HONOLULU (AP) — People following a violent movement that promotes a second U.S. civil war or the breakdown of modern society have been showing up at recent protests across the nation armed and wearing tactical gear. But the anti-government "boogaloo" movement has adopted an unlikely public and online symbol: the so-called Hawaiian shirt.
The often brightly colored, island-themed garment, known in Hawaii as an aloha shirt, is to people across the world synonymous with a laid back lifestyle. But in Hawaii, it has an association with aloha — the Native Hawaiian spirit of love, compassion and mercy.
The shirts are being worn by militant followers of the boogaloo philosophy — the antithesis of aloha — at demonstrations about coronavirus lockdowns, racial injustice and, most recently, the presidential election.
Boogaloo is a loosely affiliated far-right movement that includes a variety of extremist factions and political views. The name is a reference to a slang term for a sequel — in this case, a second civil war.
"You have everyone from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to libertarians," said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S. "And while ideologically, there might be some differentiation among people who identify with the movement, what unites them is their interest in having complete access to firearms and the belief that the country is heading towards a civil war."
Miller said those who follow boogaloo, sometimes referred to as "Boogaloo Bois," believe "people need to rise up against the government, which they see as tyrannical and essentially irredeemable, and that the only solution to righting what they see as their perceived grievances is to overthrow the state."
Those adhering to the philosophy often target law enforcement, Miller said, because the police are the most accessible symbol of the government at public gatherings.
People affiliated with the movement have been linked to real-world violence, including a string of domestic terrorism plots. The movement has also been promoted by white supremacists, but many supporters insist they're not truly advocating for violence. Attempts by the Associated Press to reach people associated with the movement were unsuccessful.
"If you look at their online spaces, their rhetoric is extremely violent," Miller said. "A lot of it is kind of under this veneer of irony and humor, but there's something very real to all of it."
When social media sites began banning the use of the word "boogaloo" and those associated with the movement, followers started using different terms to mask their online identities and intentions.
"They'll adopt a slogan that sounds benign in order to evade scrutiny, in order to evade bans. And so with the boogaloo, what you got is sort of variations of that term showing up in online spaces," Miller said. "One of them was 'big luau,' and that is then what led to using Hawaiian imagery and then the Hawaiian shirts."
Miller added she doesn't believe "they're really thinking about the meaning of the symbols that they're using."
"For them, it's a reference to show that they're in the know that they're part of this culture, that they can identify each other at public gatherings like this. And I think that's really how it functions. It is creating kind of a sense of camaraderie."
But to those who live in Hawaii, especially Native Hawaiians, the aloha spirit attached to the commercialized patterns on the shirts has deeper meaning.
"The aloha shirt is one thing, but aloha itself is another, and the principles of aloha are deeply rooted in our culture," said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian activist who has led peaceful protests against the building of a telescope on a Hawaii peak indigenous people consider sacred. "The principles of aloha are based on love, peace, harmony, truth."
"It creates the space for compassion to come into our heart, rather than the contrary of that, which would be hate, loathing, anti-Semitism, you know, racism," Pisciotta said.
Many Native Hawaiians share a sense of frustration with U.S. and state government because of the way the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown. They have long fought against the exploitation and commercialization of their land by large corporations and government entities but in a mostly peaceful way.
"Hawaiians are facing desecration of our burials of our sacred places. But it's in our choice of how we want to respond and address the powers that be," Pisciotta added. "If you want the end result to be based in peace, then you have to move in peace and move in aloha."
"Aloha is about also reducing suffering, reducing, deescalating anger," she added. "It's human to become angry, it's human to feel frustrated. It's human to want to lash out. But but it's also human to find compassion."