SILVER SPRING, Md. — They carry high-powered rifles and wear tactical gear, but their Hawaiian shirts and leis are what stand out in the crowds that have formed at state capital buildings to protest COVID-19 lockdown orders. The signature look for the "boogaloo" anti-government movement is designed to get attention.
The group, which uses an '80s movie sequel as a code word for a second civil war, is among the extremists using the armed protests against stay-at-home orders as a platform. Like other movements that once largely inhabited corners of the internet, it has seized on the social unrest and economic calamity caused by the pandemic to publicize its violent messages.
In April, armed demonstrators passed out "Liberty or Boogaloo" fliers at a statehouse protest in Concord, New Hampshire. A leader of the Three Percenters militia movement who organized a rally in Olympia, Washington, last month encouraged rally participants to wear Hawaiian shirts, according to the Anti-Defamation League. On Saturday, a demonstration in Raleigh, North Carolina, promoted by a Facebook group called "Blue Igloo" — a derivation of the term — led to a police investigation of a confrontation between an armed protester and a couple pushing a stroller.
Another anti-lockdown rally is planned for Thursday at the state Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, site of an angry protest last month that included armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has been the target of violent threats on Facebook forums, including a private one called "The Rhett E. Boogie Group."
One user said Whitmer should be "guillotined" after another suggested another governor should be hanged from a noose, according to a screenshot captured by the Tech Transparency Project research initiative.
The coronavirus pandemic has become a catalyst for the "boogaloo" movement because the stay-at-home orders have "put a stressor on a lot of very unhappy people," said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
MacNab said their rhetoric goes beyond discussions about fighting virus restrictions — which many protesters brand as "tyranny" — to talking about killing FBI agents or police officers "to get the war going."
"They are far more graphic and far more specific in their threats than I've seen in a long time," she said.
The violent rhetoric is dramatic escalation for a online phenomenon with its roots in meme culture and steeped in dark humor. Its name comes from the panned 1984 movie "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," which has become slang for any bad sequel. Another derivation of "boogaloo" is "big luau" — hence the Hawaiian garb.
Far-right gun activists and militia groups first embraced the term before white supremacist groups adopted it last year. And while some "boogaloo" followers maintain they aren't genuinely advocating for violence, law-enforcement officials say they have foiled bombing and shooting plots by people who have connections to the movement or at least used its terminology.
A 36-year-old Arkansas man whose Facebook page included "boogaloo" references was arrested on April 11 by police in Texarkana, Texas, on a charge he threatened to ambush and kill a police officer on a Facebook Live video.
"I feel like hunting the hunters," Aaron Swenson wrote on Facebook under an alias, police say.
An April 22 report by the Tech Transparency Project, which tracks technology companies, found 125 Facebook "boogaloo"-related groups that had attracted tens of thousands of members in the previous 30 days. The project pointed to coronavirus crisis as a driving factor.
"Some boogaloo supporters see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they're aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause," the project's report says.
Facebook has since updated its policies to prohibit use of "boogaloo" and related terms "when accompanied by statements and images depicting armed violence," the company said in a statement.
In March, a Missouri man with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Timothy Wilson, 36, was planning to bomb a hospital in the Kansas City area on the day that a COVID-19 stay-at-home order was scheduled to take effect, authorities said. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was "to kick start a revolution" and referred to his plans as "operation boogaloo," according to an agent's affidavit.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an alert that said a white supremacist group was inciting followers to shoot through their doors at FBI agents and police officers, federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing. The warning related to "associates" of Bradley Bunn, 53, a U.S. Army veteran who was arrested on May 1 after FBI agents allegedly found four pipe bombs at his house in Loveland, Colorado, the filing said.
Authorities haven't publicly linked Bunn to any group or movement, but a federal prosecutor said agents intercepted Bunn on his way to an armed protest at the state Capitol against COVID-19 restrictions.
Bunn told investigators that he would be willing to "take out a few" officers to "wake everyone up," the prosecutor said during a court hearing.
While the anti-lockdown protests have provided the spotlight on the "boogaloo" movement, a police shooting in Maryland has galvanized its supporters.
Duncan Lemp, 21, was shot and killed by police on March 12 as officers served a search warrant at his family's home. An eyewitness said Lemp was asleep in his bedroom when police opened fire from outside his house, according to an attorney for his family. Police said he was armed with a rifle and ignored commands.
On his Instagram account, Lemp had posted a photograph that depicts two people holding up rifles and includes the term "boogaloo." His death spawned a hashtag campaign within the movement.
"A lot of individuals are very upset at the way this country is being run and the laws that are getting passed that criminalize law-abiding citizens," said Mike Harts, a U.S. Army infantry veteran who befriended Lemp through social media.
Harts, 27, says "boogaloo" started as a funny meme but has evolved into a deeper symbol for the "liberty movement."
Lemp's family appreciates the outpouring of support but doesn't want "any violence or unlawful actions to be taken in his name," family attorney Rene Sandler said in a statement.