In Trump's 'LIBERATE' tweets, extremists see a call to arms

Trump's tweets pushed many online extremist communities to speculate whether the president was advocating for armed conflict, an event they’ve termed “the boogaloo."

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By Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny

When President Donald Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" on Friday morning, some of his most fervent supporters in far-right communities — including those who have agitated for violent insurrection — heard a call to arms.

The tweet was one of three sent from the president's account, along with "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!"

Trump's tweets came after small protests by Trump supporters broke out in a handful of states, many of which were fueled by anti-vaccination and anti-government groups. Anti-government sentiment has percolated among far-right extremists in recent weeks over the stay-at-home orders governors have issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump's tweets, however, pushed many online extremist communities to speculate whether the president was advocating for armed conflict, an event they’ve termed "the boogaloo," for which many far-right activists have been gearing up and advocating since last year.

There were sharp increases on Twitter in terms associated with conspiracies such as QAnon and the "boogaloo" term immediately following the president’s tweets, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent nonprofit group of scientists and engineers that tracks and reports on misinformation and hate speech across social media.

Posts about the "boogaloo" on Twitter skyrocketed in the hours after the president’s tweets, with more than 1,000 tweets featuring the term, some of which received hundreds of retweets.

"We the people should open up America with civil disobedience and lots of BOOGALOO. Who’s with me?" one QAnon conspiracy theorist on Twitter with over 50,000 followers asked.

"Boogaloo" is a term used by extremists to refer to armed insurrection, a shortened version of "Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo," which was coined on the extremist message board 4chan.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington condemned Trump's tweets in his own Twitter thread in which he warned the president about encouraging violence.

"The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies - even while his own administration says the virus is real, it is deadly and we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted," Inslee wrote.

A Twitter spokesperson said the president’s tweets didn’t violate the site’s policies against content that poses a risk to health or well-being around the coronavirus outbreak.

The use of "liberate" in the tweets is too vague to be actionable, according to the Twitter spokesperson.

The activity comes as extremist researchers have warned about increased activity during the pandemic.

Law enforcement officials have previously identified "boogaloo" domestic extremists as a legitimate threat. A report released by the Network Contagion Research Institute about the term "boogaloo" being used to ironically mask violent overthrow attempts had "gone viral" within law enforcement and intelligence communities in February, Homeland Security Advisory Council member Paul Goldenberg told NBC News in February.

The president’s tweets came just minutes after Fox News aired a segment featuring coverage of a Facebook event called "Liberate Minnesota." Although only a few hundred people expressed interest in the event on Facebook, local news sites and conservative blogs drove attention to the event Thursday, one day before the president’s tweets.

"Minnesota citizens now is the time to demand Governor Walz and our state legislators end this lock down!" the event’s Facebook page reads. "Thousands of lives are being destroyed right now. It is not the governor's place to restrict free movement of Minnesota citizens! Gov. Walz you work for the citizens of this state!"

A few hundred protesters had gathered outside Gov. Tim Walz’s residence in St. Paul, Minnesota, by Friday afternoon, packed in tight crowds along the sidewalk. They chanted "USA" and carried signs with pro-Trump, anti-Walz messaging. One sign read, "If ballots don’t free us bullets will."

The Minnesota protest followed several others in different states including Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Kentucky and Michigan, in which demonstrators have demanded governors end shutdowns enacted to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The protests have been a unifier of anti-government and conspiracy-minded subcultures, bringing anti-vaccination activists, anti-government militia groups, religious fundamentalists and white supremacists together at state capitols.

While focused on their respective states, the groups are organizing expressly to call for people to violate the policies that Trump has supported at daily news briefings.

Ohio had one of the first national rallies. On April 9, about 70 protesters gathered on the lawn of the state Capitol. Chanting "Free Ohio Now!," they carried signs and bucked guidelines for maintaining 6 feet of social distancing. Videos of the event were livestreamed in popular anti-vaccination Facebook groups.

On Wednesday, in an action dubbed "Operation Gridlock," thousands in Lansing, Michigan, protested from their cars outside the state Capitol. The crowd included a variety of conservative and far-right icons, including "Don't Tread on Me" banners, Trump campaign flags and at least two Confederate flags. Some people brought their assault weapons. The crowd also chanted "Lock her up," referring to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has often been criticized by Trump. The chant was popularized during Trump campaign rallies as a call to jail then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The event was organized by two Michigan conservative nonprofits, but heavily attended by more extreme groups.

One anti-vaccination activist and anti-government "sovereign citizen," a reference to a movement that believes taxation is unconstitutional, was arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Tuesday at a similar "reopen" rally where over 100 people gathered in their cars to honk every 15 minutes in protest of the state’s stay-at-home order.

Each of the events had been organized on Facebook.

Though the protests were reasonably small, they were lauded by members of the conservative media, including most evening Fox News hosts.

One host, Laura Ingraham, voiced her support for the Michigan protests Wednesday, with a tweet that read, "Time to get your freedom back."

The Minnesota protest’s description on Facebook was then posted to popular pro-Trump forums and sent around as an email chain letter.

One host of the "Liberate Minnesota" event on Facebook, Don Huizenga, posted a link to the Facebook event Monday, urging peaceful protest.

"I hope to see you all there! We'll be nice, respectful and well dressed. Bring your signs and your passion for America!" he wrote.

By Thursday, Huizenga struck a different tone.

"Some of us understand what is happening. The rest of the sheep do not. But, it was designed that way...which is why we're speaking out and acting out," he wrote. "Wait for the violence. It will happen. People in our culture are NOT designed to obey these kinds of orders."

Huizenga said in a phone interview that he worked in the 6th Congressional District for Trump’s campaign. He said that he and event co-host Michele Even, who he said was a "fellow activist," came up with the idea.

He said that while "people are really energized and Trump is an attachment to that energy," he was more concerned about ending the lockdown because of the "precedent it sets."

He added that the violence he anticipated in his Facebook post would not be part of the rally.

"We’re gonna do everything we can to clean up our mess when we leave, to make sure people are respectful. This is a conservative rally. I don’t expect it to be chaotic. People here really don’t want it to be chaotic," he said.

But Huizenga reiterated his warning about violence.

"The message here that I had: Violence will happen and it will happen in two weeks when people literally don’t have any food," he said. "When we’re pitting neighbor against neighbor, people are going to be angry. Humans aren’t designed to act like this, especially American humans aren’t used to this at all. You’re gonna rub people the wrong way. There will be violence. People are dying from the side effects of all this legislative action."

On pro-Trump message boards like TheDonald.Win, an offshoot of a forum that was effectively banned from Reddit earlier this year, Trump’s tweets delivered a clear message: get ready for the civil war.

"Time to BOOG pedes. It's now or never," one highly ranked comment in response to Trump’s "Liberate Virginia" tweet reads. "Earn our freedom for us and our kids like our forefathers did in 1776 or stay silent and be the frog boiled in the pot as we sit in the gulags and wonder why we didn't do anything."