The Disturbing Appeal of Boogaloo Violence to Military Men
The fringe movement is the latest in a long series of paramilitary scenes to court U.S. soldiers.
A decade ago, Stephen Parshall served in the Navy as an aviation mechanic. His four-year stateside stint earned him the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, standard fare for members of the Armed Forces supporting the sprawling conflict that began in September 2001.
On May 30, Parshall and two other men were arrested for allegedly plotting several attacks on protests, government facilities, and electrical infrastructure. His alleged accomplices were also current or former military members. According to prosecutors, the three were drawn together by the Boogaloo, an emerging, violent ideology that’s gaining popularity among some troops and veterans.
Fantasies of a violent tipping point feature prominently in the Boogaloo scene, which—while relatively new and not an ideological monolith—generally trends right-wing or fringe libertarian, with many of its memes and aesthetic markers borrowed from more explicitly racist alt-right and 4chan culture. The movement is broadly anti-government, and talks often of sparking a civil war.
In the midst of that are current and former service members talking about waging war on U.S. soil. Participation by military members in an anti-government movement might seem counterintuitive on its face, but the Boogaloo movement is only the latest in a long series of fringe paramilitary scenes that court American troops.
Parshall, 35; Andrew Lynam, 23; and William Loomis, 40, were arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas. But the trio weren’t there to protest the death of George Floyd, prosecutors say. Instead, they allegedly planned to throw Molotov cocktails and incite violence, in the hopes of sparking greater unrest.
Their Las Vegas cell came under investigation in April, when one of Parshall and Lynam’s associates contacted the FBI about what that person claimed was the two men’s interest in conducting a terror attack, prosecutors said. The person agreed to become a confidential informant in the group, and gathered with members as they allegedly discussed plots to commit violence and overthrow the government.
The trio allegedly went heavily armed to a “re-open” rally in Las Vegas—one of the largely conservative protests attended by people who wanted to end COVID-19 business closures. There, they allegedly talked of targeting government infrastructure, like a ranger station at a nearby lake.
During later meetings, they allegedly planned to blow up a power station and throw smoke bombs at a different re-open protest. (They allegedly went to the protest but got cold feet when they saw cops watching them.) Finally, on May 30, they allegedly attended the Black Lives Matter protest with Molotov cocktails and a plot to spark chaos. The FBI arrested all three on the spot.
The trio’s arrest contributed to growing scrutiny of the Boogaloo movement, as well as the military records of many therein. Parshall was a former Navy seaman, achieving the rank of E-3 during his 2007-2011 service. Lynam is currently a Private First Class in the U.S. Army Reserve, where he is a health-care specialist, an Army spokesperson told The Daily Beast. The spokesperson added that the Army Reserve “is committed to serving the people of the United States, and living the Army values. [Lynam’s] alleged actions are in direct contrast to these values and they are not representative of America's Army Reserve.”
Loomis was an Air Force veteran. Although details on his dates of service and rank were not immediately available, he pleaded guilty to a traffic violation while living on the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska in 2001, records show. Attorneys for Parshall and Loomis did not return a request for comment, and it was unclear if Lynam had retained a lawyer. The Department of Defense did not return a request for comment on how it was handling the Boogaloo movement among troops.
Megan Squire, an Elon University professor researching far-right extremism online, said that, among members of the armed forces, she has noticed a higher rate of Boogaloo participation than in other right-wing movements like the alt-right.
Some of that might be due to fewer Boogaloo participants hiding their involvement, due to the movement’s less explicit messaging, Squire noted. “But a bigger reason might be that the Boogaloo crowd’s intense focus on weapons and training requires the ability to talk the talk—there is a huge amount of jargon in the gun groups—and those with military training are therefore more respected and quicker to hit the ground running with anecdotes, familiarity with weapons, understanding of training protocols, and so on.”
A report by the disinformation-tracking group Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) in February described the military community as a potentially hot recruitment ground for the Boogaloo movement.
“The military community, in particular, may merit special consideration in risk evaluation and social-climate research because seditious memes are now tailored for infection among veterans and active service members,” researchers wrote.
At its most basic level, Boogaloo is an internet joke, onto which followers have grafted a still-solidifying ideology. Mike Harts, an Army veteran and Boogaloo adherent who spoke to the Associated Press last month, described it as a meme that evolved into a movement. That meme has racist roots, with much of the “Boogaloo” language emerging in extremist Telegrams, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted last week, even though “at times, members of online boogaloo communities have presented their political project as race-blind and, in some instances, actively express solidarity with the black freedom movement.”
The joke-y meme language can conceal some of the movement’s true intentions. Members sometimes show up at protests bearing AR-15 rifles and wearing Hawaiian shirts—simultaneously serious and difficult to take seriously.
Much of the movement’s appearance is borrowed from 4chan culture and previous far-right communities. The movement has many of its origins in 4chan’s “/k/” weapons board, a Bellingcat investigation noted last month, and many Boogaloo-friendly Facebook groups incorporate “/k/” into their names. Fluency in 4chan-style memes gives the movement common ground with alt-right types who popularized those memes from around 2015 to 2017. And Boogaloo members’ military-style riffs on those memes may make them appealing to service members, bringing troops and veterans into conversation with far-right culture.
The end result is something like a military-looking arm patch with a Pepe meme and the words “Boogaloo Boys, Memetic Warfare, 1st [Division],” which members of the movement wore to a pro-gun rally in Virginia in January.
The NCRI noted that “memetic warfare is still very much a mystery to both policy makers 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.”
Parshall was apparently familiar with ironic alt-right culture. In 2015, he set his profile picture to a swastika on a gay pride flag, surrounded by Stars of David. (Two days earlier, his profile picture had been a Confederate flag.)
As the Boogaloo movement emerged, some of its earliest advocates were military members. The NCRI identified one of the movement’s early surges as a November standoff between an Army veteran and a police officer, during which the veteran name-checked the Boogaloo. The veteran’s pro-gun Instagram account “only held several thousand followers at the start of the event, it boasted over 130,000 by the time the standoff ended,” the NCRI noted.
During the January pro-gun rally, Boogaloo members associated with the group that wore the “Boogaloo Boys, Memetic Warfare” patch claimed to be active-duty military. “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered,” a member of the cell said on a podcast, the NCRI noted.
Army veteran Bradley Bunn, who was arrested May 1 for an alleged plot to throw pipe bombs at a re-open protest, did not appear to be an explicit Boogaloo adherent. But he had associates in the movement and became a hero among some Boogaloo followers, RawStory previously reported.
Despite—or even because of—members’ military ties, the Boogaloo movement seems to have a genuine skepticism of police.
“The military or ex-military guys that I have observed in these communities are proud of having done their service but also frustrated with what they perceive to be ineffective policies and hierarchy,” Squire, the Elon University professor said. “More significantly, all the Boogaloo adherents are intensely anti-police (this is a foundational tenet), and the military-affiliated guys are constantly talking about how inept the police are. They express feelings of frustration for having to be subject to police that they feel are over-militarized and under-trained.”
The Boogaloo is far from the first civil war-thirsty movement to recruit military members. After the Vietnam War, the white power movement swelled with former soldiers, some of whom had been radicalized by racial conflict in their units or who blamed their military loss on the government.
In her book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, historian Kathleen Belew writes that existing white power groups and publications solicited returning soldiers to stamp out what those groups saw as looming threats of progressivism and racial diversity.
Many Boogaloo Bois deny being racist, or even far-right. Some characterize themselves as libertarians, which, while a break from the standard Republican party line, is not a guarantee against holding far-right views. (When the alt-right movement was in a similarly adolescent stage, jokes about the “libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline” became so popular that alt-righters made a Facebook page of that name.)
But heavily armed and calling for civil war, with one foot in 4chan memes and the other in the military, the group could be an ascendant threat.
Loomis, the oldest of the three men arrested in the Las Vegas bust, apparently associated himself with multiple paramilitary groups prior to the Boogaloo, but could never find one that would bomb anything.
“Loomis stated that he wanted the group to take action against the United States government,” the criminal complaint reads. “Loomis stated that he was previously part of several militia groups, but ultimately left due to inactivity.”