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Virus restrictions fuel anti-government ‘boogaloo’ movement

FILE - In this April 15, 2020 file photo, protesters carry guns outside the Capitol Building in Lansing, Mich. A commission that oversees the Michigan Capitol has formed a committee to study whether to ban or restrict guns inside the building. The State Capitol Commission voted Monday, May 11, 2020 to seek input from the Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya File)

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) — 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 loose movement, 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 the 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.