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Camouflage-wearing federal officers advance on protesters.
Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon, on July 20, 2020. AP Photo/Noah Berger

Militias’ warning of excessive federal power comes true – but where are they?

Militias and many other Second Amendment advocates have long argued that their primary desire to own firearms – often, many of them – is rooted in a need to protect themselves and their families from a tyrannical federal government, or to discourage the government from becoming tyrannical in the first place.

But with the mayor of a major U.S. city warning that “tyranny and dictatorship” have already arrived on the streets – in the shape of unidentified federal troops using questionable tactics – militia groups appear reluctant to throw their lot in with protesters. In fact, many have been supporting government action to suppress peaceful demonstrators.

Certainly the scenes in Portland have alarmed civil liberties groups: Heavily armed and camouflaged federal officers, wearing no name tags or other insignia, are on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and have teargassed and arrested seemingly peaceful protesters with little or no provocation. President Donald Trump has said similar forces are coming to other cities – many run by Democrats.

To some, it may look exactly like what the militias have been warning of.

As a scholar of the U.S. domestic militia movement, I have seen in recent months a new divide emerging in these groups.

Some, often calling themselves the “boogaloo movement,” see the current political unrest as an opportunity to wrest power from an overbearing federal government. Others support police and their enforcement of strict law and order, even if that means authorities using powerful weapons and overwhelming force.

Shifting online dynamics

Assessing what these groups are doing, and how they are discussing recent events, has become more difficult for observers like me in recent weeks. On June 30, Facebook announced it had removed hundreds of accounts and groups allegedly related to the “boogaloo movement.”

The move came in the wake of several arrests of alleged boogaloo adherents across the country, including three in Nevada accused of plotting to “firebomb” federal land and one in Texas accused of killing one police officer and critically injuring another.

Boogaloo groups still have a social media presence and, until recently when the portion of the site they used was closed, a large presence on the Reddit discussion site, where comments are loosely regulated and people can post anonymously.

Now the movement’s public face is smaller and harder to find without insider knowledge. For instance, until recently it was common to see groups with the words “big igloo” in their names, a play on the word “boogaloo.” After Facebook’s crackdown, some groups are using the word “icehouse” or other synonyms that may not be as obvious. They are therefore harder for algorithms to find, but also for people to find – whether to observe or to join in.

A meme showing federal officials in camouflage arresting a person and putting them into an unmarked van.
Some ‘back the boog’ social media groups are sharing memes like this, warning of government exercising too much power. Big Doc's Icehouse Bonanza/Facebook

‘Backing the boog’

The groups who “back the boogaloo” imply, or even outright declare, that the U.S. is no longer a free country, and generally call for supporters to oppose, violently if necessary, federal forces and the government they represent.

In the days after George Floyd’s death, I saw some of these groups call for members to participate in protests opposing police violence. But I have not seen similar calls in response to federal officers’ violence in Portland.

That may change if federal forces do appear in other places, especially areas geographically closer to active “back the boog” supporters. It is also possible that the groups are discussing protests or other actions in less public ways, in private messages or on platforms like Parler, that have marketed themselves as friendlier toward a variety of conservative views.

‘Backing the blue’

There are still militia members who support police, often called “back the blue” groups. Commentators have observed that silence from them and other Second Amendment supporters certainly seems to be hypocritical, at best, and possibly supportive of tyranny in the current context.

That’s not the way they see it. They argue that one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government is to protect citizens from others who might infringe on their rights or safety. They support police who say that Portland authorities have failed to protect regular people from violent protesters.

That’s also what these groups claimed happened in Seattle’s autonomous zone – though they rely on news sources that describe the protesters as inherently dangerous and hampering business and free association. They seemingly ignore or discount other reports that these characterizations are exaggerated. In my research, I found that militia members were likely to exclusively trust sources like Fox News or even more conservative sites for their information, and recent data confirms that such sources may strongly shape viewers’ understanding of political and other events.

Federal officers beat and pepper-spray a Navy veteran standing in peaceful demonstration.

Mistaken perceptions?

This view of protesters as violent is amplified by some “back the blue” members’ belief that the demonstrators are “Marxist” members of antifa, a mostly nonviolent leaderless collective movement generally opposing fascism.

For example, one Facebook group shared a video of Christopher David, the Navy veteran beaten by federal officers in Portland, talking about his experience. A commentator responded, “The end of the video tell[s] the tale, he’s going to raise money for [Black Lives Matter]! He is a liar he went there to stand with his commie comrades.”

Scholarship on conservative groups argues that they use anti-communist language to cast political opponents as not real Americans who have thus have forfeited any protections U.S. citizens should have.

Anti-liberal rhetoric

Some other “back the blue” members see hypocrisy in liberals, noting that few, if any, on the left objected when federal officers killed LaVoy Finicum during the 2016 standoff between federal officials and armed supporters of rancher Cliven Bundy during a land dispute elsewhere in Oregon.

There are sharing pages like one on a well-known conservative satire site that suggests the same Oregon authorities opposing federal officers tolerate violent behavior from protesters because of “identity politics” – the idea that certain groups favored by liberals, in this case, Black people, are held to a different and more lax standard.

Image shared on Facebook of a modified Gadsden flag.

Several Facebook pages shared an image of a modified Gadsden flag, with a Black Lives Matter fist and promising “we will tread” as “proof” that Portland protesters would take away others’ rights, including the right to bear arms, if given the chance and thus do not deserve protection themselves. One comment in support of such a post read, “I[’m] glad to see I’m not the only person happy to see these commies being snatched up and dragged away. Yes, I know that this could just as easily be turned around and that we could also be dragged away in broad daylight. But if they aren’t stopped now, and they do somehow manage to gain complete power, we’ll get dragged away anyways. Better them than us, before it’s too late.”

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Federal intervention has not stopped the Portland protests from growing, but some analysts expect Trump to increase the response in an attempt to appeal to his supporters as the country heads into the November election. Many people fear that move would spark violence.

The “back the blue” militia members generally respect law and order enough to not fulfill their threats of violence or criminal action – but the “back the boog” groups may not be so restrained. The “back the blue” groups may also act if federal action escalates, and members believe they are needed or useful to help defend the interests of average citizens.

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