Antifa, Boogaloo boys, white nationalists: Which extremists showed up to the US Black Lives Matter protests?
US President Donald Trump suggested that a left-leaning team of anarchists was organising the messy unrest around George Floyd’s killing.
His critics said right-wing groups were inciting violence.
Meanwhile, local officials kept it politically neutral, blaming “outside agitators” for looting and vandalising their cities.
Four weeks after Floyd was killed, we’re only just starting to get a clear picture of the extent to which these claims were true.
Who is protesting?
Peaceful protesters, both in-person and online, far, far outnumber any bad actors.
According to one estimate by the Washington Post’s factchecker data unit, police have made 14,000 arrests in 49 cities since the protests began in late May, and the vast majority of them involved locals charged with low-level offenses such as violating curfew or blocking a roadway.
But media reports, arrest records and expert analysis suggest an ensemble of lone anarchists, radical opportunists and extremist groups are also using the moment to spread their messages or incite violence.
Experts say there have been at least 130 “extremist incursions” at the protests, a term that encapsulates everything from injuring protesters to just quietly attending to be visible.
Amy Iandiorio, an investigative researcher with the Centre on Extremism, says it’s going to take a while to sort out which groups were responsible for what — especially because the protests are ongoing, shifting towards new targets like tearing down statues.
“Right now, putting people across the ideological spectrum into labels and boxes doesn’t always fit,” Ms Iandiorio says.
The narrative may change as investigations continue and more information comes to light.
For now, those arrested for more serious crimes fit into five prevailing categories:
1. Violent protesters
So far it looks like many, possibly most, of those arrested for the visible crimes associated with riots — such as property damage, arson or vandalism — are not organised under a prevailing ideology other than anti-police anger.
A smaller group has admitted to using the moment for personal gain through acts like looting.
“There are some who are just ready to see the corruption of the system,” Ms Iandiorio said.
“Across the ideological spectrum, individuals will never miss an opportunity to take advantage of a moment.
“But I think it’s not fair to call these protests ‘extremist events’ because the evidence is just not there. The vast majority of this is peaceful protest.”
2. White nationalists
White nationalists are responding to widespread calls for equality with calls for inequality.
Devin Burghart, who monitors far-right groups with the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, says they tend to be more organised than the other extremists, with some groups recruiting global membership.
So far, we haven’t seen large groups of white nationalists out on the streets in response to the protests.
A handful of apparent lone actors have been arrested for trying to injure protesters, including one admitted leader of the Ku Klux Klan who drove into a crowd in Richmond Virginia.
There’s also some overlap between white nationalists and members of anti-government militias or the Boogaloo movement (see below), both of which have had a presence at the protests.
Still, Mr Burghart said that the main white nationalist groups are “exponentially larger online and exponentially more racist and violent online” and they may organise a visible response later on.
3. Armed militias
Some scattered vigilante groups show up to protests in paramilitary gear and carrying guns.
Generally united by anti-government or hard-libertarian views, they say their goal is to protect peaceful protests from devolving into riots.
But US media point to several cases where members of these groups discharged firearms, causing chaos or injuring protesters.
The groups are most common in small towns and rural areas, where looting and rioting is not happening at the scale seen in urban centres.
They tend to be white, male and right-leaning, seeing Mr Trump as an ally to the anti-government cause.
Experts say there’s a large overlap in membership between these groups and those who protested the coronavirus lockdown in late April.
In some places, especially in states with permissive gun laws, law enforcement is encouraging militias to join patrols, Mr Burghart said.
“You have an unaccountable, unelected, untrained, private paramilitary organisation that has established connections to law enforcement,” he said.
“I think that’s really damaging to the fabric of democracy.”
4. The Boogaloo boys
This is a trickier one to categorise because it can fit both circles above, and it’s relatively new to the scene.
Megan Squire, an Elon University professor who tracks the Boogaloo movement, says it feels like the latest iteration of the anti-government groups that we’ve seen for years.
“It’s almost not as much of an ideology as it is a meme or a brand,” she said.
“It’s being picked up by people who identify with it in some way but some of them probably don’t even entirely know what it means.
“They’re very pro-gun and they get annoyed by police or government shows of authority, but there’s not much else they agree on politically. Some are libertarian, but others avoid talking about politics at all.”
There is no organisational structure to the Boogaloo, and it feels less like a group than an umbrella term for those who openly anticipate the collapse of government through a second civil or revolutionary war, which they call the “Boogaloo”.
The term comes from a 1980s cult film about break dancing called Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Variations of the name all riff off that term — everything from “Boogaloo Bois” to “Big Igloo” to “Big Luau”.
It’s that last version that inspired a loose uniform for the group: Hawaiian shirts.
While some Boogaloo followers are just preparing for the war to come, others seek to sow chaos to tip the country toward that moment. This latter faction is known as “accelerationism”.
The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has tracked Boogaloo presence at more than 40 Black Lives Matter protests, and an increasing number of news reports have connected the group with acts of violence.
Four men allegedly inspired by the Boogaloo movement appeared in court this week, including three men found with Molotov cocktails in Las Vegas and one charged with murdering two police officers in Northern California.
Squire says that unlike other extremist groups, Boogaloo devotees charged with crimes aren’t celebrated in the online spheres where the movement blooms. They’re doubted.
“They’ll almost immediately go to conspiracy theories, saying it didn’t really happen or the guy was tricked into doing it by federal agents,” she said.
“It makes sense when you think their number one thing is waiting for the overthrow of a tyrannical government.”
President Trump deemed antifa (short for “anti-fascists”) a terrorist organisation at the start of the protests.
In truth, antifa (like the boogaloo movement) is not so much an organisation than a diffuse collection of far-left individuals who oppose white-nationalism and other right-leaning extremist groups.
They have no leader, organisational structure or card-carrying membership.
They show up at far-right rallies, dressed in all black and donning face coverings. They don’t shy away from violence, but usually rely on bricks, chains, rocks and pepper spray over explosives and firearms.
It’s likely that some of those who consider themselves antifa have attended the Floyd protests. They tend to support leftist causes and oppose racism.
But despite Mr Trump’s claims that antifa was responsible for the violence, US media report that antifa have not been publicly cited in any of the charges so far.
Leaked documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Department of Homeland Security support this, though US Attorney General William Barr has since said that some of the 300 people the Department of Justice is investigating do identify as antifa.
Mr Barr also mentioned antifa specifically in a memo announcing a new anti-extremism task force in response to the protests.
Will the extremists go away when the protests end?
Experts agree that the groups who are feeling emboldened to attend the protests represent only a tiny fraction of the reaction.
With the Boogaloo movement, for example, Ms Squire said that “at any given moment, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people discussing it online”.
“Some of these people are just reading propaganda and mulling around ideas,” she said.
“But the men who were arrested had the same symbols and rhetoric as those online spaces, which means they started there at some point.”
And across the spectrum of extremist thought, the online conversations appear to be growing in this national moment.
Even as the protests wind down, experts worry that a fierce election, a deadly pandemic and a struggling economy could leave the next few months in a highly combustible state.
Online activity could well serve as gasoline.
“I think it is very likely that we’ll see efforts by white nationalists and other groups to ‘reclaim the streets’ and engage in violence and counter-protests,” Mr Burghart said.
“There’s already talk within groups internally. They’re waiting for the spotlight to get off the protests.
“They’re waiting for when we’re not looking.”