Driving through the rural town of Estacada, Oregon, we watched as the wildfires engulfed the surrounding forest. Rachel, my co-producer and director, and I had teamed up to shoot a documentary on different groups labeled as extremists in America. We were driving to meet Ace, one of the Boogaloo Bois I had met a day before. Ace was a young, soft-spoken man who had strong convictions of what the Boogaloo Movement was and could talk for hours on the intricacies of his beliefs.
I had spent time speaking with Ace online before he decided he would introduce me to his Boogaloo Bois team in Oregon. The wildfires were raging, and Ace and his team agreed to take us into Estacada to document the fires past the police barricades set up to block civilians from active fire zones.
The day before, we had attempted to document the wildfires in a different small town outside of Portland. When we arrived, armed locals, who thought we were ANTIFA arsonists, threatened to use force if we didn’t leave the town immediately. Paranoia ran rampant in these small towns as sensationalized and sometimes fake news about arsonists starting fires were spreading like the wildfires themselves. The locals were heated, scared, and ready to defend their home from any outside threat. Yesterday, in our mostly black, urban garb, we looked a lot like potential ANTIFA. But today, the Boogaloo Bois had a plan.
The Boogaloo Bois decided that instead of arriving in Estacada empty-handed, they would come fully armed and kitted with assault rifles, sidearms, body armor, helmets, and gas masks and act as a security detail for Rachel and me. We were more than happy to accept the offer. We wanted to get as close to the fires as possible and see the Boogaloo Bois in action, putting their pro-2A, libertarian mantras to the test.
The thick, brownish smoke and ash-filled air produced by a wildfire leave you with a tired, achy lethargy that slowly poisons your body. Apathy can easily creep in when you don’t feel the immediacy of a burning fire in front of you. This wasn’t one of those times. The jitters from having met the quick-to-draw locals yesterday continued to sporadically jolt my nerves. I couldn’t help but think to myself if meeting fire with fire would really result in peace and cohesion. However, I was eager to document the wildfires and was overtaken by curiosity as to where this situation would lead. And when we met with the Boogaloo Bois off the highway at the Estacada city limit, we knew they meant business.
What is the Boogaloo Bois Movement?
The Boogaloo Bois is a nationally decentralized group. Its beliefs center around mostly the libertarian, pro-2A, and sometimes anarcho-capitalist movements. It formed online, mainly through social media and chat rooms like Facebook, 4chan, and Reddit. It has since moved into mainstream social media platforms like Instagram. “Boogaloo” is a name for the “second civil war” that its members believe may soon come to fruition in the United States. If you’ve seen photos online of armed men at protests in Hawaiian shirts, armored vests, and combat helmets, chances are they were Boogaloo Bois.
It’s very difficult to universally define what a Boogaloo Boi or the Boogaloo Movement is. There are parts of the Boogaloo Movement that have been usurped by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and violence accelerationists. Instances of domestic terrorism and, in one instance, international terrorism, have been loosely tied to the movement. But in general, a majority of the Boogaloo Bois openly discredit those beliefs and actions that stem from outside the mainstream Boogaloo Movement ideology.
The above is a feature of decentralized movements that start online: The minute they take shape, they can easily be appropriated by other individuals and groups, leaving the core movement misidentified in the public eye. However, two sentiments that seem to be fairly universal in the Boogaloo Movement are the right to keep and bear arms and a serious concern that the United States government is overreaching in its authority, and they consider the police force a significant player in that. These two sentiments are the common thread that unites many factions of the Boogaloo Movement online.
Another aspect of the Boogaloo Movement is the various and growing local groups of Boogaloo Bois around the country. These groups meet for firearm, tactical, and survival training, and the occasional beer. In many ways, they are similar to a local militia, a recreational sports team, or even a fraternity.
The Oregon Boogaloo Bois were mostly men in their young 20s who met online and embody the above characteristics. We met with the core five members: Ace; Owen, a big bearded boisterous leader type who had spent time with the U.S. Army deployed in the Middle East; Dolphin, another bearded ex-military man in his early 20s who had limitless energy and enthusiasm; AJ, a very soft-spoken man in his early 20s who was also a very talented photographer; and Sweaty, a young, passionate, and eager skater type who would occasionally visit the protests in Downtown Portland in support of BLM and to protest the police.
They were a fun group of guys. They believe that the government is overstepping its boundaries of authority, and some of them believe that the police were a part of that problem. But they were reasonable, had normal civilian lives and jobs, and mostly liked to meet up to train or hang out. Nothing in their daily practices would suggest extremism if they hadn’t tied their claim to the Boogaloo Movement.
So when the boys decided to take us through Estacada, I had no idea what to expect. Truth be told, I was excited to see how things would turn out.
Into the Fires with the Boogaloo Bois
When we met with the Boogaloo Bois at the Estacada border, we quickly realized they weren’t messing around. Owen, who I had presumed with his age and experience would lead this mission, couldn’t make it that day. Instead, Ace was leading the charge. The boys were decked out in military garb, body armor, assault rifles, and sidearms. Dolphin had a military-grade face mask on to protect himself from the fire smoke. Ace advised that we tape a large sign on the back of my car that read “PRESS” for the locals to see. The group would give us armed protection, and Rachel and I would drive between two of the group’s cars.
Dolphin excitedly jumped in the back of their pickup truck that would lead the way. He had his rifle in hand, helmet and body armor on, and his military-grade face mask shielding what I expected was a giddy-eyed and smiling countenance. Needless to say, when we crossed police barricades to enter the now partially evacuated town of Estacada, we were going to draw a crowd.
And draw a crowd we did.
Within five minutes of driving past police barricades, we had five police cars tailing us from behind. After following us for 10 minutes, they finally pulled us over saying that I hadn’t signaled early enough for a right turn I had made. When the police officer approached our car, we were all suspicious. I told the officer that I was a journalist. The Boogaloo Bois said they were providing security for us while we documented the fires. At that moment, I remember one policeman right outside my window, clean-shaven cop, looking back at me with a face that clearly read, “Why the hell do you have a man in full camo and combat gear openly carrying an assault rifle in the bed of your truck?” And I couldn’t help but smirk back at the absurdity of the situation. But the police officer, besides stating the obvious — that driving around armed in a town of arsonist-fearing locals had a high risk of escalation — said that the police supported our right to carry and let us on our way. Our interaction with the police was awkward, yet seamless.
As we descended down a winding road that led to the valley where Estacada stood, my body began to tense. I expected a similar situation as the day before, and I couldn’t help but wonder if today the locals would skip the courtesy warning before engaging in any potentially fatal action with our team. However, what we saw surprised us: Locals and outsiders, led by two Army veterans, had created a BBQ and R&R station for the firefighters who were working tirelessly to contain the fires. The intense smell of the burning forest was drowned out by the smell of grilled cheeseburgers and hot dogs. The organizers had created the station in an hour’s time. It had become a haven for exhausted firefighters.
We had expected paranoid, aggressive, and armed locals like we had encountered the previous day. But when we arrived at the station, we encountered friendly, inviting, armed locals. Almost every local I saw there (besides the firefighters) were openly carrying a pistol on their hip. But there wasn’t a single moment or sentiment of aggression from anyone.
I spoke to one of the Army veterans who was also a food station organizer. I asked him what he thought about us being there. He said that though he thought some of my friends were going overboard with the tactical gear, he was happy that we were here to document and help.
Rachel spoke with the other organizer, a woman who was a cook in the Army and who was prepping the meals for the fighters. The two of them had a lengthy conversation about the fires, the BLM movement, and the protests in Portland. They both mentioned later that it was a very enlightening conversation for the two of them.
We hung out at the rest station for about an hour. Dolphin and AJ even helped the locals on a food supply run. Ace spoke with one of the organizers about helping with security to protect the town from potential arsonists and looters while the fires continued. And after that, we got back in our insurgent-looking caravan to drive closer to the fires.
We left Estacada and made our way deeper into the forest. It was late afternoon. A lot of the natural light was blocked by dense forest. Amidst large trees, we could see small, scattered fires flickering past the smoke and the fog that settled on the neighboring mountain.
As we drove, I tried to breathe lightly, as each inhalation of smoke felt like poison to my lungs. Fallen trees, telephone wires, and boulders littered the road. I maneuvered around these barriers as much as I could in my hatchback sedan, but it was clear that the car wasn’t going to make it much farther. We drove as far out as we could towards the fires, witnessing some of the smaller brush fires, and eventually arrived at a part of the road that was completely blocked by boulders, branches, and dirt.
At the end of the clear road, the sun was quickly setting. I took some photos of the Bois as they inspected some of the nearby fires. Sweaty and Dolphin climbed the side of a small cliff to get a better look at any potential fires over the ridge. I even got the guys to pose for some portraits for me. After the sun had completely set, we turned our cars around and made our way back towards Portland. Mission Complete.
Nationalism, Extremism and Americanism
The Oregon Boogaloo Bois are like a fraternity and they pledge to traditional American ideals. The only difference is that they feel that these ideals are prohibited on the other side of authority in America. They feel like they, along with many other Americans, are being oppressed by an overreaching, corrupt government. And because they openly claim that they will do everything in their power as American citizens to keep their government in check, they are deemed dangerous.
Like a lot of extremist groups in America, the Boogaloo Bois seem to be American idealists who are disenfranchised by their perception of what America is today: A divided country, with seemingly less and less upward mobility, and a continuing push for legislation that impedes the ideals of freedom and autonomy that many Americans hold at the core of their national — and personal — identity.
In many ways, Boogaloo Bois are simply American fundamentalists. They know that there are parts of America that need improvement. They are quick to claim support for the betterment of the lives of minorities in America and are strong supporters of the BLM movement. They seem to be nostalgic for the American ideals that we were taught in grade school. They believe in freedom, personal ownership, and equality in opportunity.
But what does that mean for these patriotic fundamentalists who idealize an image of American Nationalism that is fading and reemerging as a globalized America? What does it mean if they stand up against a government that though is clearly non-tyrannical, is arguably impeding some of the rights that the Boogaloo Bois hold dear and that Americans have been told, since the inception of the country, they need to protect at all costs? Are they now extremists?
Undoubtedly, there are potential dangers to the Boogaloo ideology. It does call for violence as a solution to the perceived problem of an increasingly tyrannical American government. However, history has shown that the continuous portrayal of the Boogaloo Movement as an extremist group that poses an immediate threat to safety is likely the very thing that leads misguided individuals to commit heinous acts under a misplaced identification with the Boogaloo Bois. If the media continues to sensationalize the immediate danger of a decentralized ideology, it creates a platform for dangerous and violent individuals to be seen.
We are facing more social and political strife in America today than we have faced in many years. For one reason or another, many people in America are dissatisfied and disenfranchised with their experience as American citizens. To move forward, we need to address the fundamental issues that are impeding our progress in America, instead of picking sides in an identity war where one group is called freedom fighters and the other terrorists.
The Boogaloo Bois, in their best form, transcend the polarization in America and call for freedom and autonomy for all American citizens. But if the Boogaloo Bois feel that the government is impeding those freedoms, they will welcome the Boogaloo which they feel is right around the corner.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on November 25th, 2020.