The one thing everyone who witnessed the pre-dawn police raid on 21-year-old right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s home in Potomac, Maryland, can agree on is that the police shot him.
Everything else about the March 12 incident is up for dispute: why the raid happened; whether Lemp was dangerous enough to merit a no-knock raid; whether he was allowed to own guns; and whether Lemp was asleep in his bed when he was killed, or holding a rifle.
With so many open questions about the incident, talk of Lemp’s killing has spread far beyond Potomac, the affluent Washington suburb where he was killed. Now Lemp has been embraced as a martyr by some of the most extreme elements of the anti-lockdown protests: supporters of the “Boogaloo,” the Hawaiian-shirt-clad protesters who are itching for a civil war.
Across the country, these armed anti-lockdown protesters have adopted Lemp as their mascot—giving their names to reporters as “Duncan Lemp,” and putting his name on their body-armor vests. Lemp’s name has been used as an alias by anti-lockdown activists in Wisconsin, Nebraska, Tennessee, Michigan, North Carolina, Indiana, and Nevada. He’s been cited by those protesting business closures, and even one man said he was inspired by Lemp to allegedly go out hunting for police officers in a foiled attempt at a revenge killing.
“People are calling for law enforcement to be targeted for revenge for Duncan Lemp,” said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.
In semi-normal times, Lemp’s death would have been seen as a case of an overzealous police force operating dangerously close to, if not well beyond, its legal authorities. But these aren’t normal times. And as a good chunk of the country has adopted coronavirus social-distancing orders, the shooting has taken on a far broader meaning, becoming a flash point for anti-government activists protesting stay-at-home orders and an inspiration for the Boogaloos who see themselves in a life-or-death battle with law enforcement, according to Friedfeld.
“It’s this fantasy that they all have, that this is how they’re going to go out,” Friedfeld said.
Before his death, Lemp was a little-known right-wing activist in Potomac. His exact ties to individual far-right groups are vague. In December, he posted a picture at some sort of military-style training and captioned it “III%”—an apparent reference to the far-right Three Percenter militia. On a militia forum, someone using a screen name Lemp frequently used described themselves as an “active III%er” eager to meet other members.
Lemp also set up websites for at least two far-right groups: the pro-gun “Virginia Knights” group and the “State of Appalachia,” a fledgling effort to create a new state from conservative portions of Virginia. In a text message to a Virginia Knights activist obtained by The Daily Beast, Lemp took a break from website discussion to imagine being under fire in real life sometime in the future with his internet comrade, “dragging the other up a hill under fire with our guts hanging out, that’s the real price we pay.”
Beyond that, there is painfully little in the public record to explain why police raided Lemp’s home. Officially, the cops say they received an anonymous tip at the start of 2020 stating that Lemp was in possession of guns. Police claim that an earlier conviction made it illegal for Lemp to own guns until he was 30, justifying the “high risk” raid.
“Due to his criminal history as a juvenile, Lemp was prohibited from legally possessing or purchasing firearms in the State of Maryland until the age of 30,” the police department said in a statement.
But Lemp’s lawyer told The Daily Beast that Lemp’s family doesn’t know about any conviction that would prevent him from owning a gun. The Daily Beast was only able to find a traffic infraction in Lemp’s Maryland court record, although a juvenile court charge could be unavailable to the public. The police department hasn’t explained what conviction would prevent Lemp from owning a gun.
“He was not a prohibited person,” said Rene Sandler, the attorney for Lemp’s family. “No one in that house was prohibited from owning a gun.”
Three rifles and two pistols were recovered from the house, according to the police. Lemp also posted a picture of a gun on Instagram on March 6, less than a week before the raid. Two months later, though, it’s still not clear what juvenile conviction would have prohibited Lemp from owning a gun.
Lemp’s family and the police also dispute how he was shot. According to the family, Lemp was asleep next to his girlfriend when a police officer shot him. MCPD disputes that story in a vague press release, saying that Lemp was awake, refusing police instructions, and “found to be in possession of a rifle.” But the press release doesn’t describe how Lemp was shot—or how many times—and the officer who shot him has not been named. The Montgomery County Police Department also hasn’t explained why Lemp was considered such a threat that he could only be apprehended with a pre-dawn, no-knock raid.
“It’s a recipe for violence, if not killing, because it undercuts people’s chances to peacefully comply with a lawful order from a court,” said James Bovard, a libertarian writer who has reported on Lemp’s killing.
Police did say they found a booby-trapped shotgun shell in the house that was meant to explode on anyone who opened an exterior door into Lemp’s room. Fire marshals disarmed the booby-trap before it could go off.
But the police haven’t released body camera footage of the shooting, nearly two months after it happened. Lemp’s family also doesn’t have access to the warrant application justifying the raid, although it’s expected to be released soon. The family is planning to make any decision about a lawsuit after seeing the warrant application, according to Sandler.
“A lot of people feel Lemp was targeted,” said Bovard. “And if the government has evidence to prove otherwise, well, then maybe they should show it.”
Lemp’s killing is currently being reviewed by prosecutors in neighboring Howard County.
Lemp’s death quickly became a hot topic on libertarian and anti-government YouTube channels and Twitter accounts within days of his death. Four days after the shooting, Oklahoma libertarian Todd Hagopian was urging his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers to demand answers about the shooting.
“He was every one of us,” Hagopian tweeted. “Remember Duncan Lemp.”
Among the communities that noticed were the “Boogaloo” movement.
Boogaloos are the latest strain of anti-government ideology whose adherents are convinced the United States is heading towards civil war. Around 2018, far-right activists began to discuss “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a play on the breakdancing film sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. They’ve since embraced the word “Boogaloo” as a code for a new civil war. The phrase “Boogaloo” has sometimes been changed to the “Big Luau,” prompting the activists to wear Hawaiian shirts under their body armor at anti-lockdown protests.
“Boogaloo is inherently a violent ideology,” Friedfeld told The Daily Beast.
The interest from self-described “boogaloo boys” in Lemp’s case have been fueled in part by some “boogaloo” references he made on his Instagram page. In February, he posted a screenshot of a boogaloo-related forum on Instagram, and tagged several boogaloo meme accounts.
“The movement writ large seeks a martyr, and they really seem intent on making Duncan Lemp that martyr,” said Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
Now a “Boogaloo” website sells Lemp-themed merchandise, including a flag featuring a skeleton shooting a police officer and the message “His Name Was Duncan Lemp.”
In Texas, two armed “Boogaloo” supporters who gave their names as Duncan Lemp showed up to “protect” a Dallas salon whose owner, Shelley Luther, opened in defiance of a state social-distancing order. Luther was briefly arrested, before becoming a cause célèbre on the right, getting released from jail with support from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), and giving Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) a photo-op haircut.
In late April, roughly a dozen Boogaloo protesters rallied outside the Montgomery County Police Department’s headquarters. With some in the group wearing Hawaiian-style shirts, the protesters took turns yelling at police officers through a megaphone and holding up the flag showing Lemp’s skeleton shooting a police officer with blood on his hands.
“There’s a lot of very violent imagery, particularly towards law enforcement,” said Friedfeld, the ADL researcher.
Far-right activists’ interest in Lemp’s case have even allegedly prompted threats of violence. On April 11, “Boogaloo” activist Aaron Swenson began broadcasting live on Facebook, allegedly claiming that he was trying to find a police officer to kill. Swenson’s Facebook page was filled with references to the “Boogaloo” and Lemp’s killing, along with a post saying he wanted to be “part of a response” to Lemp’s death. Following Lemp’s killing, Swenson made his Facebook picture an image of himself in a Hawaiian shirt and body armor, along with a “#HisNameWasDuncan” hashtag, BuzzFeed News reported.
“I know that there are those that want to use this case for their own political agenda,” said Sandler, adding that Lemp was “a believer in the Constitution and a law-abiding citizen.”
If Lemp’s death has been a spark for self-identifying Boogaloos across the country, the public safety measures that have been put in place to combat coronavirus have been kindling.
On May 1, the FBI searched the Colorado home of Bradley Bunn, a man with ties to “Boogaloo” supporters and plans to attend an anti-lockdown rally the same day, and allegedly discovered four pipe bombs.
The raid set off a panic among Colorado “Boogaloo” supporters, with a Bunn supporter named Chevy Lee McGee trying to rally other “Boogaloo Boys'' to face off with law enforcement officials in the area. In Facebook livestreams, McGee showed off a bucket of bullets to his friends and vowed to “slot some fucking tyrants” if necessary. But McGee’s efforts to rally ideological allies at his mother’s house were stymied by his mother, who trashed her son’s anti-government obsession during his livestream.
“Get your fucking ass in the house, you are embarrassing me in front of the neighbors,” McGee’s mother said, as he urged her to stand up to “these fucking tyrants.”