived its name.
The Hawaiian shirt-wearing, gun-toting activists known as Boogbois have migrated out of memespace and into the streets, showing up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in many American cities—often in apparent sympathy with the cause.
But these labels don't capture what this dispersed movement is all about.
The Boogaloo movement is Gen Z Second Amendment activism. Its members forgo the patriotic symbolism of traditional militia movements for flowered apparel, bright patches, and colorful memes. Their approach to organizing resembles Hong Kong's decentralized, privacy-conscious, and social media-heavy protest movement.
They are digitally native activists, raised on Instagram and TikTok, who understand that in the world of online feedback loops, actions are often less important than the way they're presented.
Their online rhetoric is infused with paranoia, and its members circulate unfounded theories of rampant, unchecked pedophilia, which they say must be stamped out extrajudicially, if necessary. They claim that societal breakdown is inevitable, but their public stances often makes it seem as if a violent Civil War is something they'd like to see happen. And the movement's organic, leaderless structure leaves it highly susceptible to being co-opted by its worst, most dangerous actors.
The members who spoke to Reason stand against gun control, the drug war, and aggressive policing. They are also convinced that there's rampant pedophilia in American society that must be dealt with, extrajudicially if need be.
Sometimes they've aligned themselves with right-wing militia groups, at other moments, with Black Lives Matter. The one issue that seems to unify them is a conviction that armed resistance to government overreach is entirely justified.
"It's a very powerful movement that has come together and unified against racism, tyranny, pedophilia, and government overreach," says Mike Dunn, a visible face in a mostly faceless movement. "It's one of the biggest unified movements there has been among gun owners and freedom-loving Americans."
On October 8, police arrested Dunn for allegedly trespassing while openly carrying a firearm at a rally for Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate Jo Jorgensen.
Dunn says he left home at age 16 and joined the Marine Corps a year later. When he returned to Virginia, he embarked on a new political project.
"I began building militias and connecting them all together under one under one [heading]," says Dunn. "And then my buddy, who I was connected with through some militia work…was Duncan Lemp."
In March, Montgomery County police shot to death 21-year-old Duncan Lemp after bursting into his Maryland home in the middle of the night with an arrest warrant.
"I believe they blatantly killed him in cold blood. And we're going to have justice," says Dunn. "After he was killed, it really pushed me to become part of the Boogaloo movement."
Lemp's death gave rise to theories that he was targeted for his involvement in militia movements. Police say they were seizing firearms he wasn't allowed to own because of a juvenile conviction. The Montgomery County Police Department has failed to produce the arrest warrant or bodycam footage of the shooting despite requests from Reason's C.J. Ciamerella.
The Lemp faction of the Boogaloo movement often use his name as a social media handle and regularly post about police brutality, though they've migrated to Telegram and other encrypted platforms after Facebook started shutting down their groups. In these anonymous channels, racist and anti-Semitic language becomes more frequently visible.
But while racist groups speak of the Boogaloo as an impending race war, this group portrays it as a sequel to the American Revolution.
Dunn says he was drawn to the movement by its hardline stance against racism, which set it apart from many other armed movements he'd joined.
"I had grown up country, flying the rebel flag, saying some pretty dumb stuff," says Dunn. "And that's something that attracted me to the Boogaloo movement, was how much they hated racism and how much they weren't willing to deal with it. And I began to change my viewpoint."
Boogaloo members have marched alongside Black Lives Matter protesters, although their presence hasn't always been welcomed. And they've clashed with racist groups. The Boogbois once led a chant of "White Supremacy Sucks," disrupting a speech at a pro-gun rally in Richmond.
"We're not white supremacists. We believe in liberty for all," says John, who asked that we identify him only by his first name and who runs a Boogaloo-themed Instagram page called Too_Savage_for_Statists. "And liberty for all means…regardless of race, gender, whether you're trans. It doesn't matter."
In addition to supporting Black Lives Matter, he was in Hong Kong in 2019 helping pro-democracy demonstrators. He says that there are parallels between the two protest movements.
"The biggest similarity that I've seen is…how the Chinese media describes the Hong Kong protesters is the exact same way the conservative media in the U.S. [describes] the BLM movement," says John. "I don't think conservatives in America would like to compare themselves to conservatives in China, but that's really how it is."
Journalist Robert Evans co-authored an investigation of the movement for the website Bellingcat. He says the first time he noticed the Boogbois appearing in-person at events was at the January 2020 gun rights rally in front of the Virginia State Capitol.
"I was worried that we would have seen more violence directly attributed to the movement than we have seen currently. And hopefully, things stay that way," says Evans.
No movement can tightly control its message, especially one as decentralized as the Boogbois, meaning anyone can easily carry out violence and acts of terrorism under their banner.
One man accused of killing a sheriff's deputy and federal agent in California had a boogaloo patch in his car, and he allegedly scrawled boogaloo phrases in blood on the hood of a vehicle. The Department of Justice has charged three men connected to the Boogaloo movement with planning to incite violence with Molotov cocktails at a Las Vegas Black Lives Matter rally. The FBI has even attempted to link Boogaloo members with Hamas in order to charge them under international antiterrorism laws.
And a federal law enforcement official told NBC News that some of the men involved in the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer have ties to the movement.
"I don't want to downplay the danger because you've got…thousands of armed people talking about wanting to contribute to a societal breakdown," says Evans.
And while many of the more outspoken Boogbois may espouse libertarian-sounding political ideals, Evans believes that what most unifies the broader Boogaloo movement is a shared belief in the need to prepare for impending state collapse by amassing weapons.
"It's less than ideology, more of an aesthetic," says Evans. "A worship of weapons and the products that surround warfare…It is a desire among people to enact the things they've seen in movies…It's more than anything, a way for people who have not seen war, but who fetishize aspects of conflict to dress up and carry out fantasies."
Dunn and John both deny that they are actively trying to accelerate domestic warfare but rather want to be prepared to resist a tyrannical government power grab.
"None of us want a war, we just see it as inevitable," says John.
And Dunn says that their posture is purely defensive.
"[Former U.S. Defense Secretary] 'Mad Dog' Mattis said…basically, 'If you want war, if you want to screw with me, please don't. But if you do screw with me, I will kill you all.' And I think that's the mentality of the movement," says Dunn.
But Evans thinks the fixation on collapse and violent conflict can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the presence of more armed civilians on the streets increases the likelihood of an inciting incident.
"As someone who's reported from civil wars, you can't prepare yourself for this…If they had a real physical [sense] of what civil war means and what it would mean in this country, they wouldn't be buying AR-15s and ammunition. They would be dedicating their lives to stopping that from happening every single way that they could," says Evans.
But the Boogbois maintain that the Second Amendment remains relevant in contemporary politics.
"An armed people was meant to be a check [against] the state," says John. "[The framers of the U.S. Constitution] wanted the people to be able to outgun the state if they overstep their bounds."
The Boogbois is only one of several armed groups showing up at protests. There are also the pro-Trump Proud Boys, which drew media scrutiny after Trump's ambiguous statement about them in a presidential debate.
And there are black nationalist gun groups like the Not Fucking Around Coalition and various militia groups like the Oathkeepers and the III%ers.
In the event of the predicted conflict between warring political factions actually happening, it's not clear with which side Boogbois like John and Dunn would align. Neither support Donald Trump or Joe Biden, instead preferring Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, and, in the field, Boogbois have often walked a fine line, attempting to position themselves as an armed buffer between police and demonstrators, peacekeepers between leftist and rightist groups, as well as protectors of private property.
While it's difficult to estimate the exact size of the movement, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has documented a Boogaloo presence at protests in at least a dozen states this year. Dunn says the Boogaloo movement is already a sizable force and only poised to grow.
"It's probably the largest actively armed movement in the United States to date," says Dunn, based on online metrics. "A Facebook group had a hundred thousand people in it…before everything started getting taken down. Now we have groups everywhere… every state."
"It is certainly the largest movement I have seen in my lifetime, in the United States, that is focused around armed citizens taking political action [focused on] those arms," says Evans.
And to fully understand the group's potential reach, Evans says it's important to recognize that apocalyptic narratives are deeply ingrained in the American psyche and not lose sight of the fact that, as principled as some of its members may sound, the Boogaloo meme at the center of the movement is still one of impending war.
"There's a direct line between the zombie apocalypse memes that were such a rage in the aughts and the Boogaloo," says Evan. "That's where a lot of the people who are into this started buying guns… What the Boogaloo has done is taken that impulse… and attached to it something much more realistic because we're not going to deal with zombies ever. We might have a civil war."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller.
Photos: Zach D Roberts/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jana Birchum/Polaris/Newscom; REBECCA COOK/REUTERS/Newscom; BRYAN WOOLSTON/REUTERS/Newscom; JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Newscom; John C. Clark/ZUMA Press/Newscom; JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Newscom; JULIA RENDLEMAN/REUTERS/Newscom; NURI VALLBONA/REUTERS/Newscom; Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA/Newscom; Stephanie Keith/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Joel Angel Juarez/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Adam J. Dewey/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Zach D Roberts/ZUMA Press/Newscom; John C. Clark/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/Newscom; JULIA RENDLEMAN/REUTERS/Newscom; JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS/Newscom; John Rudoff/Sipa USA/Newscom; Chad Martin / SOPA Images/Sipa U/Newscom; Ford Fischer
Music: "Leaving Earth," Bits and Pieces," "Killing Time," "Imitate," "Fall," and "Apparition" by Stanley Gurvich licensed through Artlist.