Boogaloo Extremists Took the Hawaiian Shirt. What Now?

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It’s one of the most discussed street styles of the spring: tactical body armor, customized assault rifles, maybe a sidearm and helmet, paired with the languid floral patterns of a Hawaiian shirt.

While it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed white men toting military-grade gear on American streets, the addition of the Hawaiian shirt is a new twist. It turned up in February at gun rights rallies in Virginia and Kentucky, then in late April at coronavirus lockdown protests in Michigan and Texas.

Think of the shirts as a campy kind of uniform, but for members of extremist groups who adhere to the idea of the “boogaloo” — or, a second civil war in the United States. If that sounds silly to you, consider that these groups settled on the Hawaiian shirt thanks to a string of message board in-jokes.

The joke, for the uninitiated, involves a farrago of convoluted references to the 1984 film “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” and sound-alike terms like “big igloo” and “big luau.” Each is a reference to the movement’s insurrectionary appetites, which range from civil libertarian rebellion against the American government to full-fledged race war instigated by white nationalists, as reported by investigative journalism site Bellingcat. The boogaloo has taken to announcing itself with images of igloos and floral prints in memes, battle patches and flags — and by wearing old Hawaiian shirts.

Awareness of the boogaloo movement has grown in recent weeks because of the surreal appearance of its members and its quizzical moniker, coupled with the movement’s professed desire to incite high-impact violence on American soil. From a distance, it’s a potentially disarming mixture of symbolism. Up close, it looks more like far-right extremism.

ImageAt an April rally in Lansing, Mich., organized by Michigan United for Liberty, armed protestors demanded the reopening of businesses.
Credit…Jeff Kowalsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On June 16 a man who claimed allegiance to the movement was arrested and charged with the murder of a federal security officer in a coordinated attack outside of a courthouse in Oakland, Calif., after a shootout with police. (The shooter wore an American flag patch decorated with a floral pattern and an igloo.)

Just a week earlier, three men associated with the boogaloo movement were arrested in Las Vegas with assault rifles and explosive materials en route to a march protesting the killing of George Floyd.

SO, IT’S A STRANGE MOMENT for the Hawaiian shirt. Despite the occasional intervention by luxury designers at Prada or Louis Vuitton, the shirt is more commonly associated with midlife crises (and sometimes manic hipster energy) and, in some interpretations, American colonialism in Hawaii. An article in The New York Times once described the Hawaiian shirt as a “signifier of the style-challenged tourist.” In his book “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands,” Dale Hope, an authority on the subject, wrote about its “humorous, garish or tacky” associations.

Which makes the current co-opting of the shirt seem a bit like an innocent bystander being dragged into the front lines of a high-stakes battle. And while a number of empty symbols have been appropriated by groups defined by white nationalist and antigovernment ideologies — Pepe the Frog, the “OK” hand sign, a purple pigeon emoji — this moment is the first time extremists have laid claim to a piece of clothing with largely benign associations.

Understanding what to make of the Hawaiian shirt’s newest connotation requires some understanding of how extremist groups have come to use garments and symbols, historically.

Scot Nakagawa, a senior fellow at ChangeLab, a racial justice think tank, explained that lurid style is a long-held tradition of insurgent white nationalism, one that can be traced back to the post-Civil War era. The Ku Klux Klan made use of costumes and mythic rituals as they practiced extreme violence against African-Americans.

“There has always been a fraternity-like culture among white nationalists, and if you’re in it, this is the way to express that,” Mr. Nakagawa said. “These things become symbols of belonging that contribute to the myths and rituals of the fraternity.”

More modern examples of clothing used by extremist subcultures include Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, Doc Marten boots and suspenders worn by neo-Fascist groups from the punk era into 1990s Britain, Mr. Nakagawa noted. In addition to identifying members of the groups, wearing these items served as a recruiting tool.

Boogaloo groups may also have seized on the Hawaiian shirt for reasons other than signaling their association and intentions. Mr. Nakagawa said that doing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm. That they are, really, in effect, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry.

This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield, an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, who regularly writes about the far right. He views the use of the Hawaiian shirt as yet another attempt by far-right groups to create an “undefinable space” with “in-your-face absurdity.”

“It’s by design,” Mr. Blanchfield said. “That confusion is what they’re trying to exploit, which means it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture, or what’s right in front of you. If you see an image of a man wearing tactical gear with a gun and a Hawaiian shirt, the most salient thing there is that the guy has a gun and tactical gear.”

ULTIMATELY, A SYMBOL like the Hawaiian shirt shifts focus from the obvious — armed men asserting dominance in public spaces — to expert-led discussions of the boogaloo’s movement’s coded symbols and language games, which are absurd to the point of meaninglessness, Mr. Blanchfield thinks. He, and other experts on white nationalist extremism in the United States, have stressed that such in-jokes are a longstanding practice of extremist movements born out of online message boards like 4chan and Reddit and, more recently, in the case of the boogaloo, Facebook.

Joshua Citarella, a researcher of extremist behaviors on the internet, has followed the boogaloo movement, sometimes referred to as “Hawaiian shirt nationalism” by those in far-right corners of the internet, from its earliest manifestation as a meme on social media. Its earliest expressions, Mr. Citarella said, were mostly about civil libertarianism and drew on internet aesthetics like Vaporwave.

The “boogaloo kit” post on social media is another recent example of the meme bridging the gap with real life. In late 2018, Mr. Citarella began to notice that users had begun sharing images of their own “skins,” or outfits, laid out on the ground. They were usually a combination of tactical gear, assault weapons, bottles of liquor and street wear like Supreme hoodies, all tied together in some way by the floral print of the Hawaiian shirt.

While menacing, this was largely considered, at the time, to be just talk. By late 2019, Mr. Citarella said, this kind of boogaloo imagery appeared to be “100 percent” co-opted by, among Gen Z, white nationalist groups who wanted not just a confrontation with the government, but also a full-fledged race war.

Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At shutdown protests around the country this spring, the Hawaiian shirt was frequently seen on armed protesters in combination with symbols used by neo-Nazi groups, including skull-print balaclavas.

Does this mean that, going forward, anyone wearing the Hawaiian shirt should be viewed with suspicion? Not exactly. Meaning is rarely a fixed thing, which means that if something can be co-opted, it can potentially be returned to its original state of harmlessness.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who lectures on far-right extremism and intervention at American University in Washington, noted that the context in which the boogaloo members wear Hawaiian shirts is a fairly fixed one at the moment. Even so, she said, wearing them could quickly evolve into a new context.

“I would expect not only the Hawaiian shirt to move into less violent spaces outside of the gun context, I would expect the igloo to follow as well,” Dr. Miller-Idriss said. “It will all become much muddier. Youth culture will jump in and deliberately troll.” Already, there are instances of popular far-right influencers wearing the shirt casually on the street and in unweaponized situations.

THERE IS PRECEDENT for counter-co-opting a piece of clothing claimed by the far right. One example offered by Dr. Miller-Idriss is the early 2000s anti-racism campaign embarked on by Lonsdale, a British maker of boxing and martial arts attire, after its clothing became popular with neo-Nazi groups.

The company financed anti-racist education programs and ceased sales to retailers associated with extremist groups. Soon, anti-racist supporters began wearing the brand in such numbers as to disrupt the neo-Nazi connection entirely.

How best, then, to reclaim the Hawaiian shirt? Mr. Nakagawa would take the Lonsdale approach to extremists. “One way to recapture the Hawaiian shirt is to come out in masses against them and remove all credibility and meaning,” he said. “Overwhelm them.”

Mr. Citarella, who focuses on younger people operating in extreme political spaces online, thinks it may be better to let the shirt go. “There’s a hazard with trying to take a symbol back from the alt-right, especially when there’s no precedent of use on the left,” he said. “You can never fully claim that it’s no longer poisoned. Plus, I didn’t see examples of a thriving youth culture wearing Hawaiian shirts before the memes first appeared.”

Then there’s the Esquire political columnist Charles P. Pierce, for whom the boogaloo appropriation feels like a direct invasion of his God-given right to wear a tacky shirt. “You don’t get to create a statement for me,” said Mr. Pierce, who said he owns more than 30 Hawaiian shirts.

“I will do whatever I can do to keep this from being hijacked by people with grim and bloody fantasies,” he said. “And I will continue to wear them no matter what. I think it’s important to recapture the flag, the Bible, the Gadsden flag, and now I think it’s important to recapture the Aloha State.”

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