What the Boogaloo Bois Are Not

Boogaloo meets the police. (Photo by Anthony Crider via Flickr)

Bois? Why are a bunch of hetero gun-toters in Hawaiian shirts branding themselves gender-queer? Surely they know what the spelling signifies.

Or does nothing signify anymore, in this world of clashing memes and criss-crossed identities? The cleanest definition I can find for the Boogaloo Bois is Seth Cohen’s: “a loose group of far-right individuals who are pro-gun, anti-government, and believe that another civil war in America is imminent.” Except that there is one important distinction It looks like the Bois are trying to start that civil war.

The group can be traced to neo-Nazis and broader-brush white supremacists—but has partly morphed to libertarian (imagine the meetings). Boogaloo Bois sometimes show up at anti-racist protests in solidarity with Blacks and in opposition to the police. Or just to incite violence. It is not clear.

Setting aside the “Bois” for a minute, where did “Boogaloo” come from? One obvious reference is to a street dance, born in Oakland and popularized by the dance group The Electric Boogaloos in the mid-’70s, then captured in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo in 1984. The funky, fluid Electric Boogaloo involved creepin’, popping, crazy legs, the slot, neck-o-flex, old man, and other Latinx and Black moves. So why pick that name to push a second race war?

Maybe they never saw the movie.

Or maybe they want to emphasize the reprise of the Civil War, and they know that after Breakin 2, “electric boogaloo” became slang for sequel. Or maybe they reached further back, to James Brown dancing the boogaloo in the ’60s (but again, why?). The city that might have inspired Brown was Bogalusa, Louisiana. But that reference would definitely not be congenial: Bogalusa was where the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of Black military vets bent on protecting CORE members, confronted the Ku Klux Klan, thereby forcing the federal government to intervene on behalf of Blacks.

Some say the visual puns—Big Igloo, Big Luau—came first, but they seem too derivative to me, more likely an attempt to avoid censorship. Igloo logos show up all over the place, and Amazon sells plenty of “big igloo” and “big luau” merch. Did the Bois just want to wear Hawaiian shirts? Which would be yet another contradiction, given their connotation of peaceful island ease …

“Part of the strategy of white supremacists is to disguise themselves behind new names and seemingly innocent symbols,” Dr. Reece Jones, a political geography professor at the University of Hawaii, told InStyle (which had just tripped by recommending aloha shirts for easy living during lockdown).

The Anti-Defamation League points out that when the Breakin’ 2 movie became a meme instead of a hit, people started playing around with “Electric Boogaloo” as a suffix to other phrases, and Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo took hold in a burst of paranoia after Gavin Newsom, then California’s lieutenant governor, told the National Rifle Association, “We ARE coming for your guns.” Over these guys’ dead bodies, so there would have to be another civil war, nicknamed “the boogaloo.”

So is this about gun ownership or white supremacy or suspicion of government or just free-floating testosterone looking for a fight?

Yes.

And the Bois are finding their fights. They showed up to protests of the pandemic lockdown, clad in Hawaiian shirts and carrying guns painted aloha pastel, with palm trees and plumeria flowers. Can this get any more surreal? The camo, khaki, and hard metal aesthetic of modern combat make me shudder, but leis?

I would take it to mean they have a sense of humor, if an Arkansas boogaloo boi had not live-streamed himself on Facebook last April as he drove around Texarkana, Texas, in an armored vest, several loaded weapons in his truck, hunting, he claimed, for a police officer to “ambush and execute.” Two Boogaloo Bois were arrested for instigating a riot during a Black Lives Matter protest in Columbia, South Carolina. Seized: four guns, an aloha shirt, and a hat patched “Boojahideens for Liberty,” further complicating the cultural mishmash. Then, during Minneapolis protests, two heavily armed Boogaloo supporters were arrested and charged with supporting Hamas. (The Hamas member they met on Facebook was actually an FBI agent.)

Two more Bois—one of them an active-duty Air Force sergeant—discussed on Facebook how to use the Black Lives Matter protests for their movement, then drove to the protests in Oakland, California, and opened fire on guards at a federal courthouse, killing one guard and wounding another. When Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputies showed up at the sergeant’s home, he allegedly shot them with the same rifle, killing one, wounding the other, and managing to scrawl “boog” and “I became unreasonable,” a movement catchphrase, in blood on the hood of a car.

The list of recent incidents goes on. Nick R. Martin at The Informant is keeping track, but I find it more comfortable to analyze the linguistics. When the Language Log at the University of Pennsylvania tried to unpack the layers of reference, the post triggered a cascade of responses. “Boi” might not have a queer connotation at all, one commenter notes, pointing out that “fanboi” simply referred to “an obsessive male fan, especially of comic books, science fiction, video games, music, or electronic devices.” Is that the world, once the province of gentle, socially awkward geeks, where all this started? Or is “bois” mockery?

We are living in a time of such cultural confusion that identity itself can be ironic.

Another linguist found a short item in the “New York Beat” column of the Aug. 11, 1966, issue of Jet magazine: “Most hip Gothamites now trying to get rhythmic understanding between arms, legs and sacroiliac in order to get in on the Boogaloo dance craze.” Another tied the word to soul music. Another pointed out that “boogaloo” was used as a derogatory term for African-Americans. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines “boogaloo” as a contemptuous use for a Black person, earliest evidence 1974.

I would like to believe the guy who commented, “The real explanation is probably simpler: the ‘boogaloo bois’ just being a left-wing conspiracy theory. Nobody had ever seen them nor heard of them. So the spelling and all just reflects the culture of the people who have invented this conspiracy theory, the left-wing people.”

But I am fairly sure that “the left-wing people” are not the ones pushing “boogaloadouts” or “boog loadouts,” touting the best guns for the apocalypse. Following that usage leads me to a reddit site with more plausible explanations for the Hawaiian shirts. After someone wrote, “I’m guessing either PUBG or the SAS soldier who participated in the Kenyan hostage rescue wearing civilian clothing under his loadout,” others replied more calmly, explaining that soldiers overseas wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays.

Casual Fridays are about to explode the country?

I scroll down and find a commenter, name deleted, who says, “We used to do it as a joke like 5 years ago. It was, for us, a reference to the fact that CIA guys in movies are always wearing Hawaiian shirts with shoulder holsters.”

Rebellion has fused with pop culture, not with reality. The inevitable result of so much media consumption, so much virtual life? I am on a roll, here—until I read a later comment: “All of your guesses are wrong. The connection is through the term ‘big luau.’ What do we do at luaus? We put pigs in the ground.”

Closing the window with a hard click, I rush back to the linguists. One notes that this is all “somehow tied up with ‘yeet,’ which must be one of the most rapidly mutating slang terms of the last few years.” Sighing, I look up “yeet,” which can either signal excitement or the hurling of an object at high velocity. Guess where it originated? Hip-hop.

First White people steal blues rhythms for their rock ’n’ roll, jazz to seduce their women, and practically every other cool aspect of Black culture to feel cool themselves, and now they are stealing Black people’s words to use against them? Or do the Bois just happen to be White, and their real enemy is the police? That would be an odd sort of bright spot, if at least the racist baggage had been jettisoned from the craziness. But joining the George Floyd protests was just political opportunism, the Southern Poverty Law Center believes, pointing out that the group’s martyrs are invariably white.

All of this feels a little remote, an exercise in googling, panicking, and speculating. The memes are so lighthearted, and Urban Dictionary’s definition feels like the right tone for this nonsense: “A band of freedom loving, beer drinking, meat eating brothers. fighting in the ever so great, yet gruesome battle of the boogaloo to restore balance in ones country. Often spotted in short shorts, Hawaiian button ups with a rifle of ones choosing equipped with standard capacity mags, telescoping stocks, and the ever so frightening ‘fully semi-automatic’ select fire. With everything else those soy boy coffee drinking, unpatriotic, leftists don’t want you to have. These fine men and women are the washed away face of America our founding fathers would be proud of, I give you the well-regulated militia we have come to name the boogaloo bois.”

The sarcasm takes the sting away. And the bursts of lethal violence? Unbalanced individuals who put on the movement’s aloha shirt, surely?

But salmon-pink plumeria blossoms make an excellent decoy. The Tech Transparency Project found a 132-page document posted on private Facebook groups titled “Yeetalonians.” It specifies what weapons should be used for “the boogaloo.” The TTP notes that “on public Facebook pages, supporters of the movement circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat. But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities.”

After mapping the movement’s online presence, The Network Contagion Research Institute concluded, “Memetic warfare is still very much a mystery to both policymakers and officials working within the American law enforcement community. In this ignorance, the worst actors amongst boogaloo groups possess a distinct advantage over government officials and law enforcement: They already realize that they are at war. Public servants cannot afford to remain ignorant of this subject because as sites, followers and activists grow in number, memes can reach a critical threshold and tipping point, beyond which they can suddenly saturate and mainstream across entire cultures.”

We held our own against the Soviet Union as a Cold War superpower, only to have an impoverished Russia influence our president and our elections. What if we make it through our latest civil rights revolution, only to have some dudes in aloha shirts blow us up?

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!