PLEASE NOTE: This article was written by a journalism student at Columbia University for The Trace, a notably anti-gun publication. We are hosting this article on our own website to prevent The Trace from benefiting via pay per click advertising and site traffic.
Fenix Ammunition, LLC, does not endorse, support, or confirm any information contained in this article.
To market their products, ammo makers and gun shops are invoking the memes and rhetoric of a disjointed anti-government ideology blamed for at least one killing spree.
In mid March, Fenix Ammunition, an ammunition manufacturer in Michigan, saw its daily online sales rise from $4,000 to $40,000.
The coronavirus pandemic had boosted demand for guns and ammunition around the country, and Fenix was reaping the fruits of the national following it has cultivated since its 2016 launch. In addition to record high civilian demand, Fenix also counted at least three local police departments, a law enforcement training center, and KelTec, one of the leading rifle manufacturers in America, among its clients.
But Fenix’s March profits were also driven by an aggressive social media campaign led by its owner, Justin Nazaroff.
For months, Nazaroff had been posting memes to his company’s Facebook and Instagram pages referencing the “boogaloo,” slang for the armed uprising that a loose assortment of preppers, Second Amendment activists, and anti-government extremists is getting ready for — and in some cases trying to accelerate.
“I’ll be honest, it drives sales,” Nazaroff said in April of his company’s marketing practices. “People think it’s funny. People click on boogaloo memes. It’s something that gun people enjoy joking about.”
“You can look up any firearms social media influencer and probably find them using the term boogaloo at some point in time,” he added. Nazaroff cut off communication after a police department notified him of our records request seeking information about sales to Fenix and emails referencing boogaloo.
The word itself is a reference to the 1984 movie, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” but the imagined sequel would be a second civil war. Sometimes re-tooled as “big luau” or “big igloo” (adherents often don floral Hawaiian shirts or insignia bearing cartoon igloos), the concept reportedly originated on 4chan, the anonymous image board that’s long been a meeting place for the alt-right. While some spreaders of boogaloo memes claim to see them as provocative fun, their mushrooming popularity has concerned experts on extremism. They fear that the concept has re-energized the American militia movement and given anti-government extremists a rallying cry.
Boogaloo is not a true movement in the sense that there is little — if any— structure or leadership. Adherents even seem to have different visions of what a civil war would accomplish. But to the extent that there is a central idea animating the boogaloo’s largely white, right-wing supporters, it’s that armed combatants will kick off a full-fledged rebellion to topple the federal government. “They don’t have a lot of beliefs other than they really like guns, they really hate cops, and they want some sort of revolution,” said Megan Squire, a computer scientist who researches online extremism at Elon University. “You pretty much have to be weapons-trained and interested in weapons to be a boogaloo adherent.”
In the past month, at least seven people with boogaloo ties have been arrested for attempting or carrying out violence at recent protests. On June 6, Air Force Sergeant Steve Carillo allegedly shot two Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputies, killing one. He was arrested after scrawling the word “boog” in blood on the hood of a stolen car alongside phrases from memes that are popular in boogaloo groups. Carillo was also charged with shooting two guards outside an Oakland, California, courthouse during protests a week earlier. One died. That morning, Carillo had posted to Facebook: “Go to the riots and support our own cause. Show them the real targets. Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box. We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.” A boogaloo patch was recovered from the van that he used that day. A suspected accomplice was also arrested after confessing to the FBI.
On the day of the Oakland shooting, three men were arrested in Las Vegas on suspicion of possessing homemade explosives and on charges of conspiracy to commit an act of domestic terrorism near protests. Though they have since pleaded not guilty, the criminal complaint against them noted boogaloo ties. And, in South Carolina, two men with boogaloo connections were separately arrested on charges of looting and attempting to incite a riot.
At least two more boogaloo supporters were arrested for the possession of illegal firearms in Oklahoma and Tennessee. In Colorado, police seized multiple weapons from one boogaloo supporter at a protest, but did not make an arrest.
On June 26, Attorney General William Barr created a task force aimed at fighting extremism, and in a memo he singled out boogaloo supporters, as well as members of the left-leaning antifa.
Even before the protests, several boogaloo supporters had attempted to incite violence. In March, a Missouri man who planned to bomb a hospital in what he called “operation boogaloo” shot and killed himself before he could be arrested by the FBI. In April, a member of several boogaloo Facebook groups was arrested in Texas, live streaming as he searched for police to kill.
“Boogaloo boys,” as they call themselves, have been spotted at protests following the killing of George Floyd, both marching with demonstrators and as counter-protesters. Some have also been discussing how to use the protests to encourage violence. The varied response is indicative of supporters’ lack of a unifying ideology.
Their fixation on guns and tactical gear makes boogaloo supporters attractive clients for gun sellers. And hashtagged social media posts are an effective way for weapons dealers to boost their brands. Firearms sellers are not allowed to purchase ads on Facebook, though some have found ways around this, but they can use their official pages to reach niche audiences.
When COVID-19 lockdowns seemed to validate adherents’ expectations of government overreach, use of the term boogaloo exploded on mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Reddit. In April, the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit that monitors activity on major online platforms, documented 125 boogaloo Facebook groups with over 72,000 members. More than 60 percent had been created since February — the same time that Fenix’s use of boogaloo-related hashtags peaked, according to data from the company’s Instagram page.
Around the same time, a review posted on Fenix’s Facebook page revealed that the company was sending stickers to online customers that featured the “boogaloo flag,” a black and white American flag with a floral Hawaiian stripe and a cartoon igloo instead of stars. When contacted, the reviewer said he had found the company by searching for competition-grade ammunition, and that the sticker helped cement his loyalty to Fenix.
A December 19, 2019, post on Fenix’s Instagram page, which has nearly 34,000 followers, shows the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster photoshopped so that he’s holding an AR-15 and wearing night-vision goggles. “B is for Boogaloo” is written over the bright yellow background. “And V is for Virginia,” read Fenix’s caption, which went on to offer “free shipping on ammunition, body armor and medical products” sent to the state. The offer lasted through a January 20 rally to oppose new gun laws, one that sparked a state of emergency order from Governor Ralph Northam as armed militias and white nationalist groups implored their members to attend the demonstration.
In the days before the rally, members of a neo-Nazi group called The Base were arrested after federal agents said two of them discussed opening fire on the rally. An FBI affidavit claimed the group wanted to use the event to start the boogaloo, which some neo-Nazis see as a race war or civilizational collapse. There is no evidence that The Base acquired ammo from Fenix, and on June 25, Fenix posted on Instagram about our reporting, writing: “Our company wants nothing to do with anyone claiming to be a Nazi, or a white supremacist. We’ve banned people from our page for saying such things in the past and we’ll continue to do so in the future. The Boogaloo is for everyone. “
Since October 2019, Fenix has made over 100 posts using hashtags and imagery related to the boogaloo. Many were linked to events like the Virginia rally, national anti-lockdown demonstrations, and recent anti-racism protests. “This is what the politicians and media fear the most” read a June 5 post showing a diverse group of protesters holding a boogaloo flag on a city street.
In another post, Fenix responded to a suggestion that looters target white neighborhoods, like Novi, Michigan, the Detroit suburb where Fenix is located. The response included a picture of four high-powered guns with the comment “send bachelors.”
The Trace has identified 35 more dealers and manufacturers of firearms or tactical supplies across the country that have posted references to the boogaloo on social media. They range from small town stores to multi-million dollar manufacturers of AR-style weapons, like the South Carolina-based Palmetto State Armory.
We also reviewed the online presence of 548 federally licensed firearms dealers in Michigan, where armed protesters converged on the state Capitol, and identified 48 with active social media profiles. Six of those posted memes or hashtags referencing the boogaloo. Eight promoted insignia from militia groups like the Three Percenters, an armed anti-government group with chapters around the country. Another six promoted coronavirus conspiracy theories or encouraged disobedience against state lockdown measures. Three made suggestive posts about shooting looters during the protests
Instagram no longer allows searches for #boogaloo on its site, however typing #boogaloo into the search bar will still autofill suggestions of related hashtags. Facebook, which owns Instagram and has been criticized for its failure to rein in boogaloo content, did not respond to our requests for comment.
Instagram no longer allows searches for #boogaloo and some related hashtags on its site. However, as of June 24, if you typed #boogaloo into the search bar, it still autofilled suggestions of related hashtags. After being asked about this by The Trace, a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram and has been criticized for its failure to rein in boogaloo content, said, “The hashtag #boogaloomemes was already blocked and we’ve since further blocked #boogalooboys, #boogaloocrew, and #boogalootime given the amount of content using these hashtags that violated our policy.” The spokesperson added, “we continue to remove content using boogaloo and related terms when accompanied by statements and images depicting armed violence. We are also preventing these pages and groups from being recommended on Facebook.”
Boogaloo marketing isn’t limited to social media. Some companies, like Fenix, sell boogaloo-themed merchandise. For instance, in February, Palmetto State Armory sold a limited run of custom boogaloo-themed AK-47-style guns, finished with Hawaiian patterns, mimicking the shirts boogaloo supporters have adopted as an unofficial uniform. They also advertise boogaloo T-shirts on Facebook. Palmetto State Armory CEO Jamin McCallum did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Hoplite Armor, a body armor manufacturer in Kalispell, Montana, sells a Hawaiian-patterned plate carrier — a kind of bullet-proof vest — as a part of its “Aloha Line” of products. The traditional flowers have been replaced with a blood-stained bauhinia flower, which adorns the Hong Kong flag frequently carried by protesters there.
During an interview, Hoplite’s owner, Lyman Bishop, said he was inspired to make the shirt on a trip to Hawaii, and not because of the boogaloo. Yet a September 27, 2019 Facebook post introducing the plate carrier was tagged with #boogaloo. The company’s page, with more than 142,000 followers, has continued to use the hashtag as well as associated language and imagery. Bishop is currently a long-shot candidate for governor of Montana on the Libertarian Party ticket, running on an apocalyptic platform that suggests violent secession.
In spite of significant anti-police sentiment among boogaloo boys, Fenix’s website lists four Michigan police departments as major clients, as well as the law enforcement training center at Schoolcraft College
Records from police departments in the small cities of Dowagiac and Berkley showed receipts from Fenix totaling $4,899 and $18,076, respectively, since 2017. The Grosse Ile Police Department confirmed that it had records of purchases, but has yet to release them. The Northville Police Department denied buying ammunition from Fenix, and a records request returned no receipts from the company. The Schoolcraft training center confirmed it had purchased ammo from Fenix, but refused to say how much.
All of the organizations said they had no knowledge of Fenix’s support for boogaloo, and don’t have policies on checking suppliers’ social media accounts. Fenix’s social media posts have been largely pro-police, sprinkled with some criticism of police brutality, including the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Interviews with firearms dealers revealed a host of reasons for posting about the boogaloo or selling related merchandise.
Chris David, the owner of Route 6 Guns, a small shop in Torrington, Connecticut, said that he posts about boogaloo for his company’s 650-odd followers because he believes in the movement’s libertarian messaging. “It’s a lot more mainstream than I think people give the movement credit for because of the portrayal that it’s just this group of people that have these violent intentions, which is just not the case,” said David.
David successfully lobbied for a spot on a list of pro-boogaloo companies in one of Facebook’s largest boogaloo groups, which, as of June 8, no longer appears in Facebook searches. It’s unclear whether this is because the group was made secret or if it was taken down by Facebook.
All five firearms and armor dealers that agreed to be interviewed for this story denied that their posts should be interpreted as calls to violence. Nazaroff likened spreading the memes to being an ammunition seller: He said he’s aware of the possibility that his product may be used in violent crimes against innocent people. “That’s the nature of the product,” Nazaroff said. “There’s nothing to be done about that. It doesn’t mean that my company shouldn’t exist.”
“It’s literally an internet joke. It’s like ‘Harambe,’” said Dimitri Karras of Firearms Unknown, which sells “ghost guns,” unserialized but legal firearm parts that can be assembled by customers at home. “I’m a Marine who’s fought in two wars. I have a dark sense of humor. That’s just who I am.”
The use of humor to cover up intentions or shift the boundaries of acceptable discourse has a history in the alt right. In 2017, The Huffington Post published excerpts from the style guide for the Daily Stormer, one of the largest white supremacist websites, instructing supporters to employ jokes instead of screeds, noting that the latter may be a “turnoff” to potential converts. “The reader is at first drawn in by curiosity or the naughty humor,” it stated, “and is slowly awakened to reality by repeatedly reading the same points.” According to historian Elaine Frantz Parsons, the use of humor as a way to destigmatize extremist ideologies dates back at least to the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.
Whether the inflammatory memes that boogaloo supporters share reflect their true beliefs can be hard to pin down — and some experts say that’s by design.
Nazaroff, for instance, said he considers himself a liberal libertarian and boogaloo “prepper.” He believes in the possibility of civil war, but like other arms dealers interviewed for this story, stressed that the memes shouldn’t be taken seriously. But Cassie Miller, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said: “They pretend that it’s a joke. In some ways that’s to conceal just how serious and sometimes dangerous the ideas that they’re pushing are.“